Ultima Thule by Henry Handel Richardson (pseudonym)


The third in the classic trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson (pseudonym of Ethel Florence Lindsay Richardson) continues the fictionalized account of Richardson's parents in Ballarat, Melbourne and in the bush during the second half of the 19th century. I read The Way Home last year and Australia Felix the year before.

When we left them, Richard was rushing back to Australia upon learning their fortune had been stolen by their investor. Mary packed up the household to join him later with the children. It was apparent Richard would have to return to being a physician at age 49. In Mary's absence he made disastrous decisions, including building a large house that they could not afford because he was unable to face coming down in the world. After Mary and the children arrived and settled in, the practice failed and he took on a practice in the bush. It is growing clearer that Richard is mentally unstable as he talks to himself and can't bear to be around others. 

One of the twins died and in the terrible heat of the summer the remaining twin was growing weaker by the day. Mary and the children left to visit her old friend Tilly but had to return when Richard was falling apart. He was sure he'd be restored by the sea, so they moved again, but he was not well enough to work. After he had a stroke and was hospitalized, Mary appealed to old friends and was given a job in a village as a postmistress (as Richardson's mother had been).

Richard was eventually placed in a state institution and became a violent and uncooperative patient. With stunning persistence Mary was able to pull strings and remove him from the institution and care for him. He became docile and was grateful for Mary's loving care at his end. The toll this took on the children was clear.

The story of Richard's decline is a painful one; he began as a sympathetic character in Australia Felix, became more erratic in The Way Home, and finally is irrational in this one. The common sense and strength of Mary and her determination to take care of her children is a constant. The struggle for the immigrant to find a comfortable place for themselves is another theme in the trilogy. Richardson herself left Australia at a young age and only returned to research family history for the trilogy. In The Way Home when they are preparing to leave their second village in England, 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.

Despite the fact that Richardson was living in England when she wrote Ultima Thule, she writes with an eye to giving the reader a feel for life in Australia, particularly in the bush. 

Henry Handel Richardson, pseudonym, Ultima Thule, from Complete Works Henry Handel Richardson, Minerva Classics, 2013, kindle edition ($1.99 from Amazon). Also available in print at the UVa library.

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