Skip to content

Guest Post by Christina Houen on Ultima Thule, by Richardson.

October 25, 2013

Guest Post by Christina Houen on Ultima Thule, by Richardson.

Here is Christina’s review of Ultima Thule, the last volume of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. I appreciate how much I have learned reading this trilogy together.

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 him 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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2013 4:37 pm

    First, my apologies for typo: ‘him mind’ should be ‘his mind’!
    I was talking to a friend yesterday about the depiction of the bush in the book. I’m sure it’s more subtle than I have suggested, but I do feel that the central characters and the narrator have a very ambivalent relationship with the bush; they are both drawn to it, keep returning to it—first in the raw goldfields of Ballarat, later in various country towns where Richard seeks to make a living—and repelled by it, because they find it powerful, reductive and destructive. They fear being reduced by it to the rough, raw type of Australians that they see around them, and they fear being destroyed by it. I thought of Russell Drysdale’s paintings. His outback characters are drawn, gaunt, burnt dark, elemental, like the bleak landscape they live in. And I remember my own experience of the outback, where I lived as a child. It was harsh and yet had a powerful beauty. YOu either survived it, were broken by it or you left it, but few thrived in it.

  2. October 27, 2013 12:05 pm

    I found your comments on the bush very interesting. Is that attitude common in Australia? It’s not currently here. I have read about how ideas of what we would call wilderness have changed since the Puritans who came as colonists in the 1600’s. They seem to have that view of both the land and the Indians, but now many of us view wilderness as an escape from the dangers and chaos of urban living. We even assume naively that it is safe when it isn’t. Certainly that is my view. I was struck as I read Mahoney, how differently he viewed it.

    • Christina Houen permalink
      October 27, 2013 7:56 pm

      I think the way we perceive ‘the bush’ or the outback has changed a lot since the 19th century. A lot of explorers lost their lives, and a lot of pioneer farmers and miners lost everything. Some won great riches, and some survived and learned how to live in it. But there’s still that dichotomy between the western idea of ownership, taming nature, and the Indigenous idea of being part of it and being nurtured and created by it. And the exploitation of the land is greater than ever now, with vast modern mining technology and fracking, and so on. Of course there are alternative ways too, organic, biodynamic, conservation, protection of endangered flora and fauna. So it’s complex, but no doubt the dominant one is exploitive.

  3. October 29, 2013 9:39 am

    yes, the emphasis on exploitation of land and people are all too dominant in both our countries I think.

    Thanks for reading the trilogy with me. Your words made the book richer for me. And I am convinced of Richardson’s greatness.

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 )

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: