Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Fortunes of Richard Mahony

This is the novel that took me the last 9 weeks to read - it's 841 pages and really consists of three volumes; Australia Felix, The Way Home, and Ultima Thule. The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is written by Henry Handel Richardson, which is the pen-name of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson who was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1870. So I read it as part of the 2012 Aussie Author Challenge, but it could really be a novel for the 2012 Classics Challenge or the 2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I will use extracts from the Afterword by Dorothy Green:
   "The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is at once one of the simplest books to read and one of the most complex and profound: a fusion of the domestic and the sublime which has no parallel ... It is first of all an absorbing account of a marriage, of a union between a man and a young girl, who grow and change, who seem for most of their lives to be polar opposites, each with a particular 'wisdom' which contradicts the other's. Yet at the end, we find that they have exchanged that wisdom, each has learnt painfully what the other knew, and the underlying bond, the bedrock affinity between them, is re-affirmed.
   "From one point of view ... The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is a novel about money, about the struggle to get a living, or to grow rich. Set against the background of the great goldmining boom of the mid-nineteenth century, money is a bone of contention between husband and wife, even through their brief period of great prosperity". It is here that I deviate, because whilst this novel was set about 150 years ago, Richard Mahony was struggling with many of the traits that the modern Generation Y is accredited with - need for money, materialism, restlessness, and impatience towards advancement in life. It was really interesting to see these traits so described in a long-ago generation that is looked back upon as somewhat of a golden era, with very different worries from today. In fact, their worries were the same as ours.
   "Marriage and money: these are subjects of abiding interest to all human beings. But there is a third one linked with them in this novel: the circumstance of being an emigrant, of being homeless, of feeling alienated ... The first volume, Australia Felix, concerns the bustling commercial life of a society precariously based on mining, whose members are struggling towards financial security. Its movement it towards settled order from chaos; its image is earth, the stable element which nurtures life if it is not abused. The second volume, The Way Home, reveals the security is an illusion, no sooner acquired than lost, or if not lost, then regarded as irksome. Its image is the sea, the dangerous unstable element which Mary dislikes and Richard loves. Its movement is towards instability, the breaking up of established patterns. it also demonstrates the truth of Mary's assertion: 'But people are the same everywhere!'. The stuffy provincialism which drives Richard back to England is a habit of mind, not a geographical reality, a habit even more pronounced in the home country than in the colony. In the first volume and for much of the second we are conscious of the social background to the lives of the central characters, but the author gradually closes in on them as Richard's alienation progresses, until in the third volume, Ultima Thule, the narrative concentrates almost exclusively on the states of mind of Richard, Mary and their son Cuffy.
   "The secret of the power of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony to move to tears so many of its readers (including me) lies hidden in the mystery of imagination ... To try to read The Fortunes of Richard Mahony with full attention is not so much a task which every educated Australian might be expected to perform, but an unforgettable experience of the profundities which sustain the simplicities of existence; an experience which shakes and strengthens the reader who yields himself to it, and which endows the common dust with a tragic grandeur."
   That says it all. Exquisite.

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