The Adventures of Cuffy Mahony and other stories is misleadingly named. Firstly, Cuffy, a boy, has only one adventure and secondly, all the other stories, divided into Growing Pains – sketches of girlhood, set in Australia, and Part 2, Tales of Old Strasbourg and a couple of other stories reflecting the author’s move to Europe, are mostly about aspects of what it is to be a woman. I suspect that the name and the opening story were chosen only to take advantage of the popularity of Richardson’s masterwork, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.
For my increasing numbers of overseas readers (I had a reader in Brazil last week), Henry Handel Richardson is the pen name of Ethel Richardson (1870-1946). In The Australian Novel (undated, but inscribed with Dad’s name and the year 1947, so it was probably a text for teachers’ college) Colin Roderick writes, “Although not typically Australian, Henry Handel Richardson’s work stands at a higher level than that of any other novelist belonging to this country.”
HHR’s doctor father, whom she later fictionalised as Richard Mahony, died when she was 9. Her mother supported the family by becoming Post Mistress at first Koroit then Maldon, Victorian country towns, and managed to get Ethel and her younger sister into exclusive Presbyterian Ladies College, Melbourne and then the Leipzig Conservatorium (earlier post here). HHR met and married Scot and noted scholar of German literature, John George Robertson in Leipzig, lived for a number of years prior to WWI in Strasbourg, and then the rest of her life in England.
It is speculated that her marriage to Robertson was a cover for her sexual preference for women. HHR alludes (in her letters, I think) to an ongoing, long-distance, relationship with a Melbourne woman with whom she was at school, and a recent essay* says straight out that in the latter part of her life HHR was in a relationship with her secretary/companion Olga Roncoroni. The author of her ADB entry (here) strongly disagrees. The reason I raise this at all, is that it illuminates any reading of the stories, particularly those making up Growing Pains.
The Adventures of Cuffy Mahony, subtitled The End of a Childhood, is really a sort of afterword to Ultima Thule, the last book of The Fortunes trilogy. Richard has been dead one year. Mrs Mahony has moved on from Koroit to Maldon with children Cuffy and Lucie. She receives an unwelcome proposal of marriage from a well off family ‘friend’ which she is in two minds whether to accept. She has an accident, dies and the children are taken away to be raised separately. It is well enough written, from Cuffy’s as well as Mrs Mahony’s point of view, but is out of place in this collection.
Growing Pains consists of 9 short stories whose protagonists are all girls/young women, each a little older than the girls in the preceding story, set in rural pre-WWI Australia. So in the first, a girl age 6 bathing naked at the edge of the ocean is put off bathing for life when two older women strip and join her.
And suddenly she turned tail and ran back to the pool. She didn’t want to see…
Two fat, stark-naked figures were coming down the beach. They had joined hands, as if to sustain each other in their nudity … or as if, in shedding their clothes, they had also shed a portion of their years. Gingerly, yet in haste to reach cover, they applied their soles to the prickly sand; a haste that caused unwieldy breasts to bob and swing, bellies and buttocks to wobble. Splay-legged they were, from the weight of these protuberances.
In the next, three girls in a boarding school dorm spend a night attempting to arrange themselves in an uncomfortable bed; and in the third two twelve year-olds argue in a hay loft then get a thrill when a workman lifts them down from the ladder: “… two long arms, two big hairy hands, which, gripping each twelve-year-old securely round the middle, swung her high before setting her on her feet. Carelessly now the short skirts fluttered and ballooned.”
Nineteen year-old Alice with a fiance attempts to explain the facts of life she barely knows herself to a younger girl worrying about the consequences of her first kiss. Then, not a story, just a snippet, four girls rushing to have a bath together in muddy water – the dam must be low – no names, just descriptions. The bath is full, someone is coming: “Like a herd of startled wild things, all made for the water at once, a phalanx of cream, white and dusky legs whisking over the side with incredible rapidity.” And more water. A girl on an outing being rowed by The Boy, but he takes a wrong fork and they are in the middle of a men’s bathing enclosure: “ … men were running, jumping, chasing, leap frogging … every one of them as naked as the day he was born.” A girl at her first ball tears her gown getting down from the wagonette, doesn’t get asked to dance, goes home early and cries herself to sleep. Two women, friends, argue. One has found a man she is willing to marry. But:
“Oh, Betty, Betty! … I couldn’t, no, I couldn’t! It’s when I think of that … Yes, it’s quite true, I like him all right, I do indeed, but only as long as he doesn’t come too near. If he even sits too close I have to screw myself up to bear it.” … and locking her arms around her friend she drove her face deeper into the warmth and darkness.
And last, 6 sisters, their mother dead, their father a drunkard, running a farm and praying for husbands, at least for the youngest and prettiest.
The German stories, again set before the War, reflecting Richardson’s time there studying and then as a professor’s wife, are denser and maybe written later, the product of a more mature writer, I wish there was an Introduction so that we could know. In the first a working class girl has a baby, takes it home, watches it die of infant cholera brought about by the mother’s failure to always boil the milk. And in the second, a middle-aged professor of Philology living in a flat with his older sister takes a younger wife. Again the baby dies, of boredom probably, and this story seems so palpably a dig at her husband that it is hard to know what to make of it without more information, but it ends with the sister walking out, re-evaluating her situation as his eternal housekeeper/servant.
In the others, a woman dies, a composer takes and abandons a young lover in pursuit of his art, and another woman dies. The stories of Growing Pains are easily the best, but all are well written and the descriptions of old Strasbourg are very fine indeed.
Henry Handel Richardson, The Adventures of Cuffy Mahony and other stories, Sirius,Sydney, 1979. The End of a Childhood first published 1934
*Anne-Marie Priest, The Love Song of Henry and Olga, Australian Book Review, May 2014. See also a fierce ‘rebuttal’ in Letters to the Editor, ABR August 2014