This is a follow-up to MD Brady’s guest review of book 2, The Way Home, in The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, posted earlier today on this blog.
Marilyn has given such a good resume of the story, I think it would be interesting to focus on some of the literary issues in the book. These include characterisation, point of view or voice, and autobiographical content.
First and foremost, this book is very readable. Why? Because it draws me deeply into the story of the main characters and their fortunes and misfortunes. The minor characters are less fully clothed, but act as interesting foils and give detail and variety to the background of the story of Richard and Mary’s marriage and the rise and fall of their material and emotional fortunes. The narrative flows beautifully, and the descriptions, usually given through the eyes of one of the main characters, give it a strong sense of time and place. The central theme of book 2 is the Richard’s struggle to establish himself in England in professional practice, his disenchantment, restlessness and decision to return ‘home’ to Australia, and the sudden turn in their fortunes when an investment in a mining company (named, with ironic overtones) Australia Felix, lifts them into a life of wealth, leisure and luxury. The end of the book has Richard rushing home from their return visit (for pleasure this time) to England and Europe on his own (if you can rush on a sailing ship!) to see if he can retrieve anything of his fortunes, after his agent has absconded to America with the takings. The final vignette is of Mary, left to wind up their temporary home in England and take care of the children, consoling herself with the reflection that Richard and her children are all that matter, and that she can ‘bear anything… put up with anything… if only they are spared me!’. This brave and heartfelt vow is tested to the extreme in book 3, Ultima Thule, as we shall see.
One of the things I find remarkable in Richardson’s narration is how she can switch point of view seamlessly, giving you the very innermost thoughts and feelings of the main characters—Richard, Mary, and Cuffy (Cuthbert) their eldest. And though their points of view are in many ways opposed to each other, increasingly as the story darkens, she is able to enter the mind of the character who is speaking or thinking and give us what feels like an unfiltered, unjudged snapshot. For example, here’s Cuffy (probably about three years old):
After this, Cuffy got a cough and had to take tablespoonfuls of cod-liver-oil, and to stay indoors while the Dumplings [his younger twin sisters] walked. It was dull work. The nursery was so high up that you couldn’t see anybody but trees from the windows, which were blurred; and you were not allowed to look out at all, if they were open. Nannan [their nanny] said looking over made her poor old head dizzy; and she lived in fear of seeing one of them “land on the pavement.” So Curry hammered with his knuckles on the panes, making tunes for himself, or beat them out on his drum or xylophone, till Nannan, sewing by the fire, said her poor old head was like to split.
And here’s Mary, after the bad news has come to them in Venice:
Oh, how like a bad dream, the remainder of that day! For the practical side of the matter could not wait—not for a single hour. Richard half-way restored to composure, they had to set to work in cold blood to discuss the situation. It was clear to both that he must return to Melbourne with the least possible delay. Till then, he would not know how he stood. Things might not, urged Mary, be quite so black as they looked at first glance…. But Richard, she could see, feared the worst…
This is such an elegant way of telling the story without giving the reader the remoteness of the 3rd person narrator’s voice, taking us through the shifiting minutiae of actions, reactions and events from the characters’ points of view; I think all writers can learn from reading this book carefully. Lastly, here’s Richard, forgetting his own troubles and responding to Cuffy’s distress over having seen some men drown a puppy in the canal:
Such things as this were not meant to be met with in life; Cuffy must be a brave little man and face them squarely. Somehow, they all fitted into a great scheme on god’s part, which our poor brains were too puny to understand. To be pitied was not only poor doggy, whose struggle soon had ceased, but also the men who could act so cruelly to their little brother— no less a brother because he did not have the gift of speech….. And so on and on, in a quiet, soothing voice, till the child’s terror was allayed and he slept, his arms clasped like a vice round his father’s neck.
I find this a beautiful, touching scene, because it shows us a side of Mahony we see less often than his nervous, sensitive, depressive self, critical of others and quick to isolate himself from anyone he judges to be less sensitive, intelligent and well brought up than he is. This flaw in his character, offsetting his compassion and (somewhat reluctant) capacity to listen to others who are ill, distressed or disturbed, and to counsel them, is the seed of his future implosion into despair and madness, which becomes the tragic theme of book 3.
Which brings me to the question: how much of this story is autobiographical? It’s very interesting to read the article by Dorothy Green on the Australian Dictionary of Biography website. Henry Handel Richardson, in real life Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, was the elder daughter of Walter and Mary Richardson. Their lives have many parallels to those of the fictional characters in the trilogy. I had always thought that the character of Richard is modelled on the author’s father, and it is in many respects, not least his deteriorating mental health and sorrowful death, believed to have been the result of tertiary syphilis. What interests me in this biography is that the author’s own life has many parallels to her father’s; her multi-faceted intelligence, her intellectual fascination with the scientific and metaphysical ideas of the time (especially spiritualism), her musicality, her ennui and depressive temperament, and more. But to me it is more fascinating to see how she has woven these threads into her characterisation of Mahony and the child Cuffy, and yet, how empathically and fairly she presents Mary, modelled on her mother; a woman opposite to her husband and to Cuffy in so many ways, who is fully believable and engaging as a character, and whose voice is always convincing. We shall see, in book 3, how Mary becomes a tragic character in her own right.