I was reading the late novelist’s short story “Redemption,” based on the accidental death of his younger brother in a horrifying farming accident, and found its sentences beautifully crafted. John Gardner, at eleven, was driving a tractor when his brother fell under its towed cultipacker, a pair of giant rolling pins for mashing the clods in harrowed soil that weighed two tons.
Henry Handel Richardson, Ultima Thule: The Fortunes of Richard Mahony Vol.3, first published 1929. ( Winner: Australian Book of the Year – 1929).
This is the third book in Richardson’s trilogy – ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahony’ based on the life of Richardson’s father. The first of the three, Australia Felix is set in the Victorian goldfields where Mahony, a doctor, hopes to make his fortune. The second, ‘The Way Home’ concerns his success, and return to the old country. With the third, Mahony returns to Australia having lost his fortune and, with wife, Mary and three children, must find a way to begin again. /Ultima Thule’, meaning ‘the ultimate destination’, concerns Mahony’s failure and his final descent into insanity.
How Henry Handel Richardson (the pen-name of Ethel Florence Lindesay Robertson) shaped this account would be dependent on contemporary notions of mental illness, I thought, when I began reading this book. The late historian Janet Oppenheim has written of Victorian era notions of mental illness – depression in particular – which was often described as weakness and malaise. The asylum, a place apart, was a custodial place. In the early decades of the twentieth century, in Victoria, Australia, medical practitioners such as Drs John Springthorpe, Reg Ellery and Paul Dane began experimenting with the version of psychoanalysis they had learned of from Freud’s publications. Richardson, who left Australia in her late teens and spent the rest of her life in Europe, was familiar with Freud and enthusiastic about psychoanalysis. It is not surprising that some of its precepts wend their way through her work, even though her trilogy is set in time well before Freud’s emergence.
Mahony is a dreamer, always unsettled, always trying something new. Having lost his fortune he tries to recover and to support his family – wife and three children, by setting up a medical practice in suburban Melbourne, but this fails. He then moves his family and practice to a country town where he and his wife experience the death of one of their twin daughters from dysentery. When Mahony is overheard by a servant, as he talks to the ghost of this child, rumors spread through the community – and he is shunned. Isolated, he falls into depression, and eventually mental illness. He is sorely tempted by suicide – but cannot go through with it and is eventually admitted into an asylum. Richardson follows the process of his thinking…we see, from his perspective, his lack of comprehension as Mahony blunders from one disaster to the next.
Throughout, there are matters of class and relationships – Mahony is not able to relate to the servant classes who mock and deride him. Marriage is under scrutiny… one wonders whether Mary’s practicality was useful to him. What is not is her lack of empathy with him and her insistence on maintaining appearances and implicit rejection of his thinking – and him. She wonders whether he had been better to marry someone else. Perhaps she is right. For Mahony there are also moments of insight: his realisation that he demanded too much of others, that no-one was dearer to himself than himself. Some might call it narcissism in today’s parlance: self love, self aggrandisement and fear… Richardson writes…
Having dragged with him those who were dearer to him than his own life.- But stay! Was that true?….and not just one of those sleek phrases that dripped so smoothly off the tongue. Were they dearer? In this moment of greater clarity he could no longer affirm it. He believed that the instinct of self preservation had, in his case been the primary one. And digging deeper still, he got, he thought, a further insight into his motives. If this were so, then what he fled must needs be the reverse of the security he ran to seek: in other words, annihilation. The plain truth was that the life instinct had been too strong for him. Rather than face death and the death fear, in an attempt to flee the unfleeable he had thrown every other consideration into the winds and ridden tantivy into the unknown. (pp. 120-121, Penguin edition).
Perhaps suicide, and option Mahony considers, was not socially acceptable to write about. Nor would it have completed Mahony’s story as he descends into mental illness. Richardson’s father died from the effects of syphilis… it may be that this forms the basis of the rest of her account of Mahony’s life. I was not convinced the detail she provided on this followed from her outlining of Mahony’s life-long emotional difficulties. Perhaps the two were intertwined?
Within Mahony’s story there are others. Mary’s response – having to raise the children without the essential support of her husband; her inner conflict around her love for him which was in opposition to the practical realities of daily life provides one counterpoint melody. Another is the voice of the couple’s son, Cuffy – whose thoughts , spoken in the language of children, reveals his wonder and worry about the world of the grown ups about him. For Cuffy is a witness, without comprehension, to it all.
I cannot do justice to the complexity of this volume here which also stands alone in relation to the rest of Richardson’s trilogy. Her exploration of Mahony’s mind and his descent into the hell of unconsciousness warrants reading and rereading for the insight into being human it contains.