Australia Felix, by Henry Handel Richardson
Australia Felix, volume 1, of The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, by Henry Handel Richardson (pseudonym of Ethel Richardson). Press of the Readers Club, 1941, Hardcover, 948 pages. Introduction by Sinclair Lewis. First published in 1917.
AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS
The first volume of an Australian classic about a man, his wife, and their friends and relatives in mid-19th century gold fields and towns of Victoria.
Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson (1870-1946), who used the pen name “Henry Handel Richardson,” was born in Melbourne. She grew up in various towns in Victoria. Australia Felix is set in this country, primarily in Ballarat, about 70 miles west of Melbourne. The book begins in the 1850s when the region was caught up in the gold rush. It follows the historical record of the town’s growth for about fifteen years as miners rebelled against taxes, the railroad created a link to Melbourne, and mining became industrialized. Social divisions may have been more flexible in the young town than back in Europe, but respectability and status are just as real. For me, Richardson’s depiction of the town and its people as they move from being a mining camp to being an industrial town is a window on Australian history and culture.
What Richardson does best is painstakingly reveal the psychological make-up of her characters. In this book, unlike Maurice Guest, she is less concerned with big, sweeping sexual passions than in the daily ways her characters expose their thoughts and values. Like many others, Richard Mahoney immigrated to Australia as a young man expecting to get rich quickly. Once he discovered the reality of gold mining, he opened a small store instead. He was accompanied by a childhood buddy, younger and less genteel than himself, and his only friend. Soon after the book begins, Richard marries Polly, a young girl he has just met. Initially Polly is in awe of him and willing to fulfill his every whim. After Polly almost dies in childbirth, Richard returns to the practice of medicine, which he had studied in Europe, and gradually gains substantial wealth and respect in Ballarat. The couple’s lives are closely tied to those of Polly’s family and friends. Richard remains unhappy, however, and his wife slowly realizes that he is not the all-wise man she had once assumed.
Richard is a rather stiff, solitary soul, interested primarily in himself and dismissive of others. He seldom pays attention or understands what is going on around him. His neighbors disgust him as “hard, mean, grasping money-grubbers,” although Polly and the author are less critical of them. He takes his medical practice very seriously and works hard at it although it brings him little satisfaction. Brusque with his patients, he has “no talent for making friends” so he doesn’t even try. Because he is believes he alone is responsible for his success, he has no sympathy for those less fortunate.
It’s sheer folly to talk about what life makes of us. Life is not an active force; cannot mould or mar our fates. No, it’s we who make what we will of life.
As the book develops, Richard seems to harden and draw back into himself. He becomes depressed and to think his life is effectively over. In spite of his ability to hire an assistant or take a vacation, he dreams of a more drastic solution to his mid-life crisis. Like the people in Ballarat, I found Richard hard to like.
Polly is the opposite of Richard in many ways. She is open, happy with small pleasures, and always reaching out to others. She is the one who understands human interactions and takes delight in helping every one. Richard complains of others using her, as he himself does. At first she is in awe of Richard.
To her husband’s habits and idiosyncrasies she had adapted herself implicitly—but this came easy; for she was sure everything Richard did was right, and that his way of looking at things was the one and only way. So there was no room for discord between them.
He was dismissive about her concerns, especially over money.
I didn’t marry to have my girl puzzling her poor little brain where her next day’s dinner was to come!
Gradually, however, her confidence in him wavers. Although she speaks out against his actions, she remains devoted to him. For me, she becomes the more interesting character and the one who changes in the course of the book.
A host of other interesting characters move in and out around these main characters. Neighbors and employees give a taste of the range of individuals who lived in Ballarat and Melbourne. Polly has several siblings. Her rich, pompous brother turns his children over to her when first one and then another wife die. Her poor, lazy brother has a wife who demands that Polly change her name to Mary, which she does. And there is Agnus, a wealthy friend who wished she had kept a little of her money herself when she married her rich, domineering husband. Some of these could have taken over the book with their own stories if Richardson hadn’t kept her focus on Richard and Polly.
Australia Felix is a very well-written novel, with a full, somewhat old-fashioned style. Yet its psychological insights make it very modern. It is easy to see your own ways of hedging and avoiding your own realities just as Richard does. I loved the descriptions of the town and the countryside. While not a feminist novel, it is one in which women are strong and multifaceted and seldom treated well by the men in their lives.
I strongly recommend Australian Felix, especially to those interested in Australian and what it means to be Australian or simply to be a human being.
I am reading The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney along with Christina at Writing Lives. Our reviews of the other books in the trilogy will follow.