If you had to argue for the merits of one Australian book, one piece of writing, what would it be? Welcome to our occasional series in which our authors make the case for a work of their choosing. See the end of this article for information on how to get involved.
A few years ago, I was talking to David Malouf at a reception for the Man Booker International Prize about reciprocal influences between American and Australian fiction.
Malouf mentioned that the American novelist John Updike had once said to him the one Australian novel that could be found on every American library shelf when he was growing up was Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, published over 12 years in the early 20th century.
Malouf expressed some puzzlement as to what Americans might have found especially interesting in this epic trilogy chronicling the fortunes of an Irish emigrant to Australia during the gold rush, and since I had not at that time read Richardson’s work I had little to contribute to the conversation.
I subsequently consumed the saga – 909 pages in the Penguin edition – and was awestruck by the expansive scope of Richardson’s imaginative world. The story also struck me as having a direct relation to the American epic tradition, of which it works in some ways as a sophisticated parody.
Published originally as three separate novels in 1917, 1925 and 1929, and then as a trilogy in 1930, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is essentially a 20th-century rewriting of a 19th-century historical novel. It takes the theme of the self-made man, the characteristically Victorian trope of a picaresque hero which American fiction reconfigured as the Horatio Alger prototype, and subjects it to the ironies of modernism in an alternative Australian framework.
There are, in effect, multiple displacements at work throughout the narrative: Mahony’s passage from Dublin to Edinburgh to England to Australia (and, intermittently, back again) is matched by a formal displacement of the traditional Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, into a more ambiguous, enigmatic realm of psychological interiority.
The representation of Mahony’s thoughts in Richardson’s text owes something to the stream-of-consciousness idiom that was being developed in the 1920s by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.
In this sense, Richardson’s innovative narrative method dismantles Victorian assumptions in style as well as substance. Mahony’s “black Irish pride” and the fact “his nature had a twist to it” serve to hollow out assumptions of linear teleology and epic consummation.
There is a random quality to Mahony’s fortunes in Australia: his destiny is shaped not so much by the accumulation of economic fortunes but by ups and downs dispensed by the whimsical goddess Fortuna, with Mahony contemplating how nothing was “fixed and settled” in Australia, and how “fortunes here were made, and lost, and made again, before you could say Jack Robinson".
Hence Richardson appropriates Australia to map a new relation to the novelistic genre more generally, one where contingency rather than character becomes the dominant strain. Being “led blindfold along a road that was not of his own choosing,” the eponymous hero moves across this trilogy apparently at the mercy of various irrational but compulsive forces that lead him into “giving up home after home”.
Richardson accordingly advances a quizzical critique of what the idea of “home” might mean, something that involves a modernist demystification of the stable sequences of the Victorian serial novel, such as we see in George Eliot or Anthony Trollope, with the author here using the relatively uncharted territory of Australia to map a new relation to the novelistic genre more generally.
Another kind of displacement in this novel involves the kind of gender reversal that becomes evident towards the end of the saga, when Richard’s wife, Mary, becomes his nurse and carer, as the ruined paterfamilias is left slumbering “as a child on its mother’s breast”.
It also traces overlaps between economic and mental depression, with the family’s fluctuations in fortune impacting upon “the dark side of their married life”.
Although Richardson’s novel encompasses the traditional epic architecture – chronicling a society’s development over time through its sequence of family births and deaths – it also, through the systematic nature of such metaphoric reversals, interrogates conventional understandings of temporal and generational evolution. Mahony’s “inborn contrariness” is reflected in Richardson’s epic mode – which is regressive as much as progressive.
And while the novel is perceptive about class and ethnic stratifications in Ballarat and Melbourne around the turn of the 20th century, it also gains in resonance by comparing these societies directly to the “medieval provincialism” of village life in England, described here as a “slow-thinking, slow-moving country,” as well as to “that Eldorado of thieves and scoundrels, America”.
One of the reasons The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is an Australian epic is that it does not just focus on Australia, but self-consciously juxtaposes the contours of this country against those of other national formations.
Set against The Getting of Wisdom, Richardson’s earlier novel about a girls’ boarding school in Victoria – which was celebrated on The Conversation a few weeks ago – The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is much more ambitious, both thematically and stylistically.
As with other epic novels of a similar scope – Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), which is less immediately accessible than his earlier The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), or John Dos Passos’ trilogy USA, which again was published as three separate novels during the 1930s and then as a trilogy in 1938 – Richardson’s book has suffered through being too long to be assigned, for the most part, during regular academic sessions.
Yet this novel is remarkable in the way it reflexively turns an Australian trajectory of exile and dislocation into a central concern in itself, with lines such as:
He had always been in flight. But from what?
Such a focus ironically mirrors Updike’s own novel Rabbit Run (1960), which was initially conceived as a direct response to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). Like Updike, Richardson seeks to ask the question of what being “on the road” might mean in psychological terms.
By refracting Mahony’s Irish provenance through an Australian cultural context, she offers a radically alternative perspective on the picaresque tradition.
Are you an academic or researcher? Is there an Australian book or piece of writing – fiction or non-fiction, contemporary or historical – you would like to make the case for? Contact the Arts + Culture editor with your idea.
The case for Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance
The Case for John Bryson’s Evil Angels
The case for Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom
The case for Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters by Johnny Warren
The case for The Ghost’s Child by Sonya Hartnett