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Ultimate Thule, by Henry Handel Richardson

October 19, 2013

Ultimate Thule, volume 3 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.


 The climactic third volume of Richardson’s trilogy depicting Mahoney’s descent into madness and the resulting impact on his wife and children.   The first two volumes of the trilogy, The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, were enjoyable and beautifully written, but I was still amazed at the power and drama of the final book of the trilogy.

As could be expected from the first volumes, Richard Mahoney continued to make worse and worse mistakes.  Arriving in Melbourne without Mary, Richard is determined to establish a medical practice in the city despite his wife’s opinion.

What, womanlike, [Mary] would overlook, or treat as of slight importance, was the fact that he had also his professional pride to consider….No! He felt himself too good for the bush.

He invests in a large suburan house which the family cannot afford and saddles the family with a large debt, but knowing how Mary abhors owing money, he does not tell her about it.

 But Richard’s dreams of success come to naught. The location proved to be a poor one with too few people to support a doctor, but Richard fears sharing the financial problems from Mary.

And it went beyond him to imagine Mary not interfering. If he knew her, she would at once want to take the reins: to manage him and his affairs as she managed the house and the children.

Richard decides that the solution to his problems was flight.  Still burdened with debt, he moves the family to a small, isolated town in a mining region.  Everything about the situation seems hopeless.  Then their daughter sickens and dies.  Richard gradually slips beyond stubborn restlessness into madness.  He considers and rejects suicide.  He moves the family again, but his behavior was too strange to attract patients.  He becomes totally incapacitated and for a time hospitalized.  After Mary is able to establish the family again, he comes under her care. Out of touch with the realities of his life, he finds peace,

No more doubts, or questioning, or wrestling with the dark powers in himself: no anxiety over ways and means (Mary was there, Mary would provide).

He dies and is buried in the spacious Australian land.

On all sides the eye can range, unhindered, to where the vast earth meets the vaster sky.

Richard’s tragedy is not simply his own, however, but that of his wife and children as well.  Their child’s death was the worst imaginable tragedy for Mary. She is pulled between his increasingly ridiculous demands and the needs of their children, swinging from sharp anger at him to deep love and commitment to care for him.

And when  it came to the heritage of shame and disgrace that he would thus hand on to his children, her heart turned cold as ice against him.—But that night, every warring feeling merged and melted in a burning compassion for the old, unhappy man who lay by her side.

 Eventually, Richard’s failure to provide for his family leaves Mary and the children with nowhere to turn to meet their most basic needs for food and shelter.  Mary is forced to take employment, a literally unthinkable action for the wife of a “gentleman” like Richard.

But, oh, the comedown, the indignity, the publicity of the thing!…A postmistress, she a postmistress!  Forced to step out in the open, become a kind of public woman. . .And suppose then that she wasn’t equal to the work.

In the end she is able to earn a small income as a postmistress in Western Australia.  She and the  children move there. Removing Richard from the asylum where he has been placed, she is able to provide decently for him until his death.  As in the previous volumes, she is again changed by the life she lives.

She was no longer the ‘lady,” watchful of her steps. She was a tiger fighting for her young—did not Richard, in his present state, stand for the youngest and most helpless of her children?—and she now found, to her astonishment, that she was quite capable of standing up to men, of arguing with them, of talking them down, and, if necessary, of telling them what she thought of them.

 Stories like Mary’s have seldom been told in literature, especially in novels written before World War II.  We like to assume that traditional marriage provided women with true security from material need at the very least.  But Mary’s story is anything but unique.  In the past and in the present, women without marketable skills are left to raise children on their own and through no fault of their own.  Mary’s story helps us understand their vulnerability they face.

Cuffy, the son of Richard and Mary, is also touched by the tragedies of his parents. Richardson is at her best taking us into what he is thinking and feeling.  He is frightened to see his father weak. Just starting school, he is confused by his father’s increasingly strange behavior.  He tries not to see what is happening.  He tries to be a “gentleman,” as his father has told him to be, but he knows he isn’t strong enough to protect his mother and sister.

And being good didn’t help either; for it wasn’t your fault, you hadn’t done anything.  And yet you were ever so afraid—about somebody—who wasn’t you—yet belonged to you.  Somebody people thought silly, …Oh why had one’s Papa got to be like this?  Other children’s Papas weren’t.

He and his sister pray about the situation, but “God wasn’t there.”

Cristina has discussed the possible autobiographical elements in Richardson’s trilogy.  After having read the last volume, I suspect that the author has incorporated elements of both her parents in her account.  In her portrayal of Cuffy, she seems to be describing what it felt like for her to be a child watching her own father’s decline.

Richardson’s trilogy is wonderful, especially this closing volume.  I recommend it to readers everywhere, not just Australians.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 19, 2013 4:25 pm

    A wonderful, heartfelt review, Marilyn, worthy of this great book. I’m with you at every word, and I love the glimpses you give us through Richardson’s words. I think it is one of my all time great books, and I agree, all lovers of good books should read it. It is especially striking, as you say, because it depicts so intimately and movingly the rise of Mary from being a ‘gentleman’s wife’ to being a heroine, a tigress who battles to save her husband from a miserable death in a mental prison, and to look after and support her children as well, in a world where women were not supposed to do these things.
    I’ll write my review within the next few days.

  2. December 6, 2015 2:35 am

    Polly/Mary has become one of my all-time favourite literary heroines. Her strength and endurance are incredible. But she maintains her ability to make and keep dear, true friends that help her through some of the trials.
    She is a role model of loyalty, perseverance and goodness.

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