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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1639

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First published: 1930; Australia Felix, 1917; The Way Home, 1925; Ultima Thule, 1929

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social chronicle

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Locale: Australia

Principal Characters:

Richard Mahony, a doctor

Mary, his wife

Purdy Smith, his friend

John Turnham, Mary’s brother

Henry Ocock, Richard’s solicitor

The Story:

Richard Mahony was ill-suited to life in the Australian gold mines. A moderately successful doctor, he had left his practice in England and had gone to the colonies in hopes of a quick fortune. Having found the life of a digger unsuitable for him, he had taken what little money and goods he had left and set up a store; but he hated the raw country with bitter passion and longed for England and his native Ireland.

To that life, he brought his bride, Mary Turnham, whom he had met through an old schoolfriend, Purdy Smith. Purdy was as crude as Richard was fastidious. Mary wept at her new home, but she loved her husband, and she set about making the best of matters. The death of her baby matured and quieted her, but it did not kill her spirit.

When her sister-in-law died, Mary gladly cared for her children. Her other brothers and sisters, separated from their home in England, turned to her as they might a mother, and she comforted and encouraged them as she did her husband.

When Richard found his business declining, he decided to sell out and take Mary back to England. Mary, however, persuaded him instead to stay in Australia and set up a medical practice. With the help of Mary’s brother, John Turnham, Richard borrowed enough money to buy a decent house and the necessary medical supplies. Henry Ocock, the son of a neighbor and a successful solicitor, arranged a loan and in other ways advised Richard.

Richard had a sudden stroke of luck. On Henry Ocock’s advice, he had invested a small sum in some mining stock, Australia Felixes. The stock suddenly boomed, and Richard found himself a wealthy man overnight. As he prospered, so did his practice, until he had more than he could handle; but Richard began to assume an air that worried Mary. Thinking his old friends uncouth and crude, he wanted Mary to join more fashionable circles. She did so, but she quietly retained the old friendships as well.

After an exhausting illness brought on by overwork, Richard finally sold out his practice and prepared to return to England. He could return as he had always dreamed he would, rich and honored. They set sail—Richard with pride and Mary with sorrow.

In England and during their short visit in Ireland, Mary and Richard Mahony were welcomed and entertained. When Richard settled down to practice medicine again, however, he was twice scorned as a bushman from Australia, unfit to treat or to meet socially English snobs of the middle class. The snubs to Mary were the worst of all. Richard could not tolerate these, and so they returned to Australia. There Richard learned that his Australia Felix stocks had taken a new turn upward; he was wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. He bought a splendid house and called it Ultima Thule. To Mary’s sorrow, he did not return to his practice. Feeling that he could retire and enjoy the quiet he had always desired, Richard turned to spiritualism and spent long hours in seances with charlatans and quacks, in spite of Mary’s remonstrances and those of his friends. In the great house, he lived at times like a recluse with his books and fancies. Mary resumed her old ways with her friends and relatives. John remarried and had been widowed again; Mary once more had to care for John’s children and soften his bitterness toward the world. John, successful in business and politics, was still dependent on Mary. Even after he married the third time, he could not find and hold the happiness that came naturally to his sister.

At last, Mary and Richard had the family they had hoped for. Mary gave birth to a son and, a year later, twin girls. Although they were getting on in years, Mary and Richard lavished all of their love and attention on the children; but Richard was withdrawing more and more from the world, and it was Mary who guided the children through their early days. Their happiness was marred when Mary’s brother John died from cancer. Richard, although he no longer practiced medicine, had done everything possible to ease the sick man’s pain. Then, because of Mary’s grief after John’s death, Richard decided to return to England. Ultima Thule was sold before the family left for the land Richard would always call home.

In England, Richard continued his preoccupation with spiritualism. He had for some time, even back in Australia, been bothered by weird dreams that became more frequent and confusing. Richard was convinced that he was actually communicating with the dead, but Mary could see that her husband was deteriorating in body and mind.

The worst blow of all came when he received news that the broker in charge of his financial affairs had absconded from Australia to America. Richard was completely ruined. Leaving Mary and the children to follow later, he left at once for Australia.

On his arrival in Australia, Richard learned that he had left only about three thousand pounds, and he was forced to resume his medical practice. When Mary and the children arrived, she found that in spite of his poverty he had lost none of his grand ideas. As they went from one miserable village to another, Richard’s mental deterioration increased rapidly in the squalor in which they lived. His temper was short; he still scorned the old friends as louts to be avoided, and Mary had to meet them in secret. She herself suffered a shock that was almost too much for her to bear when Lallie, one of the twin girls, died a horrible, agonizing death. The tragedy, however, brought Mary and Richard close again, since Richard was her only comfort and strength. He insisted that Mary take the two remaining children for a vacation. Alone, Richard could no longer fight his strange dreams and illusions. His dead daughter appeared to him often, and the servant heard him talking to himself like a madman. In his depressed state of mind, he lost the pitifully few patients he had.

When Mary and the children returned, she found her husband seriously ill. After selling the house and her own few trinkets, she moved with Richard to an even more miserable town. There he grew steadily worse and once attempted suicide. Trying to manage, Mary put Richard in a private mental hospital and took a position as postmistress in a hovel far removed from any home they had ever known. When she had no more money to pay the hospital bills, she placed Richard, now mad, in a public asylum. When she tried to visit him and learned that he was being treated like a animal, she turned to her old friend, Henry Ocock, to help her get Richard out of the institution. At all costs, Richard should not die like a beast.

Richard went home at last. His sanity never returned, but on his deathbed, he looked at Mary and called her his dear wife. His words were all the reward Mary needed for her life of sacrifice for the husband buried in a strange land that could never claim his soul.

Critical Evaluation:

The publication of ULTIMA THULE in 1929 brought the first widespread popular success to Henry Handel Richardson, who had been known before that date to a small but dedicated group of admirers since her first novel, MAURICE GUEST (1908). In 1929, AUSTRALIA FELIX and THE WAY HOME, by then out of print, were quickly revived, and the trilogy came out under the title of THE CHRONICLE OF THE FORTUNES OF RICHARD MAHONY.

Set in Australia in the period of the gold rush and based upon the experiences of her own parents, Richardson’s trilogy is a brilliant and unsentimental treatment of the plight of a sensitive intellectual in the harsh environment of the Australian frontier. In contrast to many romanticized tales of adventure in the gold mines or the bush, Richardson wanted to deal with the problem of those who failed, who were unable to adapt to the strange hard world. Richard Mahony’s tragedy is a personal, not a social one. There is no indictment of society as the cause of his decline. Those who possessed vigor, resourcefulness, and a large measure of common sense could survive and even prosper in the new land; but Mahony is doomed ultimately by his own nature, the inherent instability that keeps him always unsatisfied. As an educated Englishman and a doctor turned storekeeper, he is uncomfortable and inefficient. He turns to medical practice upon Mary’s urging and succeeds as long as he relies upon her judgment; but restlessness seizes him, and he insists upon returning to England. Here the irony of the title THE WAY HOME is revealed: the colonial becomes alienated from both the old and the new environments. Neither his native Ireland nor the England of his former life is now truly home for Mahony; both climate and people seem cramped and cold. Neither can Australia be a home for him as it becomes for Mary. On their return, his sense of alienation is exacerbated by their financial ruin, and his restlessness keeps them moving from place to place in a tragic attempt to find security. In ULTIMA THULE, the harrowing account of Mahony’s deterioration into mental illness and of Mary’s heroic devotion to him until his death forms a powerful conclusion to this superb trilogy.