A story that breaks your heart

Among Australian classic novels, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony stands out, not only for its size (941 pages in the Text Classics edition), but for its masterly portrait of a sensitive, scholarly man, a doctor, who migrates to Australia in the first half of the 19th century and goes from poverty to wealth and back to poverty and eventual ruin. This, in barest outline, is the plot line of his fortunes. The novel, written in three books, is autobiographical, and is a superb example of how to turn the raw material of life into the alchemy of fiction.

Briefly, the story follows Richard from his early, unsatisfactory experience of running a general store on the goldfields, during which he falls in love with Polly (later known as Mary), a beautiful 16-year-old, and marries her; he returns to medicine, struggles to make ends meet,  returns  ‘home’ to England, returns disillusioned to Australia, suddenly ascends to wealth when a package of shares strike gold,  becomes a father to a son, Cuffy (the author’s fictional persona) and twin girls, Lallie and Lucy,  loses his fortune through the fraud of his agent, returns to medicine, moving from one practice to another, increasingly unable to cope with the pressures and expectations, and descends into ill health, madness and death. During the decline of his fortunes, when they are in a country town, the older twin, Lallie, falls ill with dysentery, and dies an agonising death.

I apologise for this mechanical summary; and for giving away the ending, but I assure you, even if you didn’t already know the story, you will not lose anything of the reading experience by knowing the ending. I read this book when I was young, and then lost my copy, and only now have been able to return and read the whole thing. I found it compelling, funny, fascinating, moving and—yes, heartbreaking. In the early pages, setting the scene of the Ballarat gold rush, I was not fully engaged; but once Mahony marries, and his  sensitive, introspective, intellectual spirit is complemented by Polly’s practical, sanguine, generous one, the story really becomes a complete world.

In a short review, I can’t hope to do justice to such a complex story. So I will pick out some of the reasons why I admire it so much. The love story: Polly is a perfect foil to Richard, and as they age and encounter more trials, and his restless nature and disdain for the rough manners and uneducated minds of the people he cares for and is forced to socialise with make him more and more isolated, her stoicism and sense become stronger, and her lack of sympathy for his finicky ways and imprudent decisions are the source of much conflict and heartbreak in the relationship. But she, too, is a complex character, and her pragmatic, often insensitive reactions to his crises and to her children’s distress at his decline are leavened by her unbreakable loyalty and love.

The most heartbreaking scene is the death of Lally:

Henceforth, there would always and for ever be only two. Never again, if not by accident, would the proud words, “My three,” cross her lips. There she sat, committing to oblivion her motherstore of fond and foolish dreams, the lovely fabric of hopes and plans that she had woven about this dear little one’s life; sat bidding farewell to many a tiny endearing feature of which none but she knew: in the spun-glass hair the one rebellious curl that would not twist with the rest; secret dimples kneaded in the baby body; the tiny birthmark below the right shoulder; the chubby, dimpled hands—Richard’s hands in miniature—all now destined to be shut away and hidden from sight. Oh, of what was the use to create so fair a thing, merely to destroy it! (They say He knows all, but never, never can He have known what it means to be a mother.

One of the other things I admire so much about this book is the effortless way Richardson conveys point of view, switching between Richard, the central character, Mary, and Cuffy, and even, at times, the little sisters. Here is Cuffy’s voice, in the final stages, when Richard is disintegrating mentally and physically:

Shame and fear.

If you were coming home from Granny’s, walking nicely, holding Luce’s hand and taking care of her, and if you met a lot of big rude, rough boys coming from the State School, what did you do? Once, you would have walked past them on the other side of the road, sticking  your chin up, and not taking any notice. Now you still kept on the other side (if you didn’t run like mad as soon as you saw them), but you looked down instead of up, and your face got so red it hurt you.

For always now what these children shouted after you was: “Who’d have a cranky doctor for a father?   who’d have a cranky doctor for a father?” and they sang it like a song, over and over, till you had gone too far to hear. And you couldn’t run away; you wouldn’t have! You squeezed Luce’s hand till you nearly squeezed it off, and whispered: “Don’t cry, Luce… don’t let them see you cry.” And Luce sniffed and sniffed, trying not to.

There is much more to praise, but I’ll stop there.

I have one quibble with the Text edition: I find Peter Craven’s introduction rambling and obscure. I would have liked more about Richardson’s life and writing, how the Fortunes was received in its time, and some insightful appraisal on its literary qualities would be of interest. This is, after all, an affordable classic meant to reach a broad readership and bring the book back into the centre of Australian literature, where it belongs.

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