Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 376

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.

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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.

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