Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Tony of Tony’s Book World

As with most of my guest posters to date, I came across Tony (of Tony’s Book World) not long after I commenced blogging. He stood out like a beacon because he was a non-Aussie blogger who had read a significant amount of Australian literature, including Patrick White no less. If you check his blog, you will find that he even has a page listing his favourite Australian fiction. He (so far, anyhow) doesn’t have any other nationally focused pages. How could I not ask him to write a guest post here! Thanks Tony, it’s been great getting to know you through blogging. Not only have I enjoyed getting to know my own literature through other eyes but you’ve introduced me to some writers – like Dawn Powell – that I know will be up my alley.

Tony has chosen for his topic one of the grand dames of Australian literature …

Henry Handel Richardson and The Fortunes of Richard Mahony


Henry Handel Richardson, 1945, by Coster (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

It is terrific and I am grateful to Sue for having this opportunity to guest write in “Whispering Gums”. It took me long enough to figure out that a Whispering Gum is a tree, an Australian (eucalyptus?) tree.

I have never been to Australia. In fact I live about as far on Earth from Australia as you can get in Minneapolis, Minnesota, US, where most of our trees are either oaks or pine trees. Yet over the years I’ve developed a passion for Australian literature starting with Christina Stead and Patrick White (whom I consider probably the greatest novelist ever, just to give you an idea where I’m coming from). My appreciation of Australian literature has continued through the years with many writers including such recent writers as Tim Winton, M. J. Hyland, and Joan London.

Today I want to write about the “The Fortunes of Richard Mahony” trilogy by Henry Handel Richardson which I consider the high point of Australian literature along with Patrick White’s novels. Henry Handel Richardson was the male pseudonym of woman writer Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson who lived from 1870 to 1946. I read this entire trilogy back in 1991 and 1992, and it was one of my most moving reading experiences.

Each of her (Henry Handel Richardson’s) novels is an effort to understand and to make us understand the complexities of a human situation, and this is in itself an invigorating and sometimes subversive exercise in following truth along unexpected paths. — Karen MacLeod, Henry Handel Richardson (1985)

Richardson later wrote that the character of Richard Mahony was based on her own physician father. What makes this trilogy so moving is the complexity and unsparing honesty that Richardson brings to the character of Richard Mahony. Just as perceptive parents know their own children, faults and all, better than anyone else in the world, children as they grow up observe their parents closely. Most children love their parents, but that does not mean they aren’t aware of their faults. From your own children, you can run but you can’t hide. Richardson gives the reader the full portrait of Richard Mahony entirely free of sentimentality. In fact Richardson said that so much had been written about the great successes among the Australian people, she wanted to give a picture of one of the many failures, and so we have this story of the slow decline of Richard Mahony.

Lake View House, Chiltern

Lake View House, Chiltern, where Richardson lived when young (By Golden Wattle, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 2.5)

The first volume of the trilogy, “Australia Felix” begins at the goldfields near Melbourne in 1852. Richard is a young man just arrived from Dublin, Ireland and he is running the Diggers Emporium on the goldfields. He is more interested in reading philosophy than drinking and socializing, and most of his neighbors dislike him, thinking he is arrogant. He does meet fifteen year-old Polly whom he marries. Polly, later known as Mary, becomes a strong female figure in the trilogy. After losing his store due to accidentally selling spoiled flour, Richard takes up his original profession as a doctor

In the second volume, “The Way Home” Richard and Mary go back to the British Isles, this time to Glasgow, but soon Richard decides they can never be successful there and the couple returns to Australia and locate in the goldfields in Ballarat where he establishes a practice as a doctor. Here they finally have a daughter.

When the first two volumes of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony were originally published, there was little fanfare and few sales. All that changed when the third volume, “Ultima Thule”, was published in 1929. It was greeted with a chorus of praise from the critics, had good sales, and overnight Richardson became famous. Readers finally latched on to the tragedy of Richard Mahony and his family.

As the story in the trilogy continues, a strange thing happens. As I mentioned before, Richardson’s portrayal of Richard Mahony is honest and unsparing. Yet the reader is sympathetic and cares more about what happens to this man because of his faults and failures, not in spite of them. Richardson presents a total human being defects and all, and this complete blunt account gives the trilogy its power. Richardson applies these same forthright techniques to the wife Mary and the daughter.

Another distinctive feature of the trilogy is the style of the writing. Richardson’s writing has a visceral natural quality that puts you in to whatever scene she is depicting. I still remember some of the intense goldfield scenes vividly. There are similarities in her style to that of Patrick White, and I can’t help but think that White had read The Fortunes of Richard Mahony carefully sometime before writing his own novels.

One of Richardson’s literary heroes was Leo Tolstoy. “This is not a novel, it is a world”, wrote W. D. Howells of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and the same line applies to The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. All of life is in these pages. As an unknown English critic said of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, it is “one of the great inexorable books of the world’’.

The book Henry Handel Richardson – A Study by Nettie Palmer (1950) was very helpful to me in writing this article.

22 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Tony of Tony’s Book World

  1. Thank you for this. Although I have read most of Patrick White’s books and think he is a great and compelling writer, I am ashamed to say I have never read Henry Handel Richardson. This was a good outline and useful introduction.

    • Last night I just remembered my old ‘Who’s Who in Twentieth Century Literature’ by Martin Seymour Smith and looked up Henry Handel Richardson in it. Smith praised Richardson and ‘Fortunes’ highly, said how terribly neglected the trilogy was, and I am sure that is where I got the inspiration to read the trilogy.

      • Oh, I don’t know that book … but it must be a good one if it includes HHR! I was interested in your comment on your blog on Maurice Guest. I’ve been looking forward to reading it but am now not so sure!

        • May I butt in, re. Maurice Guest? It’s a first novel and she’s still getting her feet on the ground — that was my impression — still juggling her pacing — so it’s not as clean and confident as Wisdom or Richard. But it’s an ambitious book, and the milieu is one that she doesn’t try to tackle anywhere else in her novels. (She may have said — she did say — that she wasn’t in sympathy with Christina Stead, but she has this in common with her: she tried something new with each book. A pair of restless and massive-minded authors, them two.)

  2. Pingback: I’m Guest Posting in Australia « Tony's Book World

  3. No surprise here but I haven’t read this (hadn’t heard of the author either). There are some other names here to check out too. I can say that I read and loved one novel by MJ Hyland. It was one of the best of the years actually.

    • Tony’s read quite a wide range of Aussie lit, Guy, so his recommendations are worthwhile I think. I’m not sure though that as time goes on we can claim Hyland for our own … but, regardless of who claims her or where she’s from, I agree that she’s a great writer.

        • Ah yes, but she was born here and lived her formative years here. Hyland wasn’t born here though did quite a bit of her schooling here and university I think didn’t she? However, she’s left and I don’t think sees herself as Australian? Still, I’m very happy to claim her if others are happy to accept it as I love her writing!

  4. I tracked down a hardback edition of this novel many years ago after hearing Tony extoll its virtues. I actually plan on reading it this year — and this post has made me want to crack it open as soon as I finish my current read!

  5. Wonderful, thank you Tony. This was a much-loved series for me when I was in my 20s, and I think when I was younger I heard a radio serialisation of it. I found vol. 1 in a 2nd hand bookshop, must try and get the other two vols. so I can re-read it (when I’ve finished r-reading The Lord of the Rings for the 6th time!)

    • Oh, you LOTR people! Dare I say I haven’t read it once. I have read The hobbit though but I don’t think you’d think that counts. I’d probably like it if I read it but there are so many books I really want to read – such as HHR’s – that I probably won’t ever get to it. (I’m sounding old aren’t I when I start thinking of books I never will read!).

  6. Pingback: Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Tony of … | Literature Blog

  7. Guy, I think many do … but there are also many that don’t. Will Peter Carey return? Clive James? Germaine Greer? Jill Ker Conway? Kate Jennings? I’m not sure though I think (?) Germaine may have bought a place here. Others like Geraldine Brooks and Janette Turner Hospital tend to back and forth quite a lot. In other words, it’s by no means a given. There are always those who enjoy the expat life and those who are more like homing pigeons, methinks.

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