I’ve been immersed in work since posting Marilyn del Brady’s review of book 3 of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, and now I feel a little distant from it. But to complete this conversation, I must return to this great, tragic story. Ultima Thule has been reviewed very well by Marilyn in her post, and I wish only to add some observations about what still sticks in my mind when I think of it.
First, the descriptions of the landscape. My impression, without going back over them in detail, is that the ‘bush’, that great Australian myth, is treated as alien, harsh, unforgiving, cruel and destructive. This could be seen as a colonial view of Australia. Much has been written about the way the bush is depicted in Australian 19th and early 20th century art, and in literature of the same period. This is not an academic review, so I won’t bore you and me by reprising the literature on it. But the vision that we get, through the voices of Mary and Richard is of the environment and the climate outside the city and away from the coast as an enemy. Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but that is my strongest memory of the story. For instance, when the Mahony’s beloved twin daughter, Lally, dies of dysentery at the tender age of about three years old; this begins with the children’s ingestion of unripe almond kernels, led on by Cuffy. This is not a native tree, of course, it is in their garden. But after that, when the little girls are recovering, Richard takes them for a walk in the bush, stays out too long with them, and Lally relapses and dies an agonising death. Incidentally, I find the description of her death one of the most heartbreaking in the story.
Mary sees that Richard blames himself for Lally’s death, and doesn’t hold a grudge against him for this, indeed, she is forgiving and compassionate. But this is the beginning of Richard’s descent into madness. What have been foibles and character flaws—his tendency to isolate himself from everyone, including his intimate family, his forgetfulness of the central purpose of his life, to support his family through his profession, his brooding and melancholy, his obsession with spiritualism, and his intolerance and arrogance—become exaggerated and extreme, and result in his almost complete isolation, not only from society, but from his loved ones.
A couple more things about the characterisation of the bush: it is associated with death. When Richard starts to lose his mind after Lally’s death, in total despair, he takes some chloroform in a little phial and goes into the bush around the ‘lake’ that is a swamp for most of the year. The description of his journey towards death is gripping. He returns, but never recovers from this confrontation with death.
The other thing is that, when he does die, through a slow decline into total helplessness and dementia, he is buried in the bush, and now, at last, he is able to rest, in this country he has hated but kept returning to. The saving grace is that he is buried within sound of the sea, which ‘he had perhaps loved best on earth’. Gradually, as his loved ones pass on, his grave becomes one with the earth it is set in, part of ‘the common ground’. His perishable body is absorbed in a way that his ‘wayward, vagrant spirit’ had always resisted. So the country wins, and his conflict is ended.
I could write much more, pages, but time defeats me. Perhaps I”ll return to this wonderful story. I hope many of you read it, if you haven’t already.