MACONOCHIE’S GENTLEMEN by Norval Morris

MACONOCHIE’S GENTLEMEN

The Story of Norfolk Island and the Roots of Modern Prison Reform
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KIRKUS REVIEW

In a volume with a highly misleading, unsuitable title, a criminologist fictionalizes the experiences of Alexander Maconochie, the crusading superintendent of the prison on Norfolk Island in the early 1840s.

Morris (ed., The Oxford History of the Prison, not reviewed) had a terrific tale to tell—the story of a man who believed that humanizing the conditions of prisons would improve the lives of the men who would ultimately return to society. He believed his theories so fervently that he convinced the authorities to allow an experiment on Norfolk Island (1,000 miles east of Australia) where resided 2,000 of the most intractable convicts. And in 1840—with his wife and six children—he arrived at the island and proceeded to implement his ideas. Within four years, he had profoundly transformed the place—instituting what he called his “Marks System,” by which convicts earned points to reduce the length of their sentences. Convicts worked farms, ran a library, organized a band, performed a scene from Richard II, and generally confirmed Maconochie’s faith in them. But instead of writing biography or history, Morris decided to write a . . . well, novel. The first 159 pages contain a dreadful fictionalized version of Maconochie’s tenure, told in silly, ill-written monologues by Maconochie, his nubile daughter Minnie (who falls in love with her convict piano teacher), and two fictitious prisoners (one is the librarian, the other the pianist). Maconochie tells us about one of his nocturnal emissions; we hear Minnie complain, “It was just so monstrously unfair”; the librarian tells the pianist: “Quit thinking with your penis and realise what a narrow ledge we walk on.” Following this feckless fiction are brief accounts of what happened to Maconochie and Norfolk Island and then two mildly interesting (and awkwardly written) essays on prison conditions and on lessons we can learn from Maconochie. With neither index nor bibliography, the volume is useless for the scholarly or the curious.

An important story that deserves far better treatment. (3 halftones, 3 maps)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-19-514607-7
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2001