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Henry Handel Richardson: The Fortunes of Richard Mahony

This is the story of Richard Mahony but it is also the story of Richardson’s father, a decent, well-meaning doctor who eventually has a breakdown and dies. This series of three novels, now published as a set, tells the story of Mahony from his early days as an immigrant in Australia from Ireland up to his death. Richardson’s skill is to present an entirely sympathetic portrait of Mahony, despite his failings. He is often impractical, is inclined to bully his wife and children, makes too many foolish decisions without consulting his wife, tends to put his often naïve ideals above the more practical concerns of raising a family and, finally, has a very ambiguous view of Australia, despising it when he is there but missing it when he is gone (which happens twice in the book).

The story is fairly straightforward. He starts out with a general store at the diggings at Ballarat but returns to being a doctor (he has studied medicine at Edinburgh University). He marries Polly (later called Mary), based on Richardson’s mother and clearly a wonderful but long-suffering woman, who puts up with many of her husband’s vagaries but occasionally puts her foot down. He tries to set up practice but struggles. When finally successful, he gets fed up and moves to England but returns when the snobbish behaviour of the English gets to him. Just before he returns to Australia his mining shares take off and he becomes rich. They return to Australia and live well. After fits and starts, they manage to get a family started. But when they go on holiday to England, they find that the person looking after their portfolio has absconded with all their money and they are suddenly poor. Mahony, who has not practiced for several years, has to take up medicine again but makes a poor job of it as he has now become older and cantankerous and frightens off the patients. A daughter dies of diphtheria and Mahony has a breakdown. He is put in an institution and the long-suffering Mary only gets him out with great difficulty.

This is a long novel and this brief summary cannot begin to do justice to Richardson’s rich portrait of Australia at the beginning of the twentieth century nor all the other characters that Mary and Richard come across – Richard’s friend, Purdy Smith, with whom he has an on-off relationship, his brother-in-law, John Turnham, a political opportunist, Tilly Beamish (and her sisters), permanently on the hunt for a husband and the lawyer, Henry Ocock, with the alcoholic wife. But it is the loving though critical portrait of the title character that gives this book its character and makes it an Australian classic.

Publishing history

First published 1917 by Heinemann