Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 10, 2023

Australia Felix (1917, The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney #1) by Henry Handel Richardson

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, retrieving unpublished reviews from my journals 1997-2007

The catalyst for retrieving this review of Australia Felix, (Book One of Henry Handel Richardson’s trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney) at this time is that HHR surfaced in an article by Cameron Hurst in the latest issue of the literary journal HEAT.  Not for the first time, I felt embarrassed by the paucity of reviews on this blog of HHR’s oeuvre, and in particular that there is no review of her masterwork, the trilogy which secures her place in Australian literary history.

Henry Handel Richardson’s place in Australian literature is important and secure. The Fortunes is an archetypal novel of the country, written about the great upsurge of nineteenth-century Western capitalism fuelled by the gold discoveries. With relentless objectivity it surveys all the main issues which were to define the direction of white Australian society from the 1850s onwards, within the domestic framework of a marriage. Powerfully symbolic in a realistic mode it is, as an English critic said in 1973, ‘one of the great inexorable books of the world’. (Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), viewed 29/4/23).

This is the blurb for my 1971 Penguin edition Australia Felix:

Mahoney’s personal history is closely interwoven with the history of the colony of Victoria at the time of the Ballarat Gold Rush. Colonial life, although the source of his prosperity, becomes for Mahoney the prime cause of an incurable dissatisfaction with his lot.

The trilogy is continued in The Way Home (1925), and then Ultima Thule (1929).

I first read Australia Felix long ago for my BA,  but I have no record of that, not even an undergraduate essay.  Resurrected from Reading Journal #6, 2003-2004, this review was written for a third reading of the novel for a book group.  Like other reviews in this series, it was never intended for publication, and its limitations are what they are, but FWIW, here it is. (Minus my introductory rant about the books being out of print because Text Classics released the trilogy in 2012.)

There are spoilers…

Australia Felix, (The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney #1) by Henry Handel Richardson, first published 1917

From my reading journal, dated 12 January, 2004


Anyway, to the book! I love it.  I think it depicts the energy and courage of our early migrants without hiding their discontents…

Richard Mahoney is a doctor but he abandons his dull practice in England for the lure of the diggings.  It doesn’t take long for him to realise that this was a mistake and he sets up a general store instead, making quite a good living despite having no head for business.  He befriends an impulsive young scallywag, Purdy Smith, and on a trip to Melbourne to sort out a legal matter, Richard meets Polly.  Younger than him and hopelessly naïve, Polly is refined and gentle — as Purdy’s paramours Tilly and Jinny are not.  Richard takes Polly as his bride.

HHR skilfully depicts the discomforts and fears of the journey to Ballarat, and also Polly’s dismay at the shack which was to be her new home, but her real genius is in showing Mahoney’s temperament.  Polly is an innocent foil to his self-doubts and insecurities, and ever loyal, she makes excuses for him when his offhand ways and ill-concealed contempt for his fellows offends them.  Both of them know that trade depends on good PR, and more so when finally Mahoney resumes his career as a doctor.  I can imagine the disbelief of English readers at the ease with which this couple become part of society in the early days of the colony where the rigid rules of British society don’t apply.  Polly’s brother becomes an MP, and Jinny and Tilly both marry ‘well’ and ‘above their station’.

Both Polly and Mahoney are overtly conscious of class distinctions.  The ‘lower orders’ drink (causing real consternation when Angie Ocock takes too much sherry); they drop their aitches, their clothes are blowsy, dirty or dishevelled. It is only when they take on the mannerisms of the well-to-do that they can merge upwards (if they are women).  Jinny, quiet and reflective in mourning for her mother, nurses John Turnham back to health and marries him.  From then on she does as she’s told and fits in, never betraying herself as the daughter of a publican.

For Mahoney, however, this is not enough.  It’s the values of the colony that he despises — the grasping ambition, the crassness of money (which he likes well enough when he’s got it) and the uncertainty of the social relations of society compared to the quiet orderliness of England.

And he hates the weather! He hates the glaring sun, the dry brown grass, the mud and the dust, and the savagery of the sudden storms.  He’s out in it all day and night on his rounds, and he sleeps badly, wracked by self-doubt, old resentments, and anger about current slights.  He worries about money because his lifestyle in Ballarat society is expensive, and he berates himself for not having time to study and follow gentlemanly pursuits like keeping a butterfly collection. Eventually all this restlessness gets the better of him and he sells up, against Polly’s wishes, and the book ends with him leaving Australia to go home to England.

This is, of course, what many migrants always intended to do.  Make money in the new country and go home, prosperous, to lead a better life in the old familiar ways.  Book 2, as I recall it shows that it doesn’t work, and that the migrant, ever thereafter, never fits in anywhere and has a longing that can never be satisfied.

Except for the Pollies of this world!  She is the ultimate adaptable creature.  She comes to Australia to help look after brother John’s children, but he farms her out to the Beamishes who exploit her good nature and rarely pay her. Despite her refinement, she likes Jinny and Tilly and enjoys their company — she can fit in anywhere.

Then she moulds herself to Mahoney.  She’s a sweet, compliant wife who makes the best of early privations, makes friends, gets over the loss of her stillborn baby quickly, takes on John’s motherless children and equally easily despatches them hither and yon at John’s demand… and all this with never a cross word or a whinge about the weather.

It takes her a very long time to work out that Richard isn’t perfect, and she’s not happy to join the ranks of wives who must manipulate things to get what she wants.  Richard is too proud and arrogant to share his business worries with her, and when she realises with alarm that he’s forgotten that the house payment is nearly due, she has to find a by-the-way means of dropping the reminder into the conversation.

In some ways she is more worldly than Mahoney — she realises the need to advertise and to network — but she is shocked when Purdy makes a pass at her at a ball, and deeply offended when Mahoney is more concerned about his own response than hers.  This is their first quarrel, which is interesting considering how ill-matched they are.  In the early days she likes him to read to her but doesn’t read herself, and she inflicts a constant stream of house-guests and children on a man who likes to be quiet and private.

HHR makes little of their childlessness, and perhaps it was just something to be privately borne in those days, but there’s a rather cavalier attitude to children generally.  John Turnham hates the children of his first wife, Emma, and won’t have anything to do with them when Emma dies in childbirth.  They go to Polly, then back again when sister Zara turns up to run his household, then back again when that doesn’t work out.  The older boy is a brat, and packed off to boarding school.  No one cares about him at all except Polly and she fails to intercede on his behalf. He’s not allowed to go to sea and must stay and ‘be a credit to his father’.  Ambition lies at the heart of many characters in the novel, from Old Ocock and his four lawyer sons to John Turnham and his sister, Polly.

In the Introduction, Leonie Kramer says that the growth and development of the colony drives the novel, but I’m not so sure.  HHR is cursory about Eureka, not just in the way she depicts Richard being so patronising about it, but also in the way she skips over its influence on the extension of franchise.  If you didn’t already know about Eureka, as her English readers probably didn’t, this book wouldn’t tell you much.  While she covers the rapid growth of Ballarat to provincial city status and the coming of the railway, there’s no mention of the fine buildings and grand hotels, only Richard’s increasingly pretentious and unsuitable (for the climate) houses.  There may be other omissions too: was a cultural life emerging, or a scientific milieu?

I can’t help feeling that HHR’s own distaste for the colony drives the images she projects, and will explore more about this with the book group.

I journaled these thoughts about the book on the 12th of January, 2004

This is an excerpt, from a page opened at random:

Winter had come in earnest; the night was wild and cold.  Before the crackling stove the cat lay stretched at full length, while Pompey dozed fitfully, his nose between his paws.  The red-cotton curtains that hung at the little window gave back the lamplight in a ruddy glow; the clock beat off the seconds evenly, except when drowned by the wind, which came in bouts, hurling itself against the corners of the house. And presently, laying down his book — Polly was too busy now to be read to — Mahoney looked across at his wife.  She was wrinkling her pretty brows over the manufacture of tiny clothes, a rather pale little woman still, none of the initial discomforts of her condition having been spared her.  Feeling his eyes on her, she looked up and smiled: did anyone ever see such a ridiculous armhole? Three of one’s fingers were enough to fill it — and she held the little shirt aloft for his inspection.  Here was his chance: the child’s coming offered the best of pretexts.  Taking not only the midget garment but also the hand that held it, he told her of his resolve to go back to England and re-enter his profession.

‘You know, love, I’ve always wished to get home again.  And now there’s an additional reason.  I don’t want my … our children to grow up in a place like this.  Without companions — or refining influences.  Who knows how they would turn out?’

He said it, but in his heart he knew that his children would be safe enough.  And Polly, listening to him, made the same reservation: yes, but our children… (p. 119)

As I was typing this, I kept thinking of all that I have read since about HHR and this trilogy, about the autobiographical elements, about the narrative style, about colonialism and dispossession, about the representation of women and so on. I kept wanting to interrupt myself and insert fresh interpretations of the novel.  But I’ve left it as it is because there are plenty of other sources for those interpretations.  It is what it is.

Author: Henry Handel Richardson(1870-1946)
Title: Australia Felix, (The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney #1)
Introduction by Leonie Kramer
Cover art: detail from ‘Australian Gold Diggings’ by an unknown artist, held in the National Library of Australia
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics, 1971, reissued 1979, first published by William Heinemann, 1917
ISBN: 014 0033386, pbk, 376 pages
Source: personal library.


  1. I gotta read this, don’t I? Maybe I should add it to my #20BookOfSummer reading list?


    • There’s not a lot of books that I’ve rated 5 stars at Goodreads!
      Plus, in your review, you could include all those more modern interpretations that I’ve alluded to:)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have downloaded several of HHR’s books onto my ereader, and I really must try to read at least one of them this year! Thanks for the reminder.


    • If I had to choose, it would be this one. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t born here, but it filled a gap in what I knew about the Gold Rush. It goes beyond the mining story, it’s a story about how the hopes and dreams of migrants confront reality, and it’s truthful about the reason why migrants (as distinct from refugees) leave their homeland. It’s because they are discontented for some reason with where they are, and sometimes that discontentment isn’t alleviated by a change of scene.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah yes – I was born here, but am the child of migrants, as both my parents came to Australia from England as children. My mother never got over being English!


        • Even when he was very old, my father worried about whether his children thought he’d done the right thing in coming here. I was able to reassure him that yes, he had.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve heard about this (vaguely) but never explored it further, but this makes me wonder if I should…


  4. I have HHR buried in the TBR so great to hear how highly you rate this!


    • I’d love to know what you think of it, I’ve only ever come across opinions from Australians. But it was first published by Heinemann in 1917, during the war when Australia was Britain’s loyal ally in defence of the Empire. I wonder what Britons made of it back then?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I was not only born here, my great grandparents lived in Maldo before they moved up to the Mallee (maybe before HHR’s mother was postmistress).
    Although HHR is writing what is effectively her father’s story she might not have had a very great feel for Ballarat in particular, as her home was nearer Bendigo and she was schooled at PLC in Melbourne before going to Vienna and living the rest of her life in Europe and England.


    • I’m a bit fuzzy on the details of her life, but I think this is historical fiction based on it being her parents’ story as she would have heard it from them. So, not in her life time, but definitely part of her life, as our parents’ lives are part of ours. (She goes on to write her own story in Book 3 when Polly becomes postmistress and Richard has what we would now recognise as dementia.)
      Scholars can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the reason that the picture of Ballarat is full of its shortcomings is because it is her father’s story, as told to her.


  6. Definitely 5-star and defintely worth rereading.


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: