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.
Thanks for this insight into Henry Handel Richardson’s writing and her world view in 1929. I read the trilogy years ago and much of its detail evades me now, but even then I remember it as a powerful book. You might be interested to know, if you don’t already know: The Henry Handel Richardson Society has recently launched a writing competition with Helen Garner as judge and prizes of $1000 (adult section) and $350 (youth section) plus books.
The closing date is August 31.
Further details, including entry forms and guidelines are available on our website: http://www.henryhandelrichardsonsociety.org.au
Thankyou Elisabeth… yes, I had seen the notice of this competition and am toying with the idea of doing something. This is the first time I have read as far as part 3 – I read the first two parts long ago.
shelleyrae @ Book'd Out said:
A very thoughtful review. Thank you for sharing it
Shelleyrae @ Book’d out
I hadn’t thought about the disparity between the timesetting of this book, and the dissemination of Freud’s work. Given that you’re so familiar with Freud’s work, did it spoil your enjoyment of the book? I read all three volumes of this book one Christmas- it was wonderful. As I remember, it used to be assigned for HSC- what a waste!
I am sure many Australian kids were brought up to be familiar with the name, HHR. although it was not on my particular school reading list. To answer your question I thought that HHR intergrated the ideas of the internal world and p ersonality structures very well, particularly in relation to Mahony. There were several exciting writer/clinicians emerging in Europe during the 1920s, not least being Jung, Abraham and Ferenczi – so it would be interesting to know the extent to which HHR had read and/or was familiar with their work. Her sister married the person who started Summerhill School which was also founded on psychoanalytic ideas.
Thankyou for your response, Janine.
james k slater said:
Reblogged this on James K Slater.
Brian Draper said:
Readers might be interested in the paper I published about Ultima Thule a few years ago. Richardson clearly bases this novel upon her father’s final years in which he developed dementia due to syphilis. Indeed her masterful description of the evolution of dementia in Mahony including the psychological reactions so common in these conditions, the neuropsychiatric symptoms, and the effects upon family were over 50 years ahead of its time. This remains perhaps the best literary description of how dementia evolves and how it can seem to be in the early stages largely a psychological disorder.
See Draper BM. Richard Mahony – the misfortunes of younger onset dementia. Med J Aust. 2009 Jan 19;190(2):94-5.
Thankyou Brian… Yes Richardson’s tracing of Mahony’s decline into dementia is magnificent and indeed there are many other moments in the book where she is clearly drawing on contemporary researches – such as Child Study as well as psychoanalysis. I have not yet read your paper and will certainly follow it up. Thankyou for the reference to it.
Christina Houen said:
Just caught up with this review, after your response to my review of Book 1 of The Fortunes, on my blog page. I do agree with you about the conflicted relationship of Richard and Mary; her lack of understanding and concern for appearances is painful. On the other hand, she sacrifices a great deal to bring him home from the asylum and look after him herself, and in the end, becomes, I think, a tragic character too, though his is the central tragic performance. I”m interested in your comment about Richardson’s interest in psychoanalysis; it’s a year or so since I read the last book; I”ll look out for this now, wasn’t aware of it when I read it before.
Christina Houen said:
Forgot to tick ‘notify me’ below; so have just done so.
Thankyou Christina…On Mary… I thought Richard suffered much as a result of her narrow view of the world and wondereed why it is that two such apparently different personalities got together? Is it that in Mary’s rejection of him she also lost something of herself? Part of the tragedy?
It’s fascinating the degree to which psychoanalysis was permeating Anglo/Australian culture in the 1920s and 1930s.Michael Ackland, HHR’s biographer discusses this in his 2004 publication on her. HHR’s sister married A S Neill who founded the alternative school – Summerhill – in the 1920s using psychoanalytic theories as his basis. I think he was following German ideas similarly derived. Here is another post…https://freudinoceania.com/tag/summerhill/
Christina Houen said:
Well I guess it had a lot to do with him meeting her when she was only 16, in the unlikely bosom of Mrs Beamish and her buxom daughters; Polly aka Mary was such a contrast, delicate, refined, lovely, and he, as an older patriarchal man no doubt thought he could shape her to his mould. But of course she grew up. The other side of the coin is that she suffered much, as a lover of stability and a very humane, social being, from his constant desire for change. I felt, when I read all three volumes before, that she matured and became a sufferer in the tragedy too, in a very convincing way. But I will bear your comments in mind when I re-read. I think Richardson’s mastery is in her compassionate inside view of both parties.
I haven’t read the biography. Will put it on my list. I didn’t know there was a connection with A S Neill—how interesting.
Hmmm interesting. Perhaps he felt if he could shape her to his mould then he would be assured of her place with him. And then as she grew up and began to find her own way her challenge to felt acutely by him. Yes.. such a detailed and compassionate study of a marriage. I was introduced to the book by my father who handed me a copy remarking how similar Mahony was to his father and, of course his mother to Polly/Mary!
Christina Houen said:
I think that is the story of many marriages in a more patriarchal age (certainly has a lot of resonances with my first marriage, which wasn’t ’till death do us part’, though it nearly killed me; but it still may be true of some marriages. And, when I come to think of it, there are parallels with my mother’s marriage, though in her case, she was the well educated one, but my father was what she called a ‘flash-in-the-pan, whereas she was a ‘sticker’. One thing that did strike me is how well the pair communicated despite their different temperaments; they were each other’s confidantes until things really started to go wrong. For instance, Mary keeping secret Purdy’s betrayal of his friend until she could hide it no more, because Purdy humiliated her in public.
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