Such is Life: Being Certain Extracts from the Diary of Tom Collins. Joseph Furphy's title gives an indication of the complexity of the narrative that will unravel before a persistent reader. In chapter one, the narrator, Tom Collins, joins a group of bullockies to camp for the night a few miles from Runnymede Station. Their conversations reveal many of the issues that arise throughout the rest of the novel: the ownership of, or control of access to, pasture; ideas of providence, fate and superstition; and a concern for federation that flows into descriptions of the coming Australian in later chapters. Each of the characters provides a portrait of bush types that Furphy uses to measure the qualities of squatters and others against popular ideas of the 'gentleman'. Furphy's choice of a narrative structure to create a 'loosely federated' series of yarns is itself a critique of popular narratives populated by stock characters who are driven by action that leads to predictable and uncomplicated conclusions. Tom Collins, the unreliable narrator, adds further complications by claiming to 'read men like signboards' while all the time being unknowingly contradicted by circumstances that become obvious to the reader.
In each subsequent chapter Tom Collins leads the reader through a series of experiences chosen from his diaries. In chapter two, Collins meets the boundary rider Rory O'Halloran and his daughter, Mary, a symbol of the coming Australian whose devotion to her father will have tragic consequences in chapter five. There are many links between chapters like this one that remain invisible to Collins, despite his attempts to understand the 'controlling alternatives' that affect our lives. In chapter three Tom loses his clothes crossing the Murray River and spends the night wandering naked until he is able to steal a pair of pants after diverting attention by setting fire to a haystack. In chapter four Collins helps an ailing Warrigal Alf by deceiving several boundary riders who have impounded Alf's bullocks. In chapter five, among other yarns of lost children, Thompson completes the tragic tale of Mary O'Halloran, connecting with the events of chapter two. Chapters six and seven take Tom Collins back to Runnymede Station where he attempts to avoid an unwelcome union with Maud Beaudesart. He also meets the disfigured boundary rider, Nosey Alf, whose life story Furphy has threaded throughout the narrative, signs not perceived by Tom Collins. When Collins returns to Runnymede at the end of the novel, Furphy ties up more loose narrative threads, but Tom Collins, the narrator, remains oblivious to the end.
In short, Such Is Life 'reflects the preoccupations of [the 1890s]: contemporary capitalism, ardent Australian nationalism, the difficulties of pioneering pastoralism, and speculation about a future Australian civilization. It was instantly seen as a major example of the "radical nationalism" of the time and praised for its realistic representation of life on the frontier in the 1880s. But it was forty years before many readers realized that the novel was also a subtle comment on fiction itself and that within it were hidden stories that revealed a world of "romance" within its "realist" representation of life. Such Is Life can be read as the first experimental novel in Australian literature and the first Australian literary expression of a twentieth-century sensibility of the provisionality of life and reality.' (Julian Croft, 'Joseph Furphy.' in Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 230.)
'Joseph Furphy spent the last seven years of his life in and around Fremantle and the suburbs of Perth in WA. When he died suddenly, aged 69, his literary reputation was unknown there. In fact, his death went unremarked apart from a mean-spirited paragraph in the Bulletin; his occupation on his death certificate was recorded as ‘Mechanic’, and the only possession of value he left was his typewriter.
'During those WA years Furphy was increasingly isolated from the few literary contacts he had made while Such Is Life was being published, and even his correspondence with Kate Baker dwindled. Increasingly frustrated with the little time he had for writing, he described his harsh and often unrewarding daily life in a letter to his mother (August 1906): ‘I have deteriorated. The change in conditions of life, with irregular hours, have broken me off literary work; and I have become a grafter, pure and simple’. (364 Barnes)
'Yet decades after his almost anonymous death Joseph Furphy’s reputation was recovered in the name of Tom Collins in the West, where it is of lasting influence. I want to trace that history, together with some illustrations of Tom Collins House as it is known, which has been preserved as the home of the West Australian branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers since 1949, and of the valuable collection of Australian paintings which make up part of the Tom Collins Bequest to the University of Western Australia.' (Author's abstract)
'This paper discusses the uses and implications of the diary form in Such is Life considering the historical development of the diary across the nineteenth century, with particular reference to the Letts company. It considers the gender and imperial associations of the nineteenth-century diary and the temporal and spatial constraints imposed by the diary form and potentially used and parodied by Furphy in his selection of this format for the novel.' (Author's abstract)
'This essay examines the representation of dogs, especially Pup in the novels of Joseph Furphy.' (Author's abstract)
'The article traces the phrase 'Secret of England's Greatness' through its currency in nineteenth-century British culture, including the title of the painting of Queen Victoria by Thomas Jones Barker (1863), and other references, to argue that it was a commonplace in Joseph Furphy's time. The paper traces Furphy's critique of British imperialism in the novel.' (Author's abstract)
'Joseph Furphy, considered to be "the father of the Australian novel" is best known for Such is Life which remains a classic that “nobody reads and even fewer comprehend”. In recent times, there has been a resurgence of interest in Furphy, as evidenced by the range of celebratory activities now associated with him. Fans may visit both “real” and “imaginary” geographies in their search for connection with Furphy’s legend. This paper will consider a range of sites within the nascent Furphy heritage industry, arguing that they offer tourists opportunities to emotionally re-engage with Australia’s frontier past.' (Author's abstract)
'Comparing nineteenth-century British and Australian Anglo-Saxonist literature enables a “decentered” exploration of Anglo-Saxonism’s intersections with national, imperial, and colonial discourses, challenging assumptions that this discourse was an uncritical vehicle of English nationalism and British manifest destiny. Far from reflecting a stable imperial center, evocations of “ancient Englishness” in British literature were polyvalent and self-contesting, while in Australian literature they offered a response to colonization and emerging knowledge about the vast age of Indigenous Australian cultures.' (Authors abstract)
McLaren discusses a number of Australian novels (all recently re-issued) which have been central to developing the way in which Australians and foreigners think about white society in this continent. He distinguishes several trends and traditions in describing and characterising Australia's social and political system. Whereas Clarke and Richardson present Australia as a prison, Palmer and Waten present it as a land offering the promise of freedom. Furphy, on the other hand, is seen as a writer 'who shows us a country seeming to offer plentitude but finally withholding its promise' (54).
McLaren concludes that the 'past expressed in these fictions variously produced values of solidarity, egalitarianism, harmony with the land, but their values remain circumscribed by fear of the powerless and the dispossessed, by the arrogance of the powerful, and by distrust of the outsider. Our future will be secure only as we accept continuity with the past, enter into dialogue with the differences of the present, and accept a common responsibility towards the land that supports us' (56).
'I want to propose that the incertitudes of Furphy's magnum opus provide the observant queer reader with an arousing focus on the late-nineteenth-century making of "sexuality" as a new regulatory system of sexual organisation. In advocating an engagement between Such is Life and queer theory, I want to ask, how does Furphy represent sexuality in Such is Life? and what is the analytical purchase provided by a queer reading of the text?'
Palmer replies to criticism of his preface to Such is Life. The preface had been criticised in a review in The Bulletin, 31 January 1918.