Reprint: Such was Life for Joseph Furphy

Full, Authoritative Biography of an Australian Classic

The famous recommendation to publish Joseph Furphy's Such Is Life, by Tom Collins, was written by that first-class critic, A. G. Stephens, publications adviser to the Bulletin: "This book contains all the wit and wisdom gathered in Furphy's lifetime: it is his one book -- it is himself. It is thoroughly Australian -- a classic of our country. The interest is diffused and slow, and the sale would be slow. It is a book for intelligent bushmen, and for those city men who can appreciate it. It is solid, yet never dull, and the author is a man with brains and a sense of style."

Apart from Such Is Life -- and the story excised from it before publication and printed later as "Rigby's Romance" - little has been known of Furphy by the ordinary reader, although two pamphlets on him were brought out in recent years, Joseph Furphy: the Legend of a Man and His Book, by Miles Franklin, in association with Kate Baker (Sydney:Angus and Robertson, for the Commonwealth Literary Fund), is therefore important. It is not a "legend," it is the first complete authentic account of Furphy and his work.

The main events of Furphy's life can be told briefly. He was born at Yering, Vic, in 1843, one of the five children of hard-working, intelligent parents. He went to small country schools. He worked for about 20 years around the country on harvesting and mining machinery, on pioneering a selection and other hard labour, and for seven or eight years carrying in Riverina with his own bullock-team. He had many friends, good health, no vices. He never attempted to save time or money. So about 1890 he was glad of a job in his brother's iron foundry at Shepparton. With regular hours for the first time in his life, he wrote stories and verse for papers and magazines, and by 1897 had finished Such Is Life. After delays, doubts, and cutting, it was published in 1903.

The book was widely reviewed in Australia, on the whole intelligently and favourably. The London Athenoeum gave it a long notice, appreciative but critical. One of the best reviews is by Furphy himself, in two long instalments, for the Bulletin.

The book sold very slowly, until in 1917 Miss Baker - "that gallant standard-bearer for Furphy," Stephens called her - bought the remaining sheets from the Bulletin for £50, collected £20 to pay for binding, and sold them to a small but growing public. Everyone concerned had lost money by the classic.

The year after Such Is Life came out, Furphy followed his grown-up family to Perth, WA. There he helped his sons set up their homes and business. He read tremendously, wrote little or nothing. While preparing to harness a hired horse to a cartload of castings he had a heart attack and died in a few minutes, in 1913.

A number of poems were published in 1916. Such Is Life was published in an abridged English edition in 1937, and is to be republished for the Literary Fund in full this year.

Furphy's wide reading, his political, moral, and religious views are well to the fore throughout his writings. Here are some typical remarks: "One aspires to know human history from the time we left the treetops down to the present year, so that it all appears like a personal recollection." He was unmusical and had little knowledge of art.

"I didn't want a church that prohibited actual vice - for I am not vicious - but I wanted one that would expel me with contumely for having two coats while another bloke had none. At present I belong to a church which has only one member: There were two of us, but the other got fired out on his ear for being an Imperialist during the South African War."

"The successful man is the pioneer who never spared others; the forgotten pioneer is the man who never spared himself, but, being a fool, built houses for wise men to live in, and omitted to gather moss. The former is the early bird; the latter is the early worm."

His ideal Christian was Dr Charles Strong; his ideal democrat was Bernard O'Dowd. He called himself a "State Socialist," i.e., a Socialist, as distinct from an anarchist.

Miss Franklin's biography is a first rate contribution to our understanding of Furphy, but it has two noticeable defects. The events of Furphy's early life are told without order, and as if the fortunes of Miss Baker were of first concern; and the last chapter, where Furphy is compared with James, Proust, Joyce, and Huxley, is just inept. Whatever the criteria for Furphy, and they are high, they are not these.

First published in The Argus, 27 January 1945

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on June 12, 2009 9:02 AM.

The Big Muddy was the previous entry in this blog.

Gabrielle Carey interview is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Monthly Archives

Powered by Movable Type 4.23-en