Reprint: Henry Handel Richardson: Notes for a Portrait by Nettie Palmer

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It is fortunate that in this centenary year, when our thoughts are ready to turn towards the past, a portrait of the chief creative interpreter of our past has been presented to the National Gallery. We are told simply that this portrait of Henry Handel Richardson, the novelist, is by Eaves, R.A. Nothing has been said as to the period of the portrait. Was it painted in youth or maturity? In neither case could it be without great interest, for if this writer had never written a line she would still have been a striking personality, a composer of distinction, and with features, in all the photographs that have been preserved, early or recent, reminiscent in general of the familiar portraits of Dante. Not for nothing was she given such a literary ancestry, with its character of indomitable will. Her greatest work, the trilogy called "The Fortunes of Richard Mahony," was the task of 15 obscure years, and it was only with the publication of the final volume, "Ultima Thule," in 1929, that its quality and importance became everywhere acknowledged. Everywhere is not too strong a word to use for the extent of its fame; the trilogy has had large English and American editions, has been published in several European languages, and in a world of mere seasonal novels has been recorded by important critics in the literary histories and encyclopaedias of Europe. A great character study, a great tragedy, a great pageant of colonial life, "The Fortunes of Richard Mahony" comes before us here and now in this last aspect chiefly.

The trilogy is concerned not with Australian life as we Australians know it, but with the colonial period. Richard Mahony, restless, restive in new, difficult conditions, was the colonist always, and unwilling to become anything else. It is through his eyes that we see the pageant of Australia Felix-in the 'fifties and 'sixties, mostly on Ballarat; in the 'seventies round "Marvellous Melbourne." Richard Mahony, the struggling storekeeper, then the rising doctor of Ballarat, R. Townshend-Mahony, the doctor, who, having made a fortune by some gold shares, had built himself an expensive home at Elsternwick, so far out of town that he named it "Ultima Thule" -- at no time did either Mahony surrender himself to the life growing round him so fast. He was still the unimpressed new arrival. From first to last of the trilogy he vibrates to the old saw: Coolum, non animum, mutant, qui trans mare currunt. True this was for him. He had no power to change his mind to suit the antipodean clime. To find representations of settlers who have not this rigid hostility, we go to others of our novelists. The quartermaster in "A House is Built" turned from fighting with weevils on the high seas to the providoring of the miners, and felt at home. There were at least certain branches of "The Montforts" to whom Australia meant their native air. Again, in Mr. Brian Panton's recent and considerable book, "Landtakers," the settler from Dorset makes gradual contact with this new world, though it takes him 20 years to become its willing prisoner; his mind became changed. Finally, in an Italian novel, set in the sugar country round Innisfail (Q.), a present-day character from Italy says simply, "coming into a new world a man must make himself it new mind"; and he has effected this partly by forgetting his doctorate of laws and becoming for the time a lorry-driver. Divers images of content, promptly or gradually gained; but Richard Mahony resembles none of them.

Through his restless eyes we see the difficulties, the contrasts, and changes of early Victorian days. The author never makes the mistake of forcing her character to toe the line with the history books. The Eureka Stockade had its historical importance; to Richard Mahony it was merely an irritating little disturbance that involved the prospects of a younger friend." Melbourne in the 'fifties was a lively enough spot, but not once does Richard Mahony remind himself that he is in "Melbourne of the 'Fifties." He goes through with it, but has not even a modicum of the "naive receptivity" possessed by the irresponsible Purdy, who for a time is the Sancho to his Quixote. They ride down from Ballarat together.

The brief twilight came and went, and it was already night when they urged their weary horses over the Moonee Ponds, a winding chain of brackish waterholes. The horses shambled along the broad, hilly tracks of North Melbourne; wearily picked their steps through the city itself. Finally, dismounting, they thrust their arms through their bridles and laboriously covered the last half-mile of the journey on foot. Having lodged the horses at a livery stable, they repaired to a hotel in Little Collins street. Here Purdy knew the proprietor, and they were fortunate enough to procure a small room for the use of themselves alone.

But next day in the bustle of the dusty city Richard is all preoccupation with the annoying law case that has brought him to town, all irritation with the disrespectful law clerks and underlings who speak of him as "just a stony-broke Paddylander." In spite of his marriage soon after to a young woman who, for her part, is sturdily content to be an Australian and share the ups and downs of the new place, Richard still has his eyes on the ends of the earth. Like the more hapless of the gold diggers, he had been, after all, a mere fortune hunter in coming to the new world. Their "loveless schemes of robbing and fleeing" were not more loveless than his own. In a different material, and not more calamitous.

For a Melbourne reader to-day it is hard to say which of the three volumes, with the sub-titles, "Australia Felix," "The Way Home," and "Ultima Thule," is the most interesting. The city lives again in embryo, or, rather, in babyhood, the Melbourne of 1854, in passages of the first volume:

Towards five o'clock he took his seat in an omnibus that plied between the city and the seaside suburb of St. Kilda, three miles off. A cool breeze went; the hoofs of the horses beat a rataplan on the hard surface; the great road, broad enough to make three of, was alive with smart gigs and trotters.

Well, to-day they have made three of it, and with trees and bitumen they have checked the dust which was its frightful- ness, whether the wind blew up or down it. Mahony's goal in St. Kilda was a low stone villa, surrounded by verandahs, in the midst of tasteful grounds; "the drive up to the door led through a shrubbery, artfully contrived of the native tea-tree." We have changed all that, it seems. St. Kilda's was, perhaps, the first bayside council to treat the tea-tree as a noxious weed and faithfully wipe it from the landscape.

In "The Way Home," we have a more settled Melbourne. Settled, yet often on sand, since fortunes in shares were made and lost every year -- as Richard's own fortune was. A man of his time, Richard comes in for once on a high tide with some "Australia Felix" shares he had forgotten. He drops his practice, builds a fine house, with hygienic nurseries, and an especial eye to the library, sends to London for books that can now be expected within the six months, and gives himself to the fine confused thinking common to those who were staggered by Darwin and his fellow writers in those turbid years. Meanwhile, Melbourne opened many doors to him. It was the period before the land boom. They were beginning to build not merely solid villas, but stuccoed Italian palaces the owners having money to burn.

With the third volume, and Richard's fortune gone again, we have glimpses of Melbourne through the eyes of an anxious doctor, seeking a new suburban practice in middle age, but where? Ruefully he turned his back on the sea at St. Kilda and Elsternwick, the pleasant   spot of earth in which he once believed he had found his Ultima Thule; gave the green gardens of Toorak a wide berth -- no room there for an elderly interloper!-- and explored the outer darkness of Footscray, Essendon, Moonee Ponds.

What finally decided him on the pretty little suburb of Hawthorn -- after he had prowled round, to make sure he would have the field to himself-was not alone the good country air, but a capital building lot, for sale dirt-cheap. The solid two story brick house he built there, with the last of his money and the first of his borrowings, should stand in its high-shouldered way at some corner in that pretty little suburb still.

As for Henry Handel Richardson, to whom, after all, we owe all these far-reaching hints and solid decors of the past, she was born somewhere in Victoria parade, East Melbourne, which is not a mile across from that National Gallery in which her portrait will soon be housed. Essentially Australian in outlook, for all her long residence abroad, she has portrayed, in Richard Mahony, one who deprecates and distrusts the place and the life that she herself trusts and understands. Her new book, due for publication in the English autumn, will include many short stories set in the country of her childhood and youth, and others set in the Germany she knew in the 'nineties, the Germany of "Maurice Guest."

First published in The Argus, 18 August 1934

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

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on July 29, 2011 7:02 AM.

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