Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 22, 2016

The Adventures of Cuffy Mahony and Other Stories, by Henry Handel Richardson #BookReview

the-adventures-of-cuffy-mahoneyCuffy Mahony is one of the great creations of Henry Handel Richardson.  While he is not the focus of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, he is an unforgettable presence towards the end of the trilogy as he struggles with guilt and embarrassment when he walks with his demented father in the town.  The short story which gives this collection its title follows Cuffy’s ‘fortunes’ after the death of his father, and it’s an ironic title, hinting at the small adventures of a normal childhood but delivering a very different tale.

As readers of Ultima Thule (Vol III of the trilogy) will remember, Cuffy (Cuthbert) is the elder of the surviving Mahony children.  He is a quiet, sensitive boy, bookish and observant even when small, and taking after his father rather than his more robust, practical mother.  After Lallie’s death from eating green almonds, the racketing from place to place, the collapse of one home after another and then the collapse of her father who should have been her mainstay Lallie’s twin Lucie is clingy and Cuffy is protective of this.  Mother (Mary a.k.a. Polly) indulges her too, ignoring advice to toughen her up and keeping the child beside her while she works as postmistress in the remote town of Gymgurra the Western District of Victoria.

When the story begins Mary is weighing up a proposal from Mr Henry Ocock, and like single mothers the world over, while she considers the pros and cons for herself and her family, she puts her children first.  She does not love Henry, but she could learn to make such a marriage successful and she would be relieved of the burden of work while also ensuring Cuffy’s future education.  But as well Lucie’s nervous dependency, there are Cuffy’s emotional needs to consider:

Cuffy, always excitable, had shortly after his father’s death developed a convulsive twitching and blinking of face and eyes that was distressing to see.  The doctor said the habit was purely nervous, and would pass as he grew older.  Meanwhile, there was nothing to be done; except sometimes hold up a glass to show him how ugly or how silly he looked.  But did she think of him, or either of them, going among strangers thus handicapped, to be made fun of, or found fault with – perhaps even punished – for failings they had done nothing to deserve: at the mere thought of it, all her protective tenderness was up in arms.  No, Richard’s children they were, for good or for ill; and Richard’s children they should remain.  No one but the father they were so like would be capable of understanding them.

And here, as if to brace her in her decision, words she had once heard, and which her memory had as it were stored up for use in this crisis, came floating into her mind. ‘Henry Ocock is harsh with children… is harsh with children.’

That did it: now she knew where she stood. Well, he shouldn’t – she wouldn’t give him the chance to be – with hers.  On no one but herself should their lives and happiness depend.  (p. 8-9)

So things go on as before, Cuffy taking lessons with the kindly Reverend Burroughs, leaving off the lessons and going out in the yard to play tipcat when Cuffy’s facial tic indicated distress.  For most of the story HHR shows us Cuffy’s thoughts in a third person narrative that shows his eight-year-old point of view, revealing his intelligence and his sensitivity to those around him.  Even when he puzzles over the spelling of an author Mr Burroughs reveals as ‘Gertie’ (i.e. Goethe) – Cuffy knows that can’t be right because Gertie  is a girl’s name.  And he knows not to mention to his mother that the Reverend is a sluggard, often taking the lessons dressed in an overcoat over his pyjamas.

But the question of Cuffy’s education weighs heavy on Mary’s mind, and a trip to Melbourne to ask for financial help must be made.  And in preparing for the trip, Mary takes on yet another masculine role and begins to paint the ceiling and walls so that her temporary replacement in the post office won’t think badly of her.  An accident ensues, and the vulnerability of this little family is immediately apparent.  Mary’s determination that on no one but herself should their lives and happiness depend counts for nothing.

HHR’s brilliance in depicting the emotional states of her characters is at its best in showing Cuffy’s distress at how things turn out.  He was an unforgettable character in Ultima Thule but he will haunt the emotions of any reader who meets him in this short story.

And therein, for me, lies the limitation of the short story. I do so want to know what becomes of little Cuffy.  Instead the collection goes on with Sketches of Girlhood, Two Tales of Old Strasbourg and three others which strained my patience altogether.  These stories, do, as the blurb says, offer themes of separation, loss and acceptance through childhood, adolescence, marriage and ultimately death but I found most of them unsatisfying.  ‘The Life and Death of Peterle Luthy’ and ‘Mary Christina’ are maudlin,  while ‘The Coat’ tests credulity, and most of the girlhood stories are really rather mundane.   Only ‘Two Hanged Women’ with its veiled lesbian storyline, and ‘Sister Ann’ exploring the neglected emotional life of a sister raising a horde of younger siblings, held any interest for me.

The collection was first published in 1979, when HHR had been dead for over 30 years, and I can’t help feeling that this was a case of resurrecting some stories which were not really her best work.  Some of them are just sketches, as if preparatory for some other project and others read as if they are sorting out some long suppressed sexual feelings.

Bill from The Australian Legend reviewed this collection and had an entirely different perspective.  (He also very kindly lent this book, long out-of-print, to me).  Bill thinks Cuffy’s story is well-written but is out of place in a collection exploring aspects of womanhood.  How interesting it is that we respond to the same book so differently!  I think Cuffy’s story is brilliant and want it continued in a novel, and I will have forgotten most the rest of the stories by bedtime tomorrow.  Having said that, I’d be quick to acknowledge that feminist scholars would find much that is interesting about expectations placed on women in the era before WW1. ‘And Woman Must Weep’ covers familiar territory in depicting a ‘wallflower’ at a dance but is written with a perception that seems to derive from personal experience, which few authors of that era, I suspect, would have been willing to reveal. ‘Sister Ann’ develops a persistent thread in the trilogy and in Cuffy’s story, of women taking on men’s roles out of necessity, and despite being better at them than the useless men around them, getting no credit for it and still not achieving financial independence or security.

Still, I think HHR was best at long-form fiction, and I’d recommend The Fortunes of Richard Mahony as the triumph of her art.

Author: Henry Handel Richardson
Title: The Adventures of Cuffy Mahony and Other Stories
Publisher: Sirius, an imprint of Angus and Robertson, 1979
ISBN: 0207135118
Source: loan from Bill Holloway from The Australian Legend, thanks Bill!

Availability

Out-of-print, try second-hand bookshops and state libraries.

 

 

 


Responses

  1. Thanks Lisa, it is at my library and I have reserved it. I loved The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, and I don’t think I have read any short stories by HHR.

    • That’s great, I didn’t really expect local libraries to have it after all this time:)

  2. Well I certainly learnt much more by lending it than I would have by keeping it to myself! I am very glad you were able to put the Cuffy story in its proper perspective as it’s probably 40 years since I read the Fortunes.

    • Ah, I hope I’ve tempted you into a re-read. I think it must have been forty years ago when I read it for the first time at university and read it twice then as was my habit at university when there was an essay to write, but it was also chosen by a book group I belonged to so I re-read it in 2004. I think I remember it so well because my own son was the same age as Cuffy when I read it for the first time.
      Anyway, thanks again. I’ll put it in the post to go back to you on Monday.

  3. I’d love to read this too … but I must take you up on the limitations of the short story! Did you listen to the Tim Winton interview on ABC RN yesterday in which a member of the audience wanted to know what happened to the little daughter in the NOVEL, The riders. He said life doesn’t end at the end of sentence (or something like that). I rather like non-closure in my reading. Anyhow, I’d argue that it’s not the form that is inconclusive but the writer’s decision. In both novels and short stories you find both closure and openness. BTW, I know I’m being argumentative and that you’ll probably respond that it’s not simply that you want to know what happened to him but that you just want to know more about him, which a novel would provide. But still, any opportunity I can get to promote short stories I will!!

    • LOL And you promote them very well at Whispering Gums! You are definitely the Short Story Writer’s Friend:)
      I suppose that the reason Cuffy’s story interests me beyond what’s on the page, was that *Spoiler Alert* we live in an age when we know that adopted children suffer emotional trauma from not knowing who their parents were and from discovering siblings late in life and so on. Cuffy isn’t just separated from his sister and taken in somewhat unwillingly, by a friend of Mary’s rather than by the relative who could and should have kept them together, he is representative of many siblings separated in this way and of children like author Alan Collins (see reviews on this blog) who were shunted around from pillar to post and had an unloved childhood. But this is a story not often told because in that era children like this mostly lacked both an education and a public interested in what happened to them.
      I actually know twins who were taken in by an aunt during the Depression and although hers was a loving home and she treated them as her own, they were both very quiet and reserved men who never married.
      I suspect that HHR, who mostly wrote from her own life, did not know how to write about Cuffy growing up in the working class areas of Melbourne because that was never part of her own world. Ruth Park could have done it…

      • It’s possible that HHR wrote so much from her own life that she couldn’t imagine a detailed life for Cuffy after Maldon, which is after all where the getting of Wisdom takes off.
        Maybe those short story vignettes were as much little flights of imagination as she was willing to try.

        • I think that although she could imagine privation because she’d lived it, it was more a case of genteel rural poverty rather than the intergenerational poverty of the working class.
          Did you think that Peterle was a little judgemental?

          • Sorry Lisa! My deplorable retention prevents me from hazarding an answer.

      • Thanks for expanding Lisa – and as usual accepting my argumentativeness in good spirit! You’re right re Ruth Park I reckon.

  4. Thanks Lisa, it was a pleasure to read these short stories. I do like Henry Handel Richardson’s way with words. I don’t usually read many books a second time, but I have read The fortunes of Richard Mahony and The Getting of Wisdom twice. I know if I ever see this book of short stories on sale I will buy it without any hesitation.

    • Hi Meg, I just love her writing, and what I find so amazing was that she was able to write about Australia so vividly from far away in England. I know from Nettie Palmer’s book that I reviewed a week or so ago that she came back here and did a whistle-stop tour of the goldfields to make sure that she had specific details right (e.g. a view of a mountain from this position rather than that one) but still, it shows you how she had vivid memories of her childhood and adolescence here.


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