The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, Henry Handel Richardson, 1930
- Australia, #9
- Kindle, £2.68 from amazon
- Read October 2014
- Rating: 2.5/5
- Recommended for: Those willing to plod through a tedious middle section for the reward of some serious pathos at the end
So boring…and then so sad. Cast a light on an aspect of 19th century Australian society that I hadn’t seen before—the upper class, and city life (as opposed to the outback setting of the last few books I read). It is a picture of people caught between the old ways of “home” and the new ways of their adopted country, always with a foot on either side.
This is actually a trilogy, and I have to say the middle book is incredibly tedious. At several points I considered giving up, since I’d already technically read the first book (“Australia Felix”) which I could add to the list and be done with it. But I decided to grimly plow on and I was glad I did. I think the fantastic and powerful ending just about makes it worth the slog.
I didn’t entirely know how to feel about the way women are portrayed in this book. Richardson, despite the pen name, was a woman and if wikipedia is to be believed, a closeted lesbian, but the feminism in her book is questionable. Mary, the main female character and wife to the titular Richard Mahony, is unquestionably a good person, and the warm counterpart to Mahony’s brittle intellectualism. But the character traits that are lauded in her–reticence, docility, acceding to her husband’s increasingly eccentric demands and making the best of the situation each time he ruins their lives–are hardly traits that promote equality between the sexes (I found it especially distasteful how she was contrasted with her foster sisters, vivacious, sexually forward, and poorly educated girls who are treated with disdain by both the male characters and the author herself). On the other hand, when circumstances force her Mary manages to be strong, independent, and resilient. So maybe Richardson is setting up the old ideal of womanhood and discarding it in favor of a new model (but on the other hand, Mary only finds strength in response to tragedy, and it is only the utter failure of her male protector that forces her to become independent). Or possibly Richardson is playing a more subtle game, and the meek and gentle Mary who is lauded in the first two books is the Mary seen through Richard Mahony’s eyes (and he is a character who is never entirely sympathetic and at times thoroughly detestable), and the Mary who emerges, freed from the suppressing gaze of her patriarchal husband, is the real Mary, the one the author admires, and the one the reader is supposed to admire as well. I don’t know. It’s been a while since I read these books, and I don’t plan on putting myself through it again any time soon, so I guess it’s a question I’ll leave for others to contemplate.
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