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The Way Home, by Henry Handel Richardson.

October 7, 2013

The Way Home, volume 2, 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.


A continuation of the story of Richard Mahoney and his wife after he gives up his medical practice, their return to England, his dissatisfaction there, and the life of wealth and leisure they live when they return to Australia.

Reading the second volume of The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, I became even more impressed with what a fine author Ethel Richardson was.  Despite her traditional style ,she displays very modern insight into her various characters, especially into their ambivalence and inner contradictions. In this book she describes how the main characters deal with their feelings about England and Australia.  The article on Richardson in the Australian National Biography related that when her husband was asked it Richard Mahoney was based on her father, he replied that it was based on Richardson herself.   The first time that statement made sense to me was in her treatment of colonials going back to England and in their comparisons of it with Australia.

The “Proem” which introduces the second volume focuses on immigrants returning to England from the colonies and is one of my favorite sections of the book. First Richardson expresses the joy the colonists feel as they approach the English shore.

At the sight of it, Mahony had a shock of surprise—that thrilled surprise that England holds for those of her sons who journey back, no matter whence, across the bleak and windy desert of the seas. Quite as lovely as this, one had not dared remember the homeland.

Mahoney feels himself one with the tradition of English “navigators and explorers” who had spread the English “struggles toward a finer liberty, a nicer justice, that should make her sons true freemen….”   But then, he is also aware of how small England is.

If the landscape before them was lovely as a garden, it also had something of a garden’s limitations…. He was swept through by a sudden consciousness of England’s littleness, her tiny tight compactness, the narrow compass that allowed of so intensive a cultivation.  These fair fields in minature!—after the wide acreage of a colonial paddock.

After living in England, Richard discovered that setting up a medical practice there was not as easy as he had expected.  And the reality of life in England did not measure up to his dreams.

For the longer he lived there, the more plainly he saw just what a wasps’ nest of caste and prejudice they had fallen into. Social life in Buddlecomb was the most complicated affair under the sun: was divided into innumerable grades; made up of a series of cliques, rising one after another, and fitting as exactly as a set of japanese boxes.

When people were rude and disparaging to Mary, Richard felt he could not endure to stay. He saw how she was different from the society ladies who shunned her.

Into all Mary said and did there had crept something large and free—a dash of spaciousness belonging to the country that had become her true home…. She had rubbed shoulders with all sorts; had been unable to afford the ‘lady’s’ priviledge to shutting an eye to evil and wrong-doing and pretending it didn’t exist.

Richard also began to long for the sight of an Australian sunset.  He begins to see everything, “the colouring, landscape, horizon—have all seemed very dull and cramped…like the souls of the people themselves.”

Coming home yet again, Richard and Mary return to Australia. As they are landing, they receive news that one of Richard’s investment has done spectacularly well.  He gives up his medical practice to build a spacious house in Melbourne, read his books, and enjoy the best society has to offer.  Mary was not happy with these decisions, but Richard continues to be deaf to her viewpoints.

Although Richardson holds her focus on Richard and Mary, at the same time she describes a wide variety of other Australians.  Mary settles easily back into the routine of caring for friends and relatives—including many of those we met in Austrailia Felix.  As readers we see how they change over time.  When Mary’s brother is struck by cancer we see how he and his family deal with his illness and death.  Now a wealthy widow, Mary’s friend Tilly decides to remarry. Much to Richard’s disgust, Mary’s friends come for long visits.  At first Richard is content to bury himself in his books, but eventually he gets restless.  With the help of an attractive women, who may or may not be a widow, he gets caught up in spiritualism and wonders if Mary is an adequate spiritual partner for him.

 Mary and Richard had given up on having children of their own, but then she gives birth to a son, bright and distinctive, but a bit too preocupied with himself.  Then she has twin daughters, pleasant and happy girls known collectively as the “Dumplings.”  Eventually Richard decides that he, Mary and the children should return to England as tourists.  In the midst of travels in Europe, they suddenly learn that the accountant Richard had hurriedly entrust with their new-found wealth had absconded to America.  Although she has increasing come to doubt her husband’s financial prowess, Mary is left with the children to close down their affairs in England while Richard rushes back to Australia.  As she faces the daunting, unwomanly tasks before her, she realizes that all she really cares about is caring for her husband and children.

Now, as, in her imagination, she gathered her little ones to her heart—and gathered Richard with them, he, too, just an adored and absent child—it came over her like a flash that, amid life’s ups and downs, to be able to keep one’s little flock about one, to know one’s deepest human relationships safe and unharmed, was, in good truth, all that signified. Compared to this, hardships and misfortunes weighted no more than features in the balance.

Mary is no longer the innocent wife in awe of her husband that she had been as a young bride.  For me, she is still the more interesting character.

Cristina Houen, who is reading the trilogy with me, has labeled her reviews “Colonial Stories,” and as I read this book I understood for the first time another difference between Australia and the United States.  Australia became a nation in the early twentieth century and remained within the British commonwealth.  The United States gained its independence through violence over a century earlier, at the end of the eighteenth century.  Those of us who are descended from British colonists discarded a loyalty for a “mother country” long ago. Many of us are descended from immigrants from a variety of other nations which we may or may not still honor.  Reading post-colonial literature, I see my country as among the colonizers, not the colonists.  Richardson’s depiction of the relationship of Australians to England has given me a new persceptive on what it meant to go out as a colonist to a distant part of the globe.

Again, I recommend that readers everywhere discover the pleasure of this trilogy.

Links to my review and Christina’s review of Australia Felix.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2013 5:46 am

    Great review, Marilyn. Thanks for giving such a detailed resume of the story. It made my review much easier for me to write. See my blog on Colonial Stories III.

  2. December 6, 2015 1:46 am

    I enjoyed reading your views on the colonial experience. Although I appreciated Mahony’s initial thrill at returning home, I really experienced this book through Polly’s eyes. So it has been instructive to see another perspective again.


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