‘Dr Fiona Morrison on HHR: A Report’

Brigid Magner

On Thursday 5 August, Dr. Fiona Morrison presented ‘Deep Digging: Henry Handel Richardson, Transnational Allegory and the Unsettled Epic’, for the Centre for Australian Literary Cultures at the Australian National University. It was a well-attended zoom event, including several Henry Handel Richardson Society members.

Dr Morrison’s lecture began with the Proem of Australia Felix in which a miner is buried alive a week before the Eureka Rebellion. She talked about the ways in which The Fortunes of Ricard Mahony trilogy has been seen as a national allegory. As we know from her personal writings, the series was meant to finish with a fourth volume with Cuffy Mahony going to Gallipoli but HHR ‘ran out of steam’. Morrison’s central argument was that it cannot be read as a national allegory, especially the third volume Ultima Thule in which ‘personification falls into effect’. Ultima Thule features a ‘growing narrativization of WLR’s ghost on whom Mahony is based’. Through this novel, Morrison observes, HHR undertakes ‘grief work’ for her father, who is not a universal figure but a specific man with unique characteristics. There was an ensuing discussion of the Gothic qualities in the trilogy that includes themes of entombment, crypts, phantoms and the living dead, all within a realist mode. HHR may have absorbed her lost loved one as a suppressed secret and written it into the series, tapping into tropes of Gothic literature.

The theme of burying from the start of the trilogy recurs when Mahony is buried in Australian soil at the end. The series shows how Mahony never really fits into Australia, to-ing and froing between England the colony and problematises the idea of burial as belonging – he is buried in Australian soil but was never really ‘at home’ here. During the Q&A after the talk there was some reflection on the symbolism of the miner’s burst eardrums and encasement in soil, with one speaker suggesting that it might refer to the sound of Country. Another person responded to Fiona’s observation about the way HHR uses a ‘haunting refrain of Wadawurrung names’ in the trilogy, suggesting that this might be an implicit critique of the destruction of Country by pastoralists and mining.

HHR members at Fiona Morrison’s talk on zoom

It was pleasing to meet up with or at least recognize names and faces of a number of HHR Society members at Fiona Morrison’s talk, especially Claudia Milani who attended from her home in Northern Italy. The Fortunes of Richard Mahony was the subject of Claudia’s own thesis in 1999, and she added to her thesis a translation into Italian of The End of a Childhood.’ You can read more about Claudia below.

Claudia emailed the Society after the zoom meeting: Technology has given us great opportunities for connections, and we’ve been experimenting with them in these hard times. I’ve just had the opportunity to attend the seminar… a very rich paper. Thank you again for access to the seminar and for the newsletter; it’s so important for me to keep updated.

Coincidentally another new member introduced in the October 2020 newsletter – Kerry Willis from the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria – also attended the zoom, and was a keen participant in the discussion after.

In her introduction in the October 2020 newsletter Kerry spoke of reading The Fortunes of Richard Mahony in1966 or thereabouts while studying Australian Literature at the Australian National University, and she still counts it as one of her favourite books.

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