CC Spin: The Fortunes of Richard Mahony

Just a note: I wrote this post a couple of weeks ago, before all the worrying events that are happening right now.  Like all of you, I am sad and outraged and feel a bit helpless.  Meanwhile, here's a post about Australia over 100 years ago...

So 80s!
Australia Felix (1917); The Way Home (1925); Ultima Thule (1929)

Wow, this was quite a story!  This three-volume novel is a fictionalized version of Ethel Richardson's parents' lives.  We follow Richard Mahony, an English emigrant to Australia, and his wife Mary for nearly 30 years.  I wound up with some historical notes and comparisons at the end of this post, so...this is a long one, folks.

Australia Felix starts with Mahony in his early 30s, in 1850s gold-rush Ballarat.  Although a qualified doctor, he runs a general-goods shop, badly.  He meets Polly, aged 16, a quiet, intelligent girl living with a rollicking, cheerful family, and they quickly marry.  The narrative thread shifts between Polly (soon Mary) and Richard, and really I think Mary has more of it.  Mary convinces Richard to start practice as a doctor again, and their hard-working lives, embedded in Mary's large extended family and the town of Ballarat, make for a compelling tale.  Richard is restless, longing for England (the Australia Felix title is bitterly ironic for him), and Mary reluctantly sets sail with him.

In The Way Home, Richard is trying to become established as a doctor in England, but it's much more difficult than he expected, and he is more Australian than he thought.  At last he takes against England and decides to go back to Australia, but it's a defeat.  Upon arrival, their fortunes take a turn; they are wealthy, and while Mary wants to go 'home' to Ballarat, Richard hates the idea and insists on Melbourne.  Again, Mary becomes the caretaker for her family members -- and at long last, she is surprised with children!  Richard's inability to find satisfaction in what he has spurs him to take the whole family on a European tour, but even that proves disappointing and he just can't settle.  The news that the manager of their investments has absconded with the fortunes of all his clients comes as a shock, and they head for home, fearful of the future.

Ultima Thule is the story of Richard's endeavors to become re-established as a doctor, which are defeated by his decline in both physical and mental health (at the time, this description was very shocking to readers). How Mary and the children deal with it are also a large part of the story.    Now it is recognized as accurately based on Richardson's father's own development of dementia due to neurosyphilis.  I have to admit I had a really hard time reading this volume.  I didn't know what would happen, but it was going to be tragic.

So -- this novel is many things, and a portrayal of mental illness is only one of them.  It's the story of Fortune's wheel, of hard work for pennies, sudden wealth, and equally sudden poverty.  (I think it's this aspect that causes it to be described as a quintessentially Australian novel?)  It has a lot of marriages in it, and nearly all of them are unhappy.  It also has a wonderfully sensitive portrayal of the son, Cuffy, who embodies Richardson's own memories of childhood.

For me, the most absorbing element of the story was the portrait of the marriage of two good people who love each other deeply, but who are chalk and cheese; they are so different, they don't really understand each other very well, and indeed their differences push them to more extreme versions of themselves.  Mary is a practical woman who manages well and loves greatly, but not always with understanding.  She loves her husband and children, but she isn't able to empathize with them.  Richard is sensitive, intellectual, and has enormous integrity, but he is also very proud, judgemental, and always longs for escape.  He is popular with others, and he hates being in company.  Mary becomes inclined to dismiss Richard's constant complaints, so she does not at first notice that eccentricity has become illness.  Richard needs, depends on, and hates Mary's solicitude for his well-being.  He often sees her as a fetter, and she often sees him as inconsiderate and reckless.  Mary has a core of steel, and is the one that holds everything together, come what may. 

This great novel should be better known outside Australia! 

And now, a historical note: Australia Felix, set in Ballarat during the gold rush and featuring the Eureka Rebellion of 1854, prompted me to look up a little history about it.  The Eureka Rebellion was the result of a whole lot of miners' resentment over Great Britain's colonial management, especially the lack of voting rights and the existence of a mining license fee that had to be paid every month.  The miners set up at the Eureka Stockade and swore allegiance to their flag; a battle ensued, the rebellion was put down, some miners killed, but the sympathy for the rebels' complaints was great enough that male colonists were given suffrage in 1856.  The Eureka flag has since come to stand for an Australian spirit of independence, democracy, and (often) protest, and I gather that it has also become a popular tattoo.

All this sounds very familiar indeed to a Californian living on the edges of Gold Rush country.   The miners in Australia Felix sound just like the 49ers, except the 49ers wore a lot more red flannel.  The Bear Flag Rebellion of 1846 was not instigated by miners sore about taxes; it was American settlers in Alta California (which belonged to Mexico) who liked the idea of it belonging to the US instead.  Also, like the Eureka Rebellion, it has been much romanticized.  Take a look at John Bidwell's description of the event as a silly lark without a lot of substance to it.

Compare Australian and Californian miners below!

The original Eureka flag

The full design of the flag

Australian miner

A somewhat glamorized 49er

The original California flag; it wasn't much.

New and improved version

And I can't resist adding a postscript about the little town of Rough and Ready, which I visited last summer.  It's not too far from Grass Valley.  In 1850, the miners there, annoyed over being taxed but not getting any actual services, declared independence from the United States.  This lasted all of three months, until they realized that nobody would sell them liquor for the 4th of July if they weren't Americans.  Check out the story from, again, the Goldfields blog!
Photo: Nancy Leek


  1. Great post! I'd never heard of this book but I am fascinated by Australia so I'll have to look into this one (I'm also hoping to read The Luminaries which is about the same time period; and Trollope wrote a couple of novels set in Australia as well). I really like novels and series that cover characters over long periods, it's so interesting to see them develop. And I love how you tied it in with the story of Rough and Ready.

  2. This does sound like a book I should hunt up!

  3. I've never heard of the author but it does sound interesting. I've just finished reading a book by Australian Capel Boake (Virago) it's very different from this one (3) but worth reading if you find a copy.
    I so agree with you about that Isaac Babel cover, it's a cracker.

  4. What a magnificent summary Jean! You’ve made me want to read it again right now.
    Curiously this book is not that well known in Australia either. Most people only talk about Richardson’s coming of age story The Getting of Wisdom. Which is a shame because this trilogy has so much to offer, esp being based on Richardson’s family as it is.
    Given the times we live in, that you alluded you, it was interesting to note how little Aboriginal Australians featured in this book. They were barely seen, barely tolerated & generally ignored by writers, journalists & government officials. Times have changed, but not nearly enough.

    Thanks for giving me a chance to relive my memories of this amazing story.

  5. Thanks, Brona! It's kind of you to say so.

    I really noticed the complete lack of Aboriginal Australians in this novel. They are *utterly* absent. I probably should have mentioned that. If a Martian read this book to learn about Australia, he would be unable to learn that the British weren't the first people there. It's pretty amazing (and not in a good way).

  6. Hi Jean, I just posted my review of this book at the Classics Club and saw you'd read it recently also. Funny that we should use the same words to describe their marriage relationship - chalk and cheese! I'm surprised it isn't more widely known here in Australia but it has been reprinted by Text Classics so maybe that might get more people reading it. Wonderful review!


Post a Comment

I'd love to know what you think, so please comment!

Popular posts from this blog

The Four Ages of Poetry

Ozathon #1: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz