If I did a mid-year recap of the best novels read in 2015, this would be the top pick. Ethel Florence Richardson wrote under the pen name Henry Handel Richardson and produced the first book in this trilogy in 1917 (Australia Felix, then The Way Home in 1925 and Ultima Thule in 1929. These were collected into a single 928 page book entitled Fortunes of Richard Mahony in 1930. The opening pages of Australia Felix find Mahony working as a shopkeeper in the gold fields of Australia, having arrived from England in search of nuggets and pivoting to tradesman after realizing the futility of mining. Trained as a doctor, he perpetually hopes to return to England to set up a medical practice. Friend Purdy introduces him to a sixteen year old Polly (Mary’s nickname that she later sheds) who captivates him with her fierce black eyes (shades of Madam Bovary). They marry, and Polly is dismayed by the sorry shack he lives in, but buckles down and makes a home of it. His fortunes rise and fall, he begins to practice medicine again, he speculates briefly in the stock market and makes a tidy sum. Gradually he and Polly become leading citizens, him with a wealthy medical practice, she the friendliest and most helpful woman in town. At the pinnacle of his success, Mahony itches to leave, to move back to England. Reluctantly, Polly agrees to his scheme, their friends turn out in droves to wish them well.
Once in England, he finds a prejudice against anyone who’s worked in the colonies (aka Australia), has difficulty establishing a business, is snubbed by townspeople. After a few attempts, the couple return to Australia. On the boat back, they receive word that one of his investments struck big, he’s now incredibly wealthy, can give up medicine and read books all day (swoon!). Children arrive in the form of son Cuffy and twin girls (Lucie and Lallie). After building himself a lovely home named Ultima Thule close to the ocean, he settles in for a year, but the old traveling bug rears its head. He uproots the family to England and the Continent which they dash through cities in a frenzy to see everything. They get word that their money manager has absconded to America with their funds, they are penniless. They may have already been on their way back when they got the news? At any rate, they return to Australia and Richard takes up doctoring again, only he doesn’t thrive, and they bounce around from town to town. At one particularly desolate town, the children eat green almonds and Lallie dies. Mary is devastated, takes the remaining children to the sea with friend Tillie. Richard left on his own shuts himself away, and gradually succumbs to fits. From this point on, his mental health deteriorates rapidly. Mary decides she must look for work, becomes a postmaster. She installs Richard in a comfortable hospital for a few months, hoping his condition will improve. When it doesn’t, she’s forced to put him in the public hospital, and eventually tries to see him, is refused. Then begins a huge campaign to save him, he does end up coming home where he dies months later, grateful to be free from the prison and in Mary’s care.
That’s the bare bones outline, not done much justice. It’s a terrific story with ups and downs and strong, varied characters, the pages teem with people. I’ve left out describing all of Mary’s family and friends, the support system that gets her through Richard’s trials over the years as he restlessly drags her from place to place, never content. I’ve neglected to give a picture of Richard at his best, the gentleman who expects honest-doings from everyone he meets and never drinks alcohol. He gets into mediums/spirituality for awhile, and in floats a like-minded woman who flashes through several pages before inexplicably disappearing. (Editor?) The disintegration of his mind, expertly portrayed by Richardson. In one of the passages, Richard mentions the infinite boredom of straps and buttons getting dressed, all for what, to live a day identical to the one before it. This melancholy feeling is echoed in one of the 1923 Picture Frames stories, The End of Anna, by Thyra Samter Winslow. I wonder if Winslow read Australia Felix?
The arrival of middle age brought about a certain lowness in spirits in even the most robust: along with a more or less marked bodily languor went an uneasy sense of coming loss: the time was at hand to bid farewell to much that had hitherto made life agreeable; and for most this was a bitter pill. Meanwhile, one held a kind of mental stocktaking. As often as not by the light of a complete disillusionment. Of the many glorious things one had hoped to do – or to be – nothing was accomplished: the great realization, in youth breathlessly chased but never grasped, was now seen to be a mist-wraith, which could wear a thousand forms, but invariably turned to air as one came up with it. In nine instances out of ten there was nothing to put in its place: “Can this be all? … this? For this the pother of growth, the struggles, the sufferings?” The soul’s climacteric, if you would, from which a mortal came forth dulled to resignation; or greedy for the few physical pleasures left him; or prone to that tragic clinging to youth’s skirts, which made the later years of many women and not a few men ridiculous. In each case the motive power was the same: the haunting fear that one had squeezed life dry; worse still, that it had not been worth the squeezing.
And because I don’t know where else to put this, here’s a list of awesome words in the books:
* tartar – no, not the sauce. One of the buried definitions is “one that proves to be unexpectedly formidable”
* megrim – everything from migraine, vertigo, dizziness, fancy, whim, to low spirits
* tantivy – at a gallop
* pother – great word!! “a confused or fidgety flurry of activity”
* rusticate – another great word! to go live in the country
* hebdomadal – weekly
* ratiocination – something I have to look up every few years when I come across it. “The process of exact thinking : reasoning” or “a reasoned train of thought”
* corrade – wear away by abrasion
* mulct – fine or penalty
* solipsism – another one I can’t ever remember. essentially, the self is the only existing thing; egocentrism.
* epiphenomenon – “secondary phenomenon accompanying another and caused by it; specifically : a secondary mental phenomenon that is caused by and accompanies a physical phenomenon but has no causal influence itself”
* prolepsis – anticipation