Henry Handel Richardson is the pseudonym for Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson and I learned about her thanks to a guest post by Tony's Book World on Whispering Gums. Australia Felix is the first book in her great trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, written from 1917 to 1929. Australian Literature Month, hosted by Reading Matters, seemed the perfect time to read this book. The story is drawn from the lives of her parents and is set in Ballarat, the site of a gold rush in 1851 that drew gold seekers from all over the world in the thousands.
When we first meet Mahony, the Edinburgh-trained physician is selling supplies to miners in Ballarat after the first boom is over and the mines are deeper and require more skill to extract the gold. He is a complex character: awkward in social relations, prickly, sure of himself and his own superiority, generous, and kindly when he remembers to be. We hear about the Eureka Rebellion (the only armed rebellion in Australian history if Wikipedia is to be believed), when miners rebelled against the colonial tax on miners collected in the form of a license. It was quickly quashed but public opinion supporting the miners resulted in full suffrage for white males. In this and other matters Richardson gives us a nice historical picture of that area of Australia (Victoria) of the time.
Mahony falls in love with a capable teenager called Polly who returns with him to his hovel in Ballarat and makes it into a much more welcoming home. She has the good qualities he lacks and eventually he comes to rely on her to improve connections to others. The store becomes less and less profitable and eventually he finds funding that enables him to set up practice as a physician. He puts some money in the hands of a capable speculator and becomes quite wealthy as the years pass. He never loses his prickliness and dissatisfaction and as Australia Felix ends, he and Polly (who is now called Mary) leave for Scotland.
What is so remarkable about the book? First, the triology captures important aspects of Australian history and mindset, as evidenced by its popularity. A long description of a ball Mary and Richard have includes the small talk as the group gathers, the musical entertainment provided by the guests, followed by card games and at midnight, food. I love this description of the musical entertainment:
Ladies with the tiniest reeds of voices, which shook like reeds, warbled of Last Roses and Prairie Flowers; others, with more force but due decorum, cried to Willie that they had Missed Him, or coyly confessed to the presence of Silver Threads Among the Gold; and Mrs. Chinnery, an old-young woman with a long, lean neck, which she twisted this way and that in the exertion of producing her notes, declared her love for an Old Armchair. The gentlemen, in baritones and profundos, told the amorous adventures of Ben Bolt; or desired to know what Home would be Without a Mother.
Wonderful writing, truly irresistable! Then there's her complex characters who seem to come alive with their conflicting idiocyncracies. Here's Mahony being insensitive, but able to see it, too late:
"An odd, abusive, wrong-headed fellow," he [Mahony] mused, as he made his way home. "Who would ever have thought, though, that the queer little chemist [a man named Tangye] had so much in him? … But as he laid his hands on the gate, he jerked up his head and exclaimed half aloud: "God bless my soul! What he wanted was not argument or reason but a little human sympathy." As usual, however, the flash of intuition came too late. "For such a touchy nature I'm certainly extraordinarily obtuse where the feelings of others are concerned," he told himself as he hooked in the latch.
His foolish blunder in response to Tangye's appeal rankled in his mind. He could not get over his insensitiveness. How he had boasted of his prosperity, his moral nicety, his saving pursuits—he to boast!—when all that was asked of him was a kindly: "My poor fellow soul, you have indeed fought a hard fight; but there IS a God above us who will recompense you at His own time, take the word for it of one who has also been through the Slough of Despond."
Looking forward to the next book in this masterpiece.
The trilogy is available at the UVa library and from various sellers through Amazon. It's in the public domain, so I got it for free through Kindle.
Henry Handel Richardson, pseudonym, Australia Felix, 291 pages, Kindle Edition.