Skip to content

Australia Felix: Guest review by Christina Houen

September 19, 2013

Australia Felix, volume 1, of The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, by Henry Handel Richardson (pseudonym of Ethel Richardson). Reviewed by Christina Houen.


Christina, an Australian blogger, and I are reading and reviewing this three-volume Australian classic together.  I posted my review of the first book about a week ago, and here is hers.   She was able to comment on aspects of the book that I could not address. Although I had looked up a few facts about Australian history relevant to the novel, I had little sense of how its “masterly background detail of life in the colony, and the cultural and political conflicts and fault lines of a nation in the making” contribute to its place in Australian literature  With her background in literature, she could say more about Richardson’s style and technique.  I enjoyed the deeply descriptive details and the introspection of the main characters without seeing how Richardson had achieved the results.  Christina’s review also helped me see how Richardson combines a traditional style of writing with the interest in psychology of more modernist authors.

The edition of The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney that I read was published in 1941 by “The Readers Club” in New York and had an interesting preface by Sinclair Lewis urging American readers to read it because its characters were so universally real.  I found it unexpectedly at the local small college library.

Colonial Stories, Christina Houen.
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!9781921922282_large_cover

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 Ulyssesand 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.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2013 5:08 pm

    Thanks, Marilyn, that’s great. One typo, of my name in the sub-heading: Houen, not Hoeun.

    I wonder how you get the text to wrap to the side of the image? I”ve tried to do that on WordPress without success.

    How are you going with the next volume? I’m not far into it yet, and am away for a few days on Sunday, but I don’t think I’ll take it with me because of its size. I think I’ll read Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent, insteada slimmer book. So it might be a couple of weeks before I get back to The Way Home.

    all best


    • September 19, 2013 9:21 pm

      Christina, Sorry for the typo. I have trouble with letters as I age.

      I have finished the second book, but don’t hurry to get it read yourself. I haven’t written about it yet. When I do I will send you a draft of my review, but not post it until closer to when you have yours ready. No rush.

      For pictures on my blog, I just put the cusor at the edge of the text and hit the “add media” button. When the box comes up, I hit “left.”

      Enjoy your reading.


      • September 20, 2013 8:55 pm

        Thanks, I’m looking forward to more conversations.

        Oh, I see, you put the text in first, then add the picture! I’ve been doing it the other way round!


  1. The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson. | Me, you, and books
  2. Colonial Stories III | Writing Lives

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: