Monday, August 3, 2015

The Way Home – Henry Handel Richardson
In this second installment of Richardson’s trilogy there’s less of the sprawl found in Australia Felix. Richard Mahoney and his wife Mary (previously Polly) are the main focus. As for what befalls them, they move to England (despite Mary’s protests); Richard hates it there, so they return to Australia; some stock he has in a mine takes off and overnight he becomes a wealthy man; he stops practicing medicine and builds his dream house, which he calls Ultima Thule; Mary gives birth to a son and twin girls. It all sounds wonderful, right? Wrong, and this is due to Richard’s congenitally dissatisfied and restless nature. Mary, no longer the seventeen-year-old girl who idolized Richard, begins to openly rebel at having to deal with his “unreckonable impulses.” Richard feels that she’s a narrow person with whom he doesn’t share one single interest, liking or point of view. Arguments occur with growing frequency; when Richard begins attending seances (in which, among tilting tables, the dead speak through a medium), Mary expresses her exasperation: “. . . if these really are spirits who came back, it doesn’t make me think much of heaven. That the dead can still take an interest in such silly, footling things!” Despite the rift in their relationship, Richard never loses sight of Mary’s inherent goodness, and she’s bound to a man who has been the central figure in her life. On the closing page, as matters start on a downward plunge, Mary feels a “fierce uprush of pity for him, so solitary, so self-centered, so self-tormented. Oh, that he might be spared the worst!” I don’t think the author will spare Richard anything. I’ll soon find out, for I’m going directly to Ultima Thule. *

Ultima Thule – Henry Handel Richardson
Richard entrusts the investment of his money to a crook, and as a result he and Mary are left in greatly reduced circumstances. He begins practicing medicine again. He moves here and there; his initial enthusiasm for a new place blinds him to practicalities; when he becomes disillusioned (and he always does), he plunges into the depths of despair. This recurring sequence wears thin for Mary; she feels bitterness as she hears him waxing eloquent about some half-baked scheme; no matter what she says, he will do as he pleases, and she and the children will suffer the consequences. She begins to tell him the truth about himself, to put into heavy words that which he doesn’t want to hear. This flawed man is under great stress; he suffers one disappointment after another, one step down the social ladder after another; he feels the debilitating inroads of age. But all that doesn’t support the abrupt mental disintegration that takes place. When he’s with Mary he’s either argumentative or contrite, but he’s a coherent human being. Alone he’s tormented, fear-racked. When things finally descend to the point where he loses touch with reality, he became inexplicable to me. It’s here that Mary fills the void. She’s no saint (her no-nonsense attitude toward life has a harsh side), but what’s impressive is her loyalty to husband and children and her determination to make the best of things. There’s a third character who plays an important role. Cuffy, their son, observes his parents, and through his reactions we can feel the enormous emotional toll their problems are having on him. At the end Mary takes the lowly job of postmistress at a desolate township. She rescues Richard from an insane asylum, but there’s nothing left of this once-prideful man. Mentally and physically he’s in a near-vegetative state. Yet, on his death bed, he rouses himself to utter his last words: “Dear wife!” These words, to Mary, are like “balsam on her heart. All his love for her, his gratitude for her, were in them: they were her reward, and a full and ample one, for a lifetime of unwearied sacrifice.” On one level I didn’t believe that this broken man would be capable of uttering those words. At the end of the last novel of the trilogy Richardson lets her intense feelings take over. But those feelings were ones I had come to share, so I accepted a last affirmation. *

The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney – Henry Handel Richardson
Ethel Florence Lindesey Richardson was born into an affluent family in Melbourne. Her father was a doctor (as was Richard Mahoney); he was committed to an mental asylum (as was Richard); he died of syphilis. At the time of his death Ethel was nine (as was Cuffy; and, like Cuffy, she was a musical prodigy). Her mother took up work as a postmistress (as did Mary). This novel clearly drew from the author’s personal experiences. There’s one element missing from the fictional story: syphilis. And it is exactly that disease which would account for Richard’s rapid mental deterioration. But, in the context of the story, there was no way it could play a role. Peter Craven, in his lively Introduction to the Text Classics edition of the trilogy, describes Richardson’s use of the skeletons in her closet as “gargantuan and unbalanced.” These words are not to be taken in a negative sense; they convey the book’s bursting-at-the-seams quality. He also notes that the author “chose to embrace naturalism at precisely the moment when those conventions died.” The novels that make up Fortunes were published between 1917 and 1929, a time when a different sensibility – that of Proust and Joyce – was changing the literary landscape. Craven characterizes the author’s style as “stately, rhythmical, visually precise and full of the points of view and idioms of the characters it wrestles with.” It is also “high, nearly stiff” and “incorporates a good deal of European polish.” (Think of Mann’s Buddenbrooks.) “It’s a workmanlike technique but the cumulative effect, through every detail of the articulation, is one of truth.” The truth includes a picture of Australian life that is exceedingly bleak. (Richardson left her native country when she was eighteen and came back only once, to do research for Fortunes; the Great Australian Novel was written by an exile.) Craven describes Richardson’s accomplishment as a “big, blind stumbling block of a novel, this love letter written in blood and bile to a vanished Australia and the father whose ghost would always be heard.” *

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