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  • The Fortunes of Richard Mahony - A Reading Australia Information Trail

    This trail collects a range of items to enhance readers' engagement with The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.

    – Part One provides an overview of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony and its author Henry Handel Richardson. It also highlights some of the sources used by Richardson in developing The Fortunes, and notes the meaning of the trilogy's three titles, its structure, its initial critical reception, and its adaptations.

    – Part Two examines Richardson's characterisations of Richard and Mary Mahony, and of their marriage.

    – Part Three focuses on the themes of home, exile and return in The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.

    – Part Four situates The Fortunes of Richard Mahony in discussions about the 'Great Australian Novel'.

    – Part Five offers suggestions for wider reading.

    – Part Six provides tips for further research.

    Click on the hyperlinks below to visit AustLit records and external references. Some of the critical works and other resources are available online.

  • Part One - Overview

  • The Fortunes of Richard Mahony: Comprising Australia Felix, The Way Home, Ultima Thule

    image of person or book cover
    This image has been sourced from Trove Australia.

    The Fortunes of Richard Mahony was 'first published as a sequence. Australia Felix, the first volume, which covers twelve years of Richard Mahony’s life from the early 1850s, was published in 1917; The Way Home, which deals with his subsequent eight years, appeared in 1925; and Ultima Thule, the final volume covering his last four years, in 1929. The novel was first published as a trilogy in 1930.'

    Australia Felix 'begins the story of Richard Mahony, a 28-year-old medical graduate of Edinburgh University and now the keeper of a general store in Ballarat'.

    See full AustLit entry
  • Henry Handel Richardson

    'Henry Handel Richardson' is the pseudonym for Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson. Richardson was born in Melbourne in 1870, the daughter of Walter and Mary Richardson who had migrated from England in the early 1850s. Richardson's father's career as a doctor on the goldfields and her parents' interest in mining and the share market exposed her to the major social and economic developments of nineteenth century Australia, an experience that would inform her writing in later life. Richardson attended the Presbyterian Ladies' College, Melbourne, where she was an excellent student, particularly in music and composition.

    See full AustLit entry
  • The Henry Handel Richardson Society and Lake View House

    Lake View House, Chiltern
    Image courtesy of the National Trust of Australia

    The Henry Handel Richardson Society was formed following several decades of annual celebrations at Lake View House, Chiltern. The house was home to Richardson's family in 1876 when her father, Dr Walter Lindesay Richardson, took up a medical practice in Chiltern.

    In The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, the township of Barambogie is based on Chiltern. (Although there is no Victorian town of Barambogie, the name is connected with geographical features south of Chiltern.) Some items of Richardson memorabilia, including her writing desk, are held at the Chiltern Athenaeum.

    The image (left) shows Lake View House, now listed by the National Trust, with Ultima Thule's swamp in the foreground.

  • Richardson's Inspiration - Primary and Secondary Sources

    Primary Sources

    Much critical attention has focused on parallels between the lives of Henry Handel Richardson's father Walter Richardson and the fictional Richard Mahony, and on similarities between the author's mother and Mahony's wife, Mary Mahony.

    Richardson scholar Professor Clive Probyn points out that 'as early as 1888, while still a teenager, [Richardson] noted in her diary that she had been reading the letters of her father and mother, Walter and Mary Richardson' (The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2007. Vol. 1. viii). Probyn argues, however, that the 'relationship between the letters and the novel is not straightforward ... there is no simple equivalence between the "real" Walter Richardson and the "fictional" Richard Mahony, though the two are frequently elided by readers and critics’ (xvi).

    This view is borne out by Richardson herself. In a record of an interview between Richardson, Brian Penton and Norman Lindsay, Penton writes that Richardson said firmly, 'as if she had had to repeat the formula many times before, that Richard Mahony was not her father, nor Mary Mahony her mother' (qtd in Buckridge, Patrick. 'A Neglected Interview between Henry Handel Richardson and Brian Penton, 1931-1933.' (Australian Literary Studies 18.3 (May 1998: 250-252).

    Despite Richardson's vehemence, there is no doubt that episodes from the lives of Walter and Mary Richardson find their way into The Fortunes. For further explorations of the connections between Richardson's parents and The Fortunes' characters, see:


    • Ackland, Michael. 'Introduction.' The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. Ringwood: Penguin, 1998. vii-xxiii.

    Secondary Sources

    Richardson had been absent from Australia since 1888, but in 1912 she spent five weeks in Victoria predominantly to undertake research for The Fortunes. Michael Ackland, in Henry Handel Richardson: A Life notes that Richardson visited Melbourne, Geelong, Castlemaine, Ballarat, Queenscliff, Koroit and Chiltern 'completing the stations of her father’s ordeal in barely a week' (200). Richardson also accessed maps, pictorial works and local histories including:


  • Other Australian Expatriate Writers

  • The Trilogy's Titles

    A. K. Thomson, in 'Henry Handel Richardson's The Fortunes of Richard Mahony' Meanjin Quarterly 26.4 (Summer 1967): 423-434), backgrounds the meaning of the three titles that make up The Fortunes trilogy. Thomson links Australia Felix to the 1836 explorations of Thomas Livingstone Mitchell and to William Westgarth's book also titled Australia Felix (1848). Thomson suggests the title of the second novel, The Way Home, is ironic because Mahony had no home. The title of the final book, Ultima Thule, meaning the furthest country and used to name Mahony's Melbourne home, has its origins in fourth century BC Greek exploration and in Tacitus's Roman histories.

    Thomson notes that the word 'fortunes' in The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is used in the Middle English sense of 'the chance or luck, good or bad, which falls or is to fall to anyone' (424).

  • A 'Wagnerian' Structure and Style

    'The trilogy is beautifully constructed. HHR was an accomplished musician and her book is constructed almost like a Wagnerian opera. Motifs sound and resound throughout the book...' (A. K. Thomson. 'Henry Handel Richardson's The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.' Meanjin Quarterly 26.4 (Summer 1967): 428.)

    The Fortunes of Richard Mahony was, at one stage, planned as a four-volume 'biography of a nation through a family saga' ending with the 1915 Gallipoli campaign (Probyn, Clive. The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2007. Vol. 1. x). Richardson did begin a fourth volume, focusing on the life of Mahony's son Cuffy, and four chapters of that abandoned novel were published in Richardson's The End of a Childhood and Other Stories in 1934.

    Peter Craven, in 'No Success Like Failure' (an introduction to the 2012 Text Publishing edition of The Fortunes), says that the trilogy is written 'in a high, nearly stiff style and incorporates a good deal of European polish'. Craven sees Richardson's novel as 'stately, rhythmical, visually precise and full of the points of view and idioms of the characters it wrestles with' (xiii).

    For further insights into the structure and narrative style of The Fortunes see:

    Brady, Veronica. 'A Thick Crumbly Slice of Life: The Fortunes of Richard Mahony as a Cultural Monument.' Westerly 3 (September 1977): 47-56 (and also available online in The AustLit Anthology of Criticism).

  • Initial Reception

    'A few years ago, I was talking to David Malouf at a reception for the Man Booker International Prize about reciprocal influences between American and Australian fiction. Malouf mentioned that the American novelist John Updike had once said to him the one Australian novel that could be found on every American library shelf when he was growing up was Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.'

    Giles, Richard (Professor, Challis Chair of English, University of Sydney). 'The Case for The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.' The Conversation 9 April 2014.

    The three novels comprising The Fortunes of Richard Mahony were published over a twelve year period from 1917 to 1929. According to Brian Penton, the first volume 'sold 500 in England, 50 in Australia, and none in America. The second sold 250 in England, 25 in Australia, and none in America. The third sold 150 in England, 10 in Australia, and 200,000 in the United States’ ('A Neglected Interview between Henry Handel Richardson and Brian Penton, 1931-1933.' Australian Literary Studies 18.3 (May 1998): 256). The reason behind the burgeoning US sales was that The Fortunes was the September 1929 selection of the American Book of the Month Club. (Michael Ackland, in Henry Handel Richardson: A Life, puts the US sales figures for Ultima Thule as 'in excess of 100,000 copies' (231).)

    Despite initially slow sales in the UK, Vance Palmer argued (in 1930) that the publication of The Fortunes – and its reception by American and British critics – 'led the more serious Australian writers to believe that there might be an audience outside their own country. Up till then there had seemed little chance of this. English publishers and English readers fought shy of Australian themes unless they were faked in some romantic or melodramatic way … To an extent Henry Handel Richardson’s trilogy was made easy for English readers in that it was almost wholly concerned with the reactions of a sensitive Anglo-Irish doctor to the crudities of "colonial" life in the fifties and sixties. It was necessarily written from an English point of view' ('Recent Australian Writing.' The New Statesman 30 August 1930: 647).

  • Adaptations - Radio, Song, Theatre and (only in prospect) Film

    • Radio Adaptation

    ABC Radio produced Edmund Barclay's radio adaptation of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. It was broadcast from mid-1949 to late-1950 on radio stations around Australia.

    • Libretto Adaptation

    In 1997, actor and writer Paul Sherman wrote a libretto for Richardson's trilogy titled 'Ultima Thulet'. A typescript of the lyrics is held in the Hangar Collection of the Fryer Library, University of Queensland.

    • Stage Adaptation

    Playright Michael Gow adapted the trilogy for the stage and premiered the play, under his own direction, at the 2002 Brisbane Festival. Gow views the trilogy as 'quintessentially Australian', a story that 'asks a lot questions that we're still trying to answer, such as where is home, where do we belong, how should we treat this place'. Gow describes his stage version as 'very impressionistic, quite dreamlike at times'. (Prior, Sian. 'Trilogy and Triumph.' The Bulletin 120.6342 (17 September 2002): 80-81.)

    • Film Adaptations – Abortive and Prospective

    Perth’s Sunday Times newspaper, in its 'Film Cable from Hollywood' column, reported in 1945 that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had obtained the film rights to The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. The newspaper report states the Greer Garson is to play Mary Mahony with Gregory Peck as Richard Mahony. (Walling, Paula. 'Australian Classic for the Screen.' 21 October 1945: 5.)

    That planned movie did not eventuate, nor – to date – has film director Bruce Beresford’s attempt to bring the trilogy to the screen. Beresford spent much of 2005 working on adaptations of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, creating scripts for both a feature-length movie and a mini-series. However, when Screen Australia announced development funding for a feature film in 2011 (with screenwriters Chris Anastassiades and Andy Cox brought into the project), Beresford informed the funding body he was no longer involved. (Groves, Don. 'Beresford Sets the Record Straight.' SBS website 15 August 2011.)

  • Fortunes Restored

    Bruce Beresford, Bruce Steele and Clive Probyn with HHR's typewriter.
    Photograph courtesy of the Herald Sun.

    As part of a 14-year project at Monash University, Professor Clive Probyn and Associate Professor Bruce Steele 're-assembled' the original texts of the three novels comprising Henry Handel Richardson's The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. The process involved restoring some 20,000 words – cut from previously published versions – from Richardson's typescripts.

    At the launch of the three-volume publication in 2007, Bruce Steele expressed the view that Richardson is 'the greatest Australian novelist of the first half of the 20th century'. He added, 'in addition to its literary merit The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is an important fictional chronicle of our colonial history, including the gold-rush days and after'.

    'Monash Completes Largest Ever Project on Australian Author.' Monash Memo. 7 November 2007.

    The image (above, at left) shows filmmaker Bruce Beresford, Associate Professor Bruce Steele and Professor Clive Probyn with Richardson's typewriter at the launch of the trilogy.

  • Part Two - Richard and Mary Mahony: The Characters and Their Marriage

    'Richardson’s major novel, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, is at heart the massive documentation of a created marriage’, but "love is deficient", Mahony’s emotions "seem incapable of sustaining love".'

    Wallace-Crabbe, Chris. 'The Absence of Love' in Three Absences in Australian Writing. Townsville: Foundation for Australian Literary Studies, James Cook University of North Queensland, 1983. 4.

    Adrian Mitchell, in his chapter titled 'Fiction' in The Oxford History of Australian Literature (1981), argues that the 'continually altering balance in the relationship between Mahony and Mary' is one The Fortunes 'major accomplishments'. Mitchell contends that 'Richard’s restlessness, the movement from Australia to England and back again, and from house to house, while expressing in the most obvious and external manner a man never at ease with his environment, is the more dismaying when read it terms of his marriage’ (92).

    Another window onto the portrayal of Richard and Mary's marriage is offered by Catherine Pratt in Resisting Fiction: The Novels of Henry Handel Richardson (1999). In a chapter titled 'His Way of Looking at Things', Pratt explores the way in which Richardson 'represents the relationships between Richard and Mary according to aspects of nineteenth-century gender ideology, such as the separation of the public and private spheres' (82). Pratt's argument is that throughout the novel, 'the meaning of "woman" slips and shifts beneath the male gaze' (97).

    For further analyses of the individual characters of Richard and Mary Mahony, and interpretations of their relationship, see:


  • Part Three - Home, Exile and Return

    'Somewhere in the second half of The Way Home, the reader starts to sense the ominousness of Mahony's increasingly frenetic acts of settlement and home breaking. It becomes a kind of sickening pattern: return, setting up home, dismantling it, returning to Europe to discover homelessness, dissatisfied return to Australia.'

    Mead, Philip. 'Death and Home-Work: The Origins of Narrative in The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.' Australian Literary Studies 17.2 (October 1995): 127 (and also available online in The AustLit Anthology of Criticism).

    'Coelum [sic], non animum, mutant, qui trans mare currunt’ ('Sky, not spirit, do they change, those who cross the sea.')

    Horace's Epistles. Book I, epistle xi, line 27. Quoted by Mahony's neighbour Tangye in Australia Felix (The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2007. 350.)

    A number of scholars address the issue of Mahony's ceaseless search for 'home'. Karen McLeod, in Henry Handel Richardson: A Critical Study (1985), argues that for Mahony 'non animum mutant' (see quote above) 'means not just that he cannot change his personality, but that he cannot lose his desire for change. And because his fear of “being pinned for too long to the same spot” [Australia Felix, pt 4, ch. 5] is so deeply rooted, it is impossible for the reader to be sure at what point his restlessness becomes pathological’ (111).

    Both Irina Pana ('Exile in the (M)otherland: The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.' Southerly 56.2 (Winter 1996): 103-123) and John McLaren ('Nations without States: The Search for Home in H. H.. Richardson's Fortunes of Richard Mahony and Yasmine Gooneratne's A Change of Skies.' The Commonwealth Review 7.1 (1995-1996): 79-86) juxtapose Mahony's relationships with Australia and Britain. Pana argues that 'Mahony’s home, whether situated in the foreign Antipodes or in his motherland is a repeated re-presentation of captivity … and constantly equated with a tomb' (109). His 'arrivals home' in England reveal that the motherland is ‘not a place but … a state of mind’ (113). McLaren's view is that both Richardson's and Gooneratne's migrants 'carry with them a wider sense of nationality based on imperial loyalties to an idealized island of Great Britain. While this sense pervades their self-esteem in their new country, it also alienates them from the emergent continental nation of Australia where they find themselves’ (80).

    See also:


  • Part Four - The Great Australian Novel

    'More than any other novel in our literature, more than Voss, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony deserves the accolade of the Great Australian Novel.' Craven, Peter. 'No Success Like Failure' in The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012. xvii.

    For over eighty years, critics have been discussing the place of The Fortunes within Australia's literary canon, and mounting arguments for and against its proclamation as the 'Great Australian Novel'.

    In 1943, Norman Lindsay wrote an article for the Bulletin (republished in Norman Lindsay on Art, Life and Literature (1990): 105-111) titled 'The Great Australian Myth'. The article discusses Lindsay's view that Henry Handel Richardson's writing is bound up with the construction of the great national novel 'myth' and states that the 'Great Australian Novel' can never be achieved. 'The novelist', he said, 'feels that he or she must explain everything about Australia while also writing an Australian novel … It can’t be done' (105). Let us get rid of the fatuity that such a thing as the Great Australian Novel can be written. It is an amateur’s bedtime fantasy' (110).

    Critics have not been daunted by Lindsay's declaration. In 1983, Ken A. Stewart, in 'Life and Death of the Bunyip: History and the Great Australian Novel' (Westerly 28.2 (1983): 39-44) examined some contenders for the title of the 'Great Australian Novel'. Stewart's main candidates are The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, Voss and His Natural Life. (He also mentions Capricornia, The Tree of Man, Bring Larks and Heroes, and Poor Fellow My Country.) Stewart details the 'preoccupations and thematic concerns' (41) that his three top choices hold in common.

    Other writers who discuss The Fortunes in relation to the 'Great Australian Novel' are:


    A caveat to this debate is that Richardson, in fact, 'had little patience with the notion of herself as an Australian writer'. James Bradley, in his 'Introduction' to the 2008 Penguin edition of The Fortunes (vii-xvi), quotes Richardson as telling her American publisher: 'I have no desire to be marked for life as an "Australian" writer'. Bradley continues: 'She saw her work quite differently, as part of a European tradition embracing both "German thought", and French, Russian and Danish literature' (xiii).

  • Some Contenders for the 'Great Australian Novel'

  • Part Five - Wider Reading

    • Various theories have been propounded about the nature of Richard Mahony's illness. To further investigate this issue see:

    Hadgraft, Cecil. 'Diagnosis of Mahony.' Australian Quarterly (June 1955): 87-95

    Stoller, Alan and R. H. Emmerson. 'The Fortunes of Walter Lindesay Richardson.' Meanjin Quarterly 29.1 (Autumn 1970): 21-33

    Miller, E. Morris. 'Richard Mahony's Euphoria: A Psychological Note.' Meanjin 11.4 (Summer 1952: 397-401


    – Draper, Brian. 'The Misfortunes of Younger Onset Dementia.' The Medical Journal of Australia 190.2 (2009): 94-95.

    • Strong parallels exist between Walter Richardson's and Richard Mahony's interests in philosophy and spiritualism. The following articles provide insights on this subject:

    Ackland, Michael. 'The Lesson of Barambogie: Richardson's Response to Schopenhauer in The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.' Westerly 42.3 (1997): 73-84

    Mead, Philip. 'Death and Home-Work: The Origins of Narrative in The Fortunes of Richard Mahony' (and also available online in The AustLit Anthology of Criticism) Australian Literary Studies 17.2 (October 1995): 115-134


    Green, Dorothy. 'Walter Lindesay Richardson: The Man, the Portrait, and the Artist.' Meanjin Quarterly 29.1 (Autumn 1970): 4-20.

    • Several books provide detailed information on Richardson's life and personal writings. These include:

    Henry Handel Richardson: A Life (2004)

    Henry Handel Richardson: The Letters 3 vols. (2000)

    Henry Handel Richardson: The Getting of Wisdom, Stories, Selected Prose and Correspondence (1997)

    Henry Handel Richardson: Fiction in the Making (1990) and Finding Herself in Fiction: Henry Handel Richardson: 1896-1910 (2001)

    Henry Handel Richardson: Some Personal Impressions (1957)

    Henry Handel Richardson and Some of Her Sources (1954)


    – Richardson's autobiography Myself When Young (1948).

  • Part Six - Further Research

    • To further investigate subjects such as critical articles dealing with colonial life in Australian novels, go to the AustLit search page and explore the Advanced Search options. For help on building searches, visit the 'How to Search AustLit' page.
    • In December 2008, Phillip Adams interviewed Angela Neustatter, journalist, author and grand-niece of Henry Handel Richardson, for the ABC's Late Night Live program. An audio version of their conversation about Henry Handel Richardson is available here.
    • In 2012, the ABC's Books Plus program marked the centenary of Richardson's return to Australia to conduct research for The Fortunes of Richard Mahony with a short discussion between presenter Michael Cathcart and Professor Clive Probyn, co-leader of Monash University's 14-year Henry Handel Richardson Project. Probyn's thoughts about Richardson's life and writing career can be heard here.
    • To listen to Richardson read an extract from The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, follow this link to BBC Radio 4's Front Row website. The excerpt was released on 7 April 1944, two years prior to Richardson's death.
    • To understand more about works based on, or set within, aspects of Australian history, see:

    Matthews, Brian. 'Riding on the "Uncurl'd Clouds": The Intersections of History and Fiction' in The Cambridge History of Australian Literature. ed. Peter Pierce. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2009: 344-359. (Matthews discusses Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, Henry Lawson’s short stories, Joseph Furphy’s Such Is Life, Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia, Patrick White’s The Tree of Man and Manning Clark’s A History of Australia.)


    Carr, Richard. 'Writing the Nation, 1900-1940 in A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900. eds. Nicholas Birns and Rebecca McNeer Rochester. New York: Camden House, 2007: 157-172. (Carr contrasts the tradition of the The Bulletin, Henry Lawson and Joseph Furphy with the 'alternate tradition' of Miles Franklin and Henry Handel Richardson.)

  • Parallel Reading Suggestions - Other Novels Published in 1930

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