The Adventures of Cuffy Mahony, Henry Handel Richardson

 

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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

 

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Maldon P.O. (2015)

 

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8 thoughts on “The Adventures of Cuffy Mahony, Henry Handel Richardson

  1. I love HHR’s novels and had a lovely weekend away once with the HHR society in Maldon (see https://anzlitlovers.com/2009/07/06/literary-tourism-in-maldon-henry-handel-richardson-celebration-weekend/). Being there really brought The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney alive once more, in a way that only being in a small Aussie town can do.
    I am quite ashamed that I have only reviewed Maurice Guest… it’s just that I’ve read TFORM three times, and am not quite ready to read it again just yet…

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  2. Today I’m doing literary tourism in Karalundi, a tiny ‘community’ north of Meekatharra, which has come up in 2 recent posts (Rabbit Proof Fence and Lizzie Ellis). I’m actually being paid to wait here for 24 hours so I’ve been for a walk and been given the keys to the museum. I read your literary tourism post – a good idea, perhaps I could do guided literary tours for post retirement income. My next project is Brent of Bin Bin – an overview and 7 novels but yes I too would like one day to make my way through HHR (and CH Spence, and Christina Stead and Kylie Tennant and maybe even one day Elizabeth Jolley. I might be a while!)

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  3. Are all these characters you mention, many without names, from different stories in the Cuffy book? About how long is each story? I love the quotes you provided very much, especially the two fat women and the naked men frog hopping! I ask about the length because the quotes you chose plus the lack of names make this collection sound more like it’s arranged almost like…hmmm… I’m not sure what. It’s incorrect, but all I can think of are the short bursts of Aesop’s fables.

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    • I’m glad you liked the quotes and I hope I can persuade you to add Richardson one day to your must-read pile. Up until say the 1960s she was regarded as Australia’s finest writer although now she probably ranks behind Patrick White and Christina Stead. The Adventures of Cuffy Mahony and other stories contains 15 stories in all, over 196 pages. The Cuffy story is the longest at 38 pp, the story about the farmer’s daughters and the first two German stories are also longish at 20-30 pp. Most of the rest are just sketches, around 5 pp. The stories are arranged more or less by age of protagonist, and in line with the author’s own progress, from Australia to Germany to England.

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  4. […] Bill from The Australian Legend reviewed this collection and had an entirely different perspective.  (He also very kindly lent this book, long out-of-print, to me).  Bill thinks Cuffy’s story is well-written but is out of place in a collection exploring aspects of womanhood.  How interesting it is that we respond to the same book so differently!  I think Cuffy’s story is brilliant and want it continued in a novel, and I will have forgotten most the rest of the stories by bedtime tomorrow.  Having said that, I’d be quick to acknowledge that feminist scholars would find much that is interesting about expectations placed on women in the era before WW1. ‘And Woman Must Weep’ covers familiar territory in depicting a ‘wallflower’ at a dance but is written with a perception that seems to derive from personal experience, which few authors of that era, I suspect, would have been willing to reveal. ‘Sister Ann’ develops a persistent thread in the trilogy and in Cuffy’s story, of women taking on men’s roles out of necessity, and despite being better at them than the useless men around them, getting no credit for it and still not achieving financial independence or security. […]

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