An Appreciation of “The Fortunes of Richard Mahony,” by Henry Handel Richardson

December 9th, 2007

Tony Spors writes in with a personal appreciation of the Australian novelist Henry Handel Richardson (nom de plume of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson)

”How I do hate the ordinary sleek biography. I’d have every wart and every pimple emphasized, every murky trait or petty meanness brought out. The great writers are great enough to bear it.” These are the words of Henry Handel Richardson, a woman writer from Australia who lived from 1870 to 1946. Yes, woman writer, for like George Eliot, she wrote under a male pseudonym.

Mrs. Richardson applied this principle of exact unrelenting truth she stated above to her own fiction. Her masterpiece, completed in 1929, is The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, a trilogy of novels, which tells the story of a family living in the gold fields of frontier Australia, immigrated from Ireland, having to cope with the devastating effects of the young doctor father’s severe mental and physical deterioration from syphilis. I’ve read It is based quite closely on Mrs. Richardson’s own childhood.

I read this trilogy of novels about at the same time in my life as I was reading the great Russian novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. The trilogy, being over 900 pages, is related to these Russian novels in size. But more importantly The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney,is similar to these Russian novels in its penetrating psychological realism Not often will you find a novel written almost eighty years ago that deals this honestly with no sugar coating or sentimentality with the severe mental illness of a young doctor head of a family. You can feel for the young mother and her children having to face the growing ostracism by her neighbors caused by her husband’s bizarre behavior. Of course, the doctor’s patients drop away after several of his episodes, and the family is reduced to poverty.

But not only is this family’s story courageous. Henry Handel Richardson is a writer of the very top rank. Although here in the United States she is little known beyond the movie of her novel The Getting of Wisdom” which was made by Bruce Beresford in 1978, in Australia Henry Handel Richardson is considered a classic novelist. Sentence for sentence, the writing holds your interest as only the best novels do. Here is a writer in English we can read without the filter of translation.

Later in my reading life, I discovered Patrick White, another writer from Australia, whom I consider probably the greatest novelist ever to write. I can’t help but think he must have read Henry Handel Richardson in his youth. If you like one of these writers, you will probably like the other.

Since The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney is divided into three separate novels, I would recommend a reader start with the first volume, Australia Felix, and see if you are not hooked as I was into reading the other two volumes, The Way Home and Ultima Thule.

If you’re happy to deal with raw text instead of a physical book, you can find Australia Felix, The Getting of Wisdom, and her first novel, Maurice Guest on Project Gutenberg. Or you could wait for the release of Monash University’s authoritative publication of her complete works. And if you’re really patient, you can wait until film director Bruce Beresford finds backers for his mini-series based on Richard Mahony. — Ed.

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