Colonial Stories II

The Fortunes Of Richard Mahony : Text Classics

Henry Handel Richardson

Book 1: Australia Felix


About a week ago, my American blogger friend Marilyn Brady posted a review of Book I of this Australian classic trilogy on my site, and on hers, Me You and Books. Now it’s my turn. It’s taken me longer, as I only read for pleasure at night when I go to bed. The edition I am reading is the Text Classics one, very affordable at A$12.95. In some ways, though, I prefer to read a big book like this in separate volumes, if only because of the physical awkwardness of holding a dense 1,000 page book in my hands. But I’d still rather hold that than a Kindle!

It’s only about a year since I read this book, yet I still find it fresh and engaging. It was published in separate volumes between 1917 and 1929, seven years (as Peter Craven points out in the introduction to this edition) after James Joyce’s Ulysses and the death of Marcel Proust. Yet it is not a modernist novel. It is written in slow, meditative, naturalist style, and is set in the second half of the 19th century. The central event of the early pages is the Eureka Stockade rebellion of Victorian goldfield miners against the colonial  government and its agents, the police and the military. The rebellion was a failure, in that the miners were dispersed and 27 of them killed; but it resulted in the Electoral Act of 1856, which mandated full white male suffrage for elections for the lower house in the Victorian parliament, the second instituted political democracy in Australia. So it is remembered as part of the beginnings of democracy in Australia.

Eureka_stockade_battleWatercolour by JB Henderson, 1854.

Marilyn’s post gives a very good overview of the characters and the story; so here I will talk about what makes this book great, and why I like it. I first read it when I was a teenager, and I remember then being completely caught up in the story and the characters. As the trilogy unfolds, it becomes a tragedy, and I found it totally convincing, and very very sad. As Marilyn points out, one of its great strengths is the psychological depth of the characters; they live on the page, including the minor ones. There is plenty of contrast, from the raw, uneducated colonial types that the central character, Richard (not so secretly) despises, to the thrusting, ambitious men who carve out fortunes for themselves, and even the little children who dance in the background of the domestic scenes are convincing in their voices and actions. Richardson is a master of dialogue and dialect, but uses it more sparingly than she does interior monologue or free indirect speech. This latter term is a literary one, and briefly, it means that the character’s thoughts are spoken through the voice of the narrator. Many pages are taken up with the reflections, mostly of Richard, at least in this first volume. Richard is a contradictory character, sensitive to the point of being thin-skinned, yet strong, even arrogant in his beliefs and values, and incapable of compromise; prey to self-doubt and despair, generous and loving to the few who penetrate his inner circle, but blind in his wayward, restless pursuit of what he considers a good life (which does not equate with wealth and a busy social life, although he hates poverty and longs for friends he can let down his guard with). Here he is, for example, pondering his fast-forming resolution to shake the dust of the colony of his feet and return to “the old country” (aka England, albeit he is Irish):

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 [his wife] 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.

Another thing that makes this a great work is the masterly background detail of life in the colony, and the cultural and political conflicts and fault lines of a nation in the making. The first few pages are what the author calls a Proem, which I interpret as a prose poem setting the scene. Here is the opening:

In a shaft on the Gravel Pits, a man had been buried alive. At work in a deep wet hole, he had recklessly omitted to slab the walls of a drive; uprights and tailors yielded under the lateral pressure, and the rotten earth collapsed, bringing down the roof in its train. The digger fell forward on his face, his ribs jammed across his pick, his arms pinned to his sides, nose and mouth pressed into the sticky mud as into a mask; and over his defenceless body, with a roar that burst his ear-drums, broke stupendous masses of earth.

For me, this is up there with Dickens, Balzac and other great nineteenth century novelists. Richardson’s narrative is less flamboyant than Dickens, and is measured, polished, and richly textured in scenic description and the idioms of the characters. And above all, I agree with Peter Craven, it is a superb portrait of a marriage, where two characters, opposite to each other in many respects, are indissolubly joined ‘in sickness and in health… till death [does them] part”. But I’m pre-empting the next two volumes here.



Filed under colonial stories

4 responses to “Colonial Stories II

  1. Thankyou for this fascinating review, I too have been immersed in Richard Mahony’s story several since reading it for the first time in my teens. And yes, it is a beautfully executed portrait of a marriage and, in the third book, of mental illness. I blogged the third here

  2. Thank you, Christine. I’ve just read your review on your blog, and commented there. When I get to volume 3, Ultima Thule, I”d love to have more conversation with you about it.

  3. I’ve just read this extraordinary book for the first time (and reviewed it on my blog) and I feel the need to reach out to others to see what they thought and felt.
    I suspect Polly, in particular will live with me for the rest of my life.

    • Thank you, Brona, for visiting my reviews of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. I loved reading your review, and you’ve inspired me to read the saga again! And I agree, the characters do stay in your mind, and for me, I think Polly is the longest lived of the characters, too.

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