Thursday, 4 December 2014

HENRY HANDEL RICHARDSON The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (1917-1929)

Penguin Books UK, c. 1992

But a fig for what people thought of him!  Once away from here he would, he thanked God, never see any of them again.  No, it was Mary who was the real stumbling-block, the opponent he most feared.  Had he been less attached to her, the thing would have been easier; as it was, he shrank from hurting her.  And hurt and confuse her he must.  He knew Mary as well –– nay, better than he knew his own unreckonable self.  For Mary was not a creature of moods, did not change her mental envelope a dozen times a day.  And just his precise knowledge of her told him that he would never get her to see eye to eye with him.  Her clear, serene outlook was attuned to the plain and the practical; she would discover a thousand drawbacks to his scheme, but nary a one of the incorporeal benefits he dreamed of reaping from it.  There was his handling of money for one thing: she had come, he was aware, to regard him as incurably extravagant; and it would be no easy task to convince her that he could learn again to fit his expenses to a light purse.  She had a woman's instinctive distrust, too, of leaving the beaten track.  Another point made him still more dubious.  Mary's whole heart and happiness were bound up in this place where she had spent the flower-years of her life: who knew if she would thrive as well on other soil?  He found it intolerable to think that she might have to pay for his want of stability.––Yes, reduced to essentials, it came to mean the pitting of one soul's welfare against that of another; was a toss-up between his happiness and hers.  One of them would have to yield.  Who would suffer more by doing so – he or she?  He believed that a sacrifice on his part would make the wreck of his life complete.  On hers –– well, thanks to her doughty habit of finding good everywhere, there was a chance of her coming out unscathed.

from Australia Felix (1917)

The Novel:  Does a man temperamentally disinclined to seek the favour of those he deems to be his intellectual and social inferiors, who deliberately sets himself apart from his fellow men, refusing to heed any counsel but his own, have the right to make his wife continuously pay for his own lack of foresight?  Can this man, whose career as a physician depends entirely on his ability to obtain and maintain the good opinion of his patients, remain true to his lofty vision of himself and still hope to succeed in a restrictive colonial society where everybody knows everybody else's business and automatically condemns those who, by either accident or design, violate what are held to be its sacrosanct social norms?  Can such a man ever truly feel contented with what he has, what he does or where he lives?  Or is he perpetually doomed to strive to obtain the unobtainable, to realize a dream of happiness-as-undisturbed-solitude which is as chimerical as it is misguided if not subconsciously self-harming?

These are just some of the questions raised by Henry Handel Richardson the nom de plume of Australian-born author Ethel Florence Richardson –– in her three part sequence of historical novels Australia Felix (1917), The Way Home (1925) and Ultima Thule (1929), published in one volume as The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by the English firm of Heinemann and Company in 1930.  Reissued in 2012 in a newly-annotated edition by Text Publishing, Richardson's longest and arguably greatest work remains a damning evocation of colonial Australia and a penetrating psychological study of a marriage which, despite the love which engenders it and the strong sense of loyalty which drives and sustains it, remains at best a compromise which leaves neither party satisfied nor any wiser in terms of understanding their partner's 'unreckonable' personality.

Australia Felix opens in the gold rush of 1851, an event which brought men and women of every type and character flooding into what was then known as the Colony of Victoria.  Many made the journey seeking to escape the overcrowded slums of London, Dublin, Peking and the Continent, while others arrived with the idea of ending the poverty of their formerly well-to-do families who, due to bad management or bad luck or a disastrous combination of both, had fallen on hard financial times.  Most, of course, failed to find the gold they had been duped by the English press into believing would be waiting for them under every stone and shrub.  What they found in Victoria were crude, hastily improvised mining towns like Ballarat, pockmarked with the shafts of dozens of played out or recently abandoned mines, where the only certainties were mud, fatal and near-fatal accidents and a life of unrelenting and, for the vast majority of them, unrewarding toil.

Richard Townshend-Mahony is one of these gold rush immigrants, a doctor of Anglo-Irish descent who impulsively abandoned his yet-to-be established medical career to seek his fortune in the antipodes.  Mahony is also one of the genteel poor, a cultured and erudite individual who soon swaps the grubby life of the 'digger' for the slightly easier if only marginally more prosperous life of the goldfield shopkeeper.  He hates Australia, finding its barren brown landscape ugly, its climate unforgiving and the company of his fellow diggers vexing to say the least.  His only goal is to earn enough to pay his way 'home' to England –– a place he began to idealize the same moment he left it, forgetting how eager he'd been to bid farewell to its lack of opportunity as well as to his uncommunicative mother and taciturn sisters.

Angus & Robertson Limited Australia, 1983
Mahony's life on the diggings is enlivened only by the companionship of his boyhood chum Purdy Smith –– another unlucky prospector who, unlike him, is blessed with more than his share of personal charm and the social gifts required to make the most of it.  Purdy also has a way with the fairer sex, especially with a young lady by the name of Tilly Beamish whose parents run a hotel in the far-off seaside resort town of Geelong.  Tilly and her sister Jinny –– easygoing girls who are 'always on for a lark' as Purdy happily describes them –– share their home and bedroom with a sixteen year old companion-cum-servant nicknamed Polly who's been thrust upon the Beamish clan by her brother John Turnham, another former immigrant who's now an up-and-coming businessman in Melbourne, the colony's rapidly growing capital.  Mahony, curious to meet Purdy's longtime sweetheart, finds himself smitten with the shy demure Polly (whose real name, it turns out, is Mary) and, a few weeks and several carefully worded letters later, takes the bold step of returning to Geelong to propose to her.  Mary accepts his proposal and, after gaining the permission of the wealthy and initially disapproving John, Mahony marries her and takes her 'home' to Ballarat with him –– setting in motion a train of events which will see them rise to the uppermost heights of colonial society, only to see them forced to start from the bottom again after their stockbroker runs off to America, taking nearly all their money with him. 

It's Mary –– pretty, slightly-built, highly competent and always anxious to make a favourable impression on people – who dominates her husband's life, first as a source of inspiration (she's the one who persuades him, out of sheer financial necessity, to face facts and start practicing medicine again) and later as his sometimes self-confessed antagonist, serving as a solid 'sensible' barrier between him and the implementation of his latest ill-considered scheme to attain his personal nirvana –– which consists, he believes, of a quiet, out of the way place where he can devote himself to reading the latest works of science, religion and philosophy while knocking out the odd essay or journal article 'on the side.'  For much of the time, Mary patiently resigns herself to playing the role of the dutiful and obedient wife, humouring her husband's whims and following him back to the small English village of Buddlecombe where, as she rightly predicted, he finds the weather atrocious, patients unforthcoming and ready money extremely hard to come by.  In the end she has no choice but to consent to his plan to return to Australia where, thanks to an unsuspected windfall in the form of some suddenly valuable mining shares and her skills as a hostess and a born social networker, they soon regain the wealth and position that Mahony's idealized longing for 'the old country' so capriciously deprived them of.

Much of The Way Home, the second volume of the trilogy, is taken up with Mahony's adjustment to his new life as a gentleman of leisure and Mary's struggle to establish them in their newly-built home, dubbed 'Ultima Thule,' in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton.  Their lives are complicated by the appearance of guests like Mary's garrulous sister Sarah, whose insistence on being called 'Zara' threatens to drive the pretention-despising Mahony round the bend, and old friends like Tilly, newly married to the aged father of Henry Ocock, their shrewd and wily lawyer.  (It was Henry Ocock who persuaded Mahony to buy the shares which made him rich.)  Life is further complicated by the arrival of a 'late' child named Cuthbert, known as 'Cuffy' to his doting if often distracted parents, and twin daughters, Lallie and Lucie, affectionately known as 'The Dumplings' due to their chubbiness and endearing if as yet unformed personalities.  

But the arrival of his children does not make Mahony any less restless or any less prone to the fancies he now possesses the wealth and time to indulge any time he feels the urge to do so.  Soon growing bored of his prosperous new life, he decides to take his young family to Europe so they can take in the sights and be exposed to the art and culture he believes to be so patently lacking in a 'young country' like Australia.  It's while they're visiting Venice – a city which, unlike most of the other European cities they've visited, seems to suit the fastidious and perpetually dissatisfied doctor to a tee –– that they receive the news that their stockbroker has absconded to America, taking the bulk of what they possess in cash and securities with him.

It is here that Ultima Thule begins.  Mahony puts aside his shock and disbelief and returns immediately to Melbourne, only to find the situation awaiting him there even bleaker than anticipated.  'He was a ruined man; and at the age of forty-nine, with a wife and children dependent on him, must needs start life over again.'  This he is thankfully able to do with the loyal, uncomplaining support of Mary who, as usual, throws herself heart and soul into the task of making them a new home in the 'pretty little suburb of Hawthorn.'  

It's in Hawthorn that Mahony attempts to restore his fortune by practicing medicine again –– a plan contingent, as he's painfully aware, on his ability to attract and keep patients who are now spoilt for choice when it comes to seeking medical advice in the lively modern city the Victorian capital has become.  His age is another factor that works against him.  Visibly weakened by his financial setbacks and the associated stress-related illnesses they've induced, Mahony finds himself becoming more cantankerous than ever, locking himself away from his family and friends in his ever-pressing quest to find at least a moment or two of the long-desired 'peace' he craves.  But this attitude doesn't pay the bills or help to clothe and feed his family.  As one patient after another is lost and the prospect of finding new patients to replace them diminishes by the day, Mary is finally obliged to suggest that they start taking in boarders to help meet their expenses –– a suggestion met with angry disapproval by her husband and one which gives rise to yet another wild scheme to take over what he's duped himself into believing will become a 'thriving' practice in the remote mining community of Barambogie.  He sets off, against Mary's not very strenuous objections, to look the place over and decide if they can make a new life for themselves in the town or not.

Mahony's decision to remove Mary and the children from the familiar world of Melbourne and the company of their friends proves to be his financial, social and psychological undoing.  His expectations, after he takes the irrevocable steps of buying the practice and bringing his loved ones to Barambogie, turn out to have been as groundless as ever, based on little more than wishful thinking and the exaggerations of the incumbent physician who wished to offload the practice on to anyone gullible enough to make him an offer for it.  The townsfolk who should be his loyal and grateful patients dislike the proud Dr Mahony and he soon earns himself an unwelcome reputation as the local eccentric, ready to scold when he should heal, criticize where his cause would be much better served by demonstrating a little kindness and compassion.  The work and the vast distances he must cover each day to do it, combined with the inability of most of his patients to pay his far from outrageous fees, soon take their toll on his already frazzled nerves –– a situation made no easier by the close proximity of a factory to his newly-rented home and the serious illness and unpreventable death of his daughter Lallie.  The surviving children are devastated and so is the grief-stricken Mary, who nevertheless seizes the opportunity to spend the hottest part of the summer in Geelong with her old friend Tilly, recently widowed and feeling rather lonely.  (Tilly later marries her childhood sweetheart Purdy who, after decades of failure, becomes a rich man overnight thanks to what she inherited following the death of her first husband.)  

Mary's abandonment of the physically and emotionally drained Mahony –– temporary though it is and also necessary to protect the health of her two surviving children – sees him sink ever deeper into eccentricity with what, in the end, are calamitous if not unforeseen results.  Exhausted and depressed, fretting constantly about money and Mary's ongoing absence, he fails to set a broken leg properly, resulting in the threat of legal action from the injured party and the loss of his reputation as a reliable physician.  Mary returns to Barambogie to find him an almost shattered man, a mere shadow of the once-proud doctor she married as a girl and has stood by so loyally –– and sometimes inexplicably –– for so many years.  There is, of course, no question of them staying in the despised town that has all but broken Mahony's spirit and stolen their beloved Lallie from them.  A new situation must be found and it must be found immediately.

Once again, the Mahonys are on the move, this time to the small seaside village of Shortlands where it's hoped the air will revive the all-but-moribund Richard and allow him to reestablish himself as the sort of physician in whom his patients –– Melbourne-based tourists for the most part, who make the trip across Port Philip Bay to enjoy the breezes during the hottest days of summer –– might legitimately place their trust.  But the tourists, so long expected and so eagerly counted upon to become the family's saviours, don't arrive –– at least not in sufficient numbers for the town's new doctor to make any kind of steady living out of treating them.  Mahony also begins to suffer from dizzy spells which leave him feeling enervated and disoriented –– so much so that he becomes a figure of fun to most people, a kind of stooped-over scarecrow who stalks the bluffs gesticulating and muttering to himself, embarrassing his son and daughter each time they're forced by an increasingly alarmed Mary to accompany him to ensure he 'behaves himself' in public.  His father's odd behaviour – which now includes many a hateful outburst hurled unthinkingly at the anxious and understandably impatient Mary – becomes an intense source of shame for the sensitive and self-conscious Cuffy, who fears that his parents' inability to pay their debts will see both of them sent to prison some day.  But what happens is, in fact, far worse.  Returning home from the local sea baths, where she's left her children to enjoy themselves in the water, Mary is met by their servant girl, who hysterically informs her that 'the doctor's bin [sic] and lighted a fire on the surgery table!  He's burning the house down!'

The Text Publishing Company, 2012
Thus begins the saddest part of Richard Mahony's long and tragic story.  Diagnosed as being incurably mad by both the local doctor he replaced and a prominent Melbourne psychiatrist, he's sent to a Benevolent Asylum where, in his own room and treated with understanding rather than scorn, his condition gradually improves.  But his departure –– strongly resisted by Mary even though she knows he must live in quiet, well-supervised surroundings to stand any chance of making even a partial recovery –– leaves her alone for the first time since their marriage as well as virtually penniless, obliging her to train as a postmistress and eventually accept a job as one in Gymgurra, another remote bush town located two hundred miles northwest of the city.  This job, which forces everyone in the family to abandon the idea that some 'miracle' will occur and magically restore their long-lost fortune, allows Mary to earn enough to pay for what she thinks, mistakenly, is a private room in the asylum where her 'dear, dear Richard' is supposedly being cared for and treated like the gentleman he is.  

But a visit to the institution, undertaken as a surprise for her husband and at great personal expense, reveals that Mahony has been admitted to the general ward, where he's regularly manhandled and sometimes even beaten by its warders.  Horrified to discover this and deeply ashamed of herself for abandoning him, Mary appeals to their former friend Henry Ocock to help her raise the funds needed to take her husband back to Gymgurra.  Ocock, mindful of the kindness Mary showed towards his alcoholic and long-dead second wife, helps her arrange for Mahony's discharge from the asylum and subsequent journey to what will become his new home.  Here, watched over by Mary and his two surviving children, Mahony lives out the remainder of his days in a state of calm if childlike dependence, gaining his first real taste of the peace and sense of well-being that's so consistently eluded him throughout his troubled life.  Everything he and Mary have been to each other, everything they've experienced and endured together, seems to be summed up in the final words the mad and crippled Mahony says to her on the night he finally dies –– 'Dear wife!  Dear wife!'

The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is not easy or uplifting reading for a variety of reasons.  It's long, occasionally repetitive and filled with clichés of the sentimental nineteenth century variety, composed in a style that critic Brian Macfarlane, reviewing a scholarly reprint of it published in 2007, rightly suggested might possess the ability to 'stun a horse.'  But it's also a masterpiece that, as Macfarlane and other critics agree, can give books like Patrick White's Voss (1957) and Tim Winton's Cloudstreet (1991) a serious run for their money in the contest (pointless though such contests are) to be considered 'The Great Australian Novel.'  Its greatness –– and it is a great work of art, there's no denying that despite its flaws –– lies in Richardson's excoriating honesty and her ability to make Richard and Mary sympathetic figures while never attempting to disguise or minimize what are their obvious and all-too-human failings as individuals, as a couple and, perhaps more crucially, as parents.  While some of her other characterizations –– those of Tilly and her Cockney paramour Purdy, for example –– have a tendency to veer towards Dickensian pastiche, this is never the case with the doctor and his wife or, just as significantly, with their son Cuffy.  Cuffy's becomes an increasingly important voice as the trilogy progresses, throwing additional light on his father's behaviour and its unexpected and, from his point of view, ruinous consequences.  The boy is very much the son of his father – highly-strung and easily hurt, conscious of his family's encroaching poverty and all that losing its formerly exalted social position implies in terms of determining his future.  Sadly, Cuffy never comes to know his father except as a remote and isolated figure whose crankiness only serves to perplex and humiliate him. 

It's this unknowable quality –– this inability to connect with his son, wife or anybody else in any true or even temporary way –– that epitomizes Mahony's tragedy and costs him the chance to regain his hastily abandoned comfort and happiness.  The phrase 'Physician, heal thyself!' would have made a perfect epigraph for these novels because it's Mahony's chronic inability to examine his own behaviour with any form of objective honesty –– combined with his wife's unwillingness to upset him by confronting him with the truth about himself and his pursuit of the ever elusive 'better life' he has in mind for them – that makes them two of the most memorable, most realistically drawn characters in all of Australian literature.  Their story allows Richardson to create a vision of colonial Australia that becomes all the more powerful for being ruthlessly stripped of its thinly applied, never very convincing veneer of 'romance.'  There's nothing romantic about Richard Mahony and the shabby genteel world he so resentfully inhabits.  He strives to defy and conquer it, only to find himself misunderstood, abused and finally crushed by it.


The Writer'Henry Handel Richardson' was the pseudonym of Ethel Florence Lindesday Richardson, the daughter of a doctor, who was born in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy on 3 January 1870.  Like Richard Mahony, William Richardson came to Australia in 1852, hoping to make his fortune in its goldfields.  He too abandoned prospecting for shopkeeping, married a much younger woman and set himself up as a general practitioner in Ballarat where, along with his wife Mary, he eventually became one of the city's most prominent and respected citizens.  Again like Mahony, he gained and lost a fortune, suffered a breakdown that saw him committed for a time to Melbourne's Yarra Bend Asylum, and died in the care of his wife in the remote town of Koroit where she'd taken the first of what would be several jobs as a government-employed postmistress.  William Richardson's eldest daughter –– a sister, named Lilian, had followed Ethel into the world in 1871 –– was nine years old at the time of his death, the cause of which is now believed to have been 'general paralysis of the insane,' a disease linked to the terminal stages of syphilis in which the patient suffers from severe vertigo, episodes of erratic and nonsensical behaviour and worsening dementia.  Despite this, Ethel Richardson's husband once declared that in drawing Richard Mahony's portrait his wife was 'really drawing her own.'

HENRY HANDEL RICHARDSON (rear right), 1885
Richardson was sent to the Protestant Ladies' College in Melbourne at the age of thirteen where it was soon discovered that she possessed a prodigious gift for music.  Convinced by her daughter's headmistress to allow young Ethel to study the piano 'properly'  abroad, the Richardsons set sail for Europe in 1888, with the girl successfully auditioning for and being accepted as a pupil at the Leipzig Conservatory one year later.  Intent on becoming a concert pianist, she studied in Germany for the next three years, only to abandon this ambition when she became engaged to the renowned Scottish philologist John George Robertson.  (Apparently she also loathed performing in public, a considerable drawback for a would-be virtuoso.)  She and Robertson were married in 1895 and spent the first years of their married life in Strasbourg where he'd obtained a teaching post at that city's university.  Richardson read widely in English and European literature and began working on a novel while considering the prospect of becoming a translator.  The couple remained in Strasbourg until 1904, when JG Robertson –– now the famous author of an internationally published work on philology –– was offered a new teaching post at London University.  Although she and her husband continued to visit the Continent regularly until the outbreak of war in August 1914, England was to remain Richardson's home for the remainder of her life.  Apart from one brief fact-finding trip, undertaken in 1912 while she was gathering material for Australia Felix, she would never again return to or reside in the land of her birth.

Richardson found the transition to life in England difficult –– she consistently viewed herself as a square peg unable to fit into a round hole and had done so since childhood – and, with limited social skills and a shy depressive temperament, devoted herself to her husband, her writing and a small circle of close but trusted friends with whom she travelled, swam, played tennis and discussed the latest works of spiritualism (a lifelong interest, just as it is of Richard Mahony's), psychical research and Freudian psychiatry.  Her debut novel Maurice Guest, set in Leipzig and dealing realistically and honestly with the taboo subject of homosexuality, was published in 1908 and received positive reviews, as did her second novel The Getting of Wisdom which appeared two years later and was based on her own unhappy experiences as an Australian schoolgirl.  She began working on Australia Felix in 1912, but the outbreak of World War One delayed its publication by five years.  By the time her next novel, The Way Home, was ready for publication in 1925 she and her husband had been sharing their London home for four years with a young woman named Olga Ronconi whom they had first befriended in 1919.  

Australia Post postage stamp, 1975
Olga would become, at the request of JG Robertson, Richardson's permanent companion following his death in 1933, eventually moving with her from London to the town of Fairlight (near Hastings) when Lüftwaffe bombing raids made it unsafe for them to continue living in the capital.  The 1929 appearance of Ultima Thule, the final volume of the Mahony saga, set the seal on Richardson's reputation as a writer of profound and inexorable power, winning her the gold medal from the Australian Literary Society and seeing her nominated for, but not winning, that year's Nobel Prize for Literature.  These honours, however, were no compensation for the loss of her husband and she struggled to write again following his death, producing only two more books –– a story collection titled The End of a Childhood published in 1934 and The Young Cosima, a poorly received final novel which appeared five years later before her own death, from colon cancer, on 20 March 1946.  An incomplete and, in the estimation of some scholars, highly 'unreliable' memoir titled Myself When Young was published posthumously in 1948.

Click HERE to visit the website of THE HENRY HANDEL RICHARDSON SOCIETY, an Australian-based organization dedicated to discussing, promoting and preserving the author's works.  The latest edition of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, published in April 2012 by The Text Publishing Company in both print and eBook formats as part of its ongoing Australian Classics series, can be found by clicking HERE.  Free and legal copies of RICHARDSON's work are also available from the online eBook archive founded and maintained by THE UNIVERSITY OF ADELAIDE and can be obtained by clicking HERE.

The Getting of Wisdom, filmed in 1977 by Australian director BRUCE BERESFORD and starring SIGRID THORNTON, KERRY ARMSTRONG and BARRY HUMPHRIES, remains widely available on DVD in Australia and several other countries.

You might also enjoy:
GEORGE MEREDITH The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859)
LEONARD MERRICK The Actor-Manager (1898)
DAVID IRELAND The Glass Canoe (1976)

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