And now for the next edition in our ‘Relatives Read Books’ series, the esteemed and erudite father (and very keen for his photo shoot, we must say) of senior editor Jane Pearson has read the incredibly epic (947 pages) The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson.
Mr Barrie Sheppard made short work of this tome and has fascinating things to say about this classic of Australian literature.
Over to you, Mr Sheppard...
The Fortunes of Richard Mahony lays just claim, in my view, to being the ‘Great Australian Novel’.
Tolstoyan in scope, it is remarkable for the verisimilitude with which it creates the world of the Ballarat gold diggings of the 1850s and its surrounding landscapes, that of Melbourne’s polite society of the latter half of the 19th century, and, to a lesser extent, dour Glasgow and the snobby south-east of England. All of which is setting for the life of its eponymous hero, the restless, impetuous and snobbish misfit, Richard Mahony, physician; and his devoted wife Mary. To read the novel is to have lived, as it were, Mahony’s life (and Mary’s) from its early promise, through the vicissitudes of his middle life, and, finally, to his tragic decline into insanity and death.
Populating its world is a host of characters whose stories impinge on the Mahonys’ lives: Richard’s feckless friend, Purdy, the delightful, pragmatic, down-to-earth Tilly, Mary’s brother John Turnham, Old Ocock, the wealthy Ballarat banker, to name just a few.
Not to mention the Mahony children: Cuffy and the twins, lovingly described as ‘dumplings, roly-poly bundles of good nature and jollity, sunning themselves in their mother’s love’. Though not for long for twin Lallie, who dies from diphtheria, her death, and Mary’s grief , heart-renderingly portrayed with a depth of feeling and psychological truth remarkable for a writer who was childless.
Equally moving, perhaps more so, is the scene at Warrnambool near the novel’s end where Mary has come to collect Richard, recently released from the Kew Asylum. She finds him thrashing, out of control, in the landing boat by the wharf. Then, asking a gawking crowd to let her pass, she claims him, in words affirming a love that quietens the distraught Richard, ‘This is my husband’.
Richardson’s novel is many things, but, as much as anything, it is a deeply affecting love story.
I think Barrie just sorted out the conundrum of what to read over the Easter holidays, yes?
The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by the incomparable Ms Henry Handel Richardson is available in all good bookshops, on the Text website (Free postage!) and as an ebook.
Did you know that all Text Classic books are just $12.95, and if you buy five from our website, (Because you’ll need copies for the entire book club.) then you get them all for only $50.00.