What’s in a title?
Revisiting Henry Handel Richardson’s 'The fortunes of Richard Mahony'
13 July 2017
Recently, a book with its title printed simply on a brown dust jacket went on display in the Treasures Gallery. Like many items in the Gallery, what makes it a treasured collection item may not be immediately obvious (I am reminded to not judge a book by its cover). It is a first edition of Henry Handel Richardson’s (1870–1946) novel The fortunes of Richard Mahony: Australia felix (1917), which was among the author’s personal papers, now preserved in the Library’s Manuscripts Collection. The book forms part of a larger display on early-twentieth-century female writers. It was chosen to mark the centenary of its publication, and because it is part of the acclaimed Australian trilogy The fortunes of Richard Mahony (1930). The themes of migration, cultural identity and health it explores have resonated with many readers. While reading the trilogy I was struck by Richardson’s use of book titles and decided to investigate further.
Having some context about the trilogy and its author helps us understand her symbolic use of titles. Henry Handel Richardson (born Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson) drew on her childhood circumstances to craft the epic Australian tale. Specifically, the life of her Irish-born father Walter Lindesay Richardson MD (c.1826–1879). The series commences during the Victorian gold rush of the 1850s and chronicles the life of restless doctor Richard Mahony. During periods of boom and bust, he moves his family to various towns in the colony of Victoria and ‘home’ to England. The trilogy explores his tragic financial, mental and physical decline and the resilience shown by his wife who becomes both his carer and the family breadwinner.
Richardson left Australia to study music in 1888 and spent most of her life in England. She made only one return visit to her homeland in 1912 to research her trilogy. While visiting she made extensive notes about Australian history and areas around Victoria. One of these pages is also on display in the Treasures Gallery. The place names and historical events it details offer precious insight into the creative process she used to write what we would now call historical fiction.
The fortunes of Richard Mahony: Australia felix is the first book in the trilogy. When writing its label I was unsure what to call it. This is because the half title page (the page that just includes the title and comes before the title page) uses the title differently; it lists it as Australia felix I. The fortunes of Richard Mahony. Perhaps Richardson initially intended call the trilogy Australia felix, with The fortunes of Richard Mahony the title of its first volume; she later swapped these around as, when incorporated into the trilogy, the first novel was named Australia felix.
The choice of Australia felix as the revised title of the first book cleverly foreshadows Mahony's ups and downs. The term ‘Australia felix’ was used by explorer Thomas Mitchell in the 1830s to describe a large area that forms central Victoria. It is Latin for ‘fortunate (or happy) great southern land’. Richardson’s use of the term positions Australia as a land of promise for migrants like Mahony who came in search of gold and a new beginning. From the outset a curious picture of him emerges that suggests he is not on track to prosper in Australia. The opening line of the proem (also known as a preface) establishes the atmosphere of misfortune as it recounts an all-too common mining accident: ‘In a shaft of the Gravel Pits, a man had been buried alive’. Having turned his back on medicine Mahony runs a shop in Ballarat, with little success. He marries Mary ‘Polly’ Turnham, an English migrant who does not share her husband’s longing for home. The reader starts to observe his slow withdrawal for society and constant search for greener pastures. Despite finally finding success once he resumes a medical career, his homesickness consumes him.
The way home
The second book, The way home (1925), centres on Mahony’s search for his elusive ‘home’. Having packed up and returned to the United Kingdom, he quickly finds that the place does not match his memories: ‘His attempt at transplanting himself had been a sad and sorry failure’. As with his store in Ballarat, his medical practice flounders. Mahony soon longs to return to Australia, speaking of it as his true home in the same way that he earlier referred to England. When he returns to Australia he settles in Melbourne he establishes a prosperous medical career and finds financial success through investments. Again restless, he sells up and heads to England–this time on a holiday with his wife and young children. Upon discovering that his fortune was swindled, he is forced to return to an uncertain future in Australia. The geographic back and forth in the novel shows that Mahony struggles to feel at home wherever he is, forever chasing the feeling of being at home.
Ultima Thule (1929), the third book in the trilogy sees a continuation of Richardson’s symbolic use of titles. The Latin term used for the name of the book refers to a place at the end of the known world. In the Middle Ages, cartographers used the term ‘ultima Thule’ to describe parts of northern Europe, including Greenland and Norway. Richardson first introduced the phrase in The way home, when the then prosperous Mahony purchases a large house and names it Ultima Thule as he believed it would be his final home; he eventually sells it to fund his overseas trip.
In Ultima Thule, the term refers to Mahony’s drastic mental decline that sees him unable to care for himself and his family. Medical professionals have praised the realistic way Richardson wrote of Mahony’s health crisis, and have suggested that he may have suffered from early-onset dementia. His wife insightfully summarised the tragedy of his life at the very end of the novel: 'his troubles were mostly of his own making. For he had always asked more of life than it could give: and if, for once, he got what he wanted, he had not known how to sit fast and hold it...'. Rather than a place of belonging, Mahony’s true ‘ultima Thule’ is one of darkness and despair.
The fortunes of Richard Mahony is an epic Australian tale that explores issues of migration, financial stability and chronic illness and disease. Richardson’s apt use of titles demonstrates to the reader that this is not the tale of a migrant on track to prosper in Australia, but of a flawed human being, desperately seeking stability and a sense of belonging, while plagued by severe health problems. It is her masterful exploration of these themes against the backdrop of colonial life that makes the series a remarkable piece of fiction. The Treasures Gallery display on the first book in the trilogy and its author provides context to the creation of this great Australian trilogy.