20 classics #13: The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books. Read more about this project here. See the other classics here.

Why did I want to read it?

I haven’t yet reviewed an Australian classic in this series, and The Lifted Brow also asked me to choose one of the Text Classics range to introduce for their October issue. There was a lot I wanted to read on the list so I pretty much chose at random. When the book arrived I baulked at the size of it: almost 1000 finely printed pages. But I do like a challenge.

When was it published?

It was published in three volumes, in 1917, 1925 and 1929 and as a full novel by William Heinemann in 1930. The new Text Classics edition is introduced by Peter Craven.

What’s it about?

The life of the restless Richard Mahony, from the Ballarat goldfields in the 1850s, via many adventures in Australia and abroad, to the latter part of the nineteenth century. It’s also a stunning portrait of a marriage, and an incredibly detailed account of colonial Australia: Ballarat, Melbourne, the bush and the seaside.

Tell us more about the author.

Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson was born in 1870 in Melbourne. Her father was a doctor (as is Mahony) and tragedy struck the young, affluent family when he was admitted to Kew mental asylum and died of syphilis when Richardson was nine. Her mother took the children to Maldon where she worked as postmistress. Richardson boarded at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College from age 13 to 17 and the experience formed the basis for her 1910 novel The Getting of Wisdom, the only one of her books that has been faithfully adapted to the screen (by Bruce Beresford in 1977).

Richardson’s family moved to Europe in 1888 where she studied music at the Leipzig Conservatorium (and Maurice Guest is set in Leipzig). In Leipzig she also met John George Robertson, a Scot, who was studying German literature. They married and moved to London in 1903. Richardson only returned to Australia once, to conduct research for Mahony. She died in 1946 in Hastings, East Sussex. Her other works include The Young Cosima (novel), short story collections and a supposedly unreliable autobiography.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

Yes. I would not hesitate to tell you that The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is a masterpiece, a great novel. Reading it was one of the most fulfilling literary experiences I’ve ever had. This is mainly due to the character of Richard Mahony and his self-induced tribulations, and the intimate details of his marriage to Polly (later known as Mary). But it is also due to the historical aspects: Mahony provides complete immersion in the experience of the past, through the eyes of just a few characters. It’s also an incredibly compassionate novel. I only read afterwards that the character of Mahony was partly inspired by Richardson’s father, and that just broke my heart all over again.

Why is this not as well known or regarded as, say, the work of Patrick White? I was speculating to G, upon finishing, that it may not be well known because it hasn’t been adapted for the screen. And Craven in his introduction, when I read it afterwards, suspects the same. It hasn’t become ‘a shared myth’, he says. I can imagine, given its breadth and depth, it would be very hard to adapt, but a miniseries seems doable. Or maybe it is the sheer size of the novel that puts some people off. Well, don’t let it, I implore you. Indulge.

The novel is so large that the characters become more than complex, they become real. The style is naturalistic, and the characters’ mental states are given as much attention as the surrounding landscape. I found myself exasperated at Richard (as Mary is), for his impractical flightiness, but at the same time I was so fond and forgiving of him. And I related at times to his need for peace, quiet; to not be bothered (and then sided with him, too, in his annoyance at Mary’s complete rationality). The Mahonys are truly both kind-hearted—Mary charitable with her being and her space, to her friends; Mahony a gentle doctor who hesitates to chase up bills, and who often rethinks his first, rash opinions of people—but they also are at times hateful, frayed, even cruel. Mahony is a terrible listener, and unable to adapt to colonial attitudes (holding onto notions of gentlemanliness without realising it sometimes makes him a laughing stock). But then! When they go to England he reacts to their snobbishness. You think it will change him…

Mary slowly becomes perceptive to Richard’s foibles—particularly the ones that get them into trouble—and becomes stronger, and less materially motivated. At the beginning you can see how well they match: it centres around their kindnesses, they way they (attempt to) perceive the good in others (though Mary soon learns that sometimes Richard will maintain a grudge). Mary is more likely to see the ‘good’ and that is where she is kind, whereas Richard will crumble when faced with the ‘weak’. Richardson exquisitely renders a long-term relationship: the way they misinterpret each other and begin to keep secrets, the way they manage each other, sometimes fear each other. The novel is an incredible, humble, love story.

The weirdest thing is, writing this, I simply cannot capture it. You just have to read it. Each revelation of character comes about through sections of the novel that are book length. That makes it sound dreary, but it’s not. There are seeds planted (sometimes in conversations with other characters), events foreshadowed. When you begin reading it, you think it is all about the goldfields, and the men (and it is). But then Polly/Mary and a new cast of characters come along. Way, way down the line there are windfalls and travel and children and tragedy. Each ‘event’ is, as mentioned, a book of its own, so I can only be vague here. The whole that these events add up to is so revealing. As an Australian, too. (Though I think this holds up against European novels set in the 19th Century, is in fact much more accessible than many of them.) I had, for example, never thought very much about the way the gold rush messed up the class system for those who clung to it, fresh from the old country, and what that meant, how confusing it could be for them. More generally there is so much to learn (and so much colour) in regards to colonial Australia and the foundation of Victoria.

But what do I want to talk about? I want to talk about Richard (though I really cannot possibly capture him). He is self-absorbed, he is manic at times—bursting with excitement for an idea, mainly a change—and then he sinks into deep depressions. He is over-sensitive: ‘How strange Richard was… how difficult! First, to be able to forget all about how things stood with him, and then to be twice as upset as other people’. He is definitely fickle, an ‘unpractical old dreamer’ as Mary thinks of him at one stage. He is paranoid and nervous, more so as he gets older. He loves isolation, but becomes bored of that too and surprises Mary (and the reader) with bouts of socialising. He is a skilled doctor, he is curious (a great reader, at one point becoming obsessed with spiritualism: ‘He believed and would continue to believe it impossible wholly to account for life and its phenomena in terms of physiology, chemistry, physics’). He is not humourless but his sensitivity sometimes gets in the way. He is sometimes confused. He is embarrassing to his son, Cuffy. Cuffy is such a surprising and wonderful voice added to the novel in later parts. Cuffy allows the reader to see the relationship of his parents, the places they live, their life and his father from a different angle. The way Richardson writes him captures the wonder and confusion (and temper) of childhood.

I’ll share one longer extract which is revealing of Richard. After a description of travel and all of its difficulties, this is what follows:

Yes! there was always something. He never let himself have any real peace or enjoyment. Or so thought Mary at the time. It was not till afterwards, when he fell to re-living his travels in memory, that she learned how great was the pleasure he had got out of them. Inconveniences and annoyances were by then sunk below the horizon. Above, remained visions of white cities, and slender towers, and vine-clad hills; of olive groves bedded in violets; fine music heard in opera and oratorio; coffee-drinking in shady gardens on the banks of a lake; orchards of pink almond-blossom massed against the misty blue of far mountain valleys.

This gives you an idea of the contradictions within, and the changeability of Richard, and how he values having experienced different things (no matter how troublesome at the time). It also gives you an idea of the rhythm in the prose, and the humour in the novel, too. It is not a solemn affair, even tragic circumstances are often given fresh views (ie. by Cuffy, the son).

And I’ll leave this rather disordered (but honest) blog post here. I hope I have at least inspired you to give The Fortunes of Richard Mahony a go. I certainly would like to add Richardson’s other novels to my collection, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments if you have anything to say on those also.

What’s next?

I’ve finally started on my first Raymond Chandler novel: The Lady in the Lake.

This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.

6 thoughts on “20 classics #13: The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson

  1. What a lovely, heartfelt, unpretentious review! The sort I like, that enters into the world of the story and the characters, gives you their flavours, and makes you want to eat the whole meal. I have read The Fortunes many years ago, and have only one volume of the three volume edition. This makes me resolve to get the new edition and re-read it. Thank you for refreshing my memory of one of our greatest novels. I am also fascinated by it because it is an autobiographical novel.

    • Thanks Christina, very nice of you to say. Took me months to put this up, to be honest, I just didn’t feel I could capture it. If you do get to re-read it, let me know what it was like to come back to! I’m sure I’ll re-read it one day too.

  2. Loved this review! This book wouldn’t usually be one that I’d pick up, I have to admit, but I happened to proofread it when another publisher released it a few years back and found myself completely engrossed in it. I hope no-one is put off by the length of the book; you end up completely immersed in Richard Mahoney’s world and really don’t think about the length. An amazing novel!

  3. Pingback: the books of 2012 ~ part one | Book to the Future

  4. Pingback: AWW 2012 Challenge Wrap-up: Literary Awards/Classics Part 2 « Australian Women Writers Challenge

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