The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney – Henry Handel Richardson

The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, Henry Handel Richardson

The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney is a book I read a long time ago now, but it keeps on re-occurring to me. Something today made it pop into my head.

I must have been around fifteen when I read it, on my mother’s recommendation. It is, to date, the book that has taken me longest to read, despite not being the longest. I remember it reasonably fondly, but I have no plans to read it again.

It was originally three novels  (according to the internet), published between 1917 and 1929 – the version I read collected all three together, and treated them as one book. The series has won awards and acclaim, though it is not well known now. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to call it a book, simply because I am more familiar with it as three sections in one volume, not three separate volumes.

Richard Mahoney is a doctor, originally from Ireland, though the reader is first introduced to him in Australia. Over the course of the book, throughout its three sections, he builds and loses his fortune multiple times, and builds and loses his reputation, several times. Essentially, it is a book, as the title suggests, about his changing fortunes.

Throughout his life, he constantly strives with the conflict between making money and his more cerebral desires – he wants to read complex books of philosophy, but the money to be made is in goldrush-era Australia, when philosophy was not much of a public concern. He craves respect, and a return to Ireland as more than a colonial doctor, but his return does not bring him what he imagines, and he eventually returns to Australia, to find that the world has gone on without him.

It isn’t a happy book – the repeated reversals and hardships make it somewhat emotionally draining, and every time he comes out on top, the start of another section plunges him back down into despair. It is an effective book – you do care about the characters, and you do learn a lot about their life and the world they inhabit. I could have coped with more positive emotions, but that isn’t what it is trying to do.

It took me a long time to read – for over a year, the book sat next to my bed, with a bookmark at the beginning of Section 3 – “Ultima Thule”. Every so often, I’d pick it up, read a few pages, and not have the energy to go on. Three long novels of life kicking a man while he’s down is hard to get through. But I did eventually finish it, and it has always stuck with me. Literature of that era, even good literature, doesn’t have the same hooks that modern stuff does; there is a slower, gentler pace, and less sugar-coating. The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney isn’t a book about a man who meets amazing triumphs, or a man who fails magnificently. It is about a man who tries and tires and tries again. It is a book about struggling, and eventually reaching some kind of rest.

I don’t persevere with much, to be honest – I’m quite lazy, and things I don’t excel at,  I give up on very fast. The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney was something of a turning point for me – not the longest, or the most difficult book I’ve ever read, but one that I gave up on several times, and always picked back up again. Now, I don’t quit on books – there is one thing in life that I definitely finish. It seems the right thing to do.

I could rattle on about the virtues of perseverance, the transformative power of literature, and so on. I’m not going to do that. I’m also not going to recommend that everyone read it, or that anyone do so. Read it if you want – it is good, but the style is very definitely not modern, and it is something that will take time. And for your time, you won’t get happy endings.

I don’t really know how I feel about it, to be honest – it had a large yet nebulous effect on me. I’m glad I read it, but I wouldn’t do it again. It was a good thing to do, but I’m not sure if that is mostly the book, or just the way I ended up viewing it: this large mountain to be climbed, an obstacle to over come. Really, I have only one clear comment.

I read it, it took me a long time, and it was worth the time in doing so.


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