The second in the classic trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson (pseudonym of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson), The Way Home continues the story of Richardson’s parents and life in Ballarat and Melbourne in the second half of the 19th century. I read and wrote about Australia Felix last year.
When we left Richard and Mary, they were to embark for England as Richard, though a successful physician with well-chosen investments (made by a friend) was sure he would be happier back at home. Mary, who always smooths the way for him, reluctantly agrees to go. After a few weeks in London, he longs for the countryside, and tries a practice in one village and then another. As neither of these is successful and the local society folks disdain the good-hearted Mary, Richard abruptly insists they return to Australia. One evening when they are talking about life in the second village where they lived, Richard says
What we need, you and I, Mary, is a society that would take the best from both sides. The warm-heartedness of our colonial friends, their generosity and hospitality; while we could do without the promiscuity, the worship of money, the general loudness and want of refinement.
Upon landing in Melbourne, they learn that their investments have done extremely well and Richard will no longer need to practice medicine. They bought a house that Richard dubbed Ultima Thule and for some years Richard was content immersing himself in the library he amassed, enjoying his beloved garden and exploring the world of the occult. There was a period when he was content, and he became mellow and was tolerant of his fellow man. Mary was overjoyed to see him taking pleasure in life and she recovered from the bad effects of their time in England. To their great surprise Mary became pregnant after many years of marriage and they had a son they called Cuffy and twin girls.
Richard, impulsive as ever, decided to sell the house and travel to England and the Continent. Just before they left, he learned that his long-time money manager was ill and he transferred all their money to someone recommended by an old friend. While they are traveling on the Continent, Richard receives an urgent telegram to let him know the new manager had stolen his clients' money and gone to America. Richard sets off for home as quickly as possible while Mary is to dispose of their household in England and follow with the children. We can assume that "the way home" is a crooked path, but ultimately "home" is Australia.
In Australia Felix Richard was always a prickly fellow, apt to act against his own best interest, but he exhibited flashes of personal insight. In this volume his good qualities are less often observed and he manages to take the wrong course with dreadful consequences. Mary recognizes his irrational thinking, but is unable to overcome him. She does occasionally voice her admiration for him, but is increasingly exasperated with him.
I found less of the irresistible prose in this volume compared to the first; more often we are slogging along worrying about Richard's next move. But at the end of the preface, we have this:
Not ours to judge of the means, or in what our puny service should consist: why to one should fall the bugles and the glory — the dying in splendour for a great cause, or the living illustriously to noble issues — to another, a life that was one long blind stumble, with, for finish, an inglorious end. Faith bid us believe that, in the sight of the great Foreordainer, all service was equal. But this we could not know. The veil — a web of steel despite its tenuity — was lowered, and would not rise on the mystery until that day dawned towards which all our days had headed, for which no man had ever waited in vain. And then, pinched of nostril and marble-cold, earth's last little posy in our gripless hands, we should lie supine and — such was the irony of things — no longer greatly care to know.
Henry Handel Richardson, pseudonym, The Way Home, from Complete Works Henry Handel Richardson, Minerva Classics, 2013, kindle edition ($1.99 from Amazon). Also available in print at the UVa library.
I didn’t feel let down with Book II – The Way Home. I must have been so enchanted with Book I that it carried me through all three volumes.
Tony, I’m still enthusiastic and looking forward to Ultima Thule, but I was less enthralled than with Australia Felix. It’s interesting that it was with the publication of Ultima Thule that the trilogy’s popularity in Australia really soared.