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.