Such is Life (01), Joseph Furphy

If you were paying attention, you might have noticed I plan to slow read the annotated Such is Life over the course of 2021. Such is Life, which is the first great modernist classic of Australian Literature, was published, by the Bulletin, after a long struggle, in 1903. I have written about it previously in Such is Life, Abridged! (here) and in Joseph Furphy, Miles Franklin (here).

Joseph Furphy (1843-1912) was born near Yarra Glen, Victoria, the second of five brothers. Miles Franklin describes an almost Austen-esqe home environment of shared reading and writing with mother keeping journals of the boys’ writings, ballads and odes to lost loves. In 1852 the family moved to Kyneton (90 km north of Melbourne on the road to Bendigo) where Joseph went to school. In 1868 they took up land, “Sand Hills”, around Lake Cooper (map) in the names of Samuel (senior), Joseph and Isaac, building themselves homes which survived into the 1950s.

At Glenlyon he met Leonie Selina Germain, of French descent. They were married at Christchurch, Daylesford, on 27 May 1867; Leonie was 16. His wife was to remain an enigma to him and a mystery to both her contemporaries and to later observers of the human scene.

ADB, Manning Clark

After five years Joe gave up, rented nearby while he tried a bit of gold prospecting, then with a wagon and bullocks, he uprooted his tiny, French wife and their children to follow him as a bullocky through the backblocks of NSW. His oldest son Felix, not a budding writer, who had command of Furphy’s second wagon wrote to his grandfather in 1883 –

“I have no books hear but the third book and the story of the too dogs and father reads nothing but shakspere everybody carries books but they are yellow novels …”.

Older brother John, a blacksmith, had in the meanwhile set up the famous Furphy Foundry in Shepparton. When Joseph’s enterprise failed, due to drought and disease in the cattle, Leonie wrote home for help and a position was made for Joseph at the foundry. At last, around 1887, already in his forties, Furphy had a settled home and could begin to write. Still it took him till 1897 to write up his great work and another six years of typing, cutting and emendations to get it published.


Contrary to usage, these memoirs are published, not “in compliance with the entreaties of friends,” but in direct opposition thereto …


Chapter 1

Unemployed at last! …

… Whilst a peculiar defect – which I scarcely like to call an oversight in mental construction – shuts me from the flowery pathway of the romancer, a co-ordinate requital endows me, I trust, with the more sterling, if less ornamental qualities of the chronicler.

And so we are underway with the fictitious memoir of Tom Collins, “a Government official, of the ninth class; paid rather according to my grade than my merit… Candidly, I was only a Deputy-Assistant-Sub-Inspector..” Having chosen at random from his 22 Lett’s Pocket Diaries, he plans to give us a record of the week beginning Sunday, the 9th of September, 1883, as an example of his life.

The fore part of the day was altogether devoid of interest or event. Overhead, the sun blazing wastefully and thanklessly through a rarefied atmosphere; underfoot, the hot, black clay, thirsting for spring rain, and bare except for inedible roley-poleys, coarse tussocks, and the woody stubble of close-eaten salt bush; between sky and earth, a solitary wayfarer, wisely lapt in philosophic torpor. Ten yards behind the grey saddle horse follows a black pack-horse, lightly loaded; and three yards behind the pack-horse ambles listlessly a tall, slate-coloured kangaroo dog, furnished with the usual poison muzzle …

… the level black-soil plains of the Riverina Proper … away beyond the horizon, southward still, the geodesic curve carries that monotony across the zone of salt-bush, myall, and swamp box; across the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee, and on to the Victorian border – say, two hundred and fifty miles.

… and against the background of a pine-ridge, a mile ahead, I saw some wool teams.

There were five bullock teams with wagons loaded with bales of wool, bound for the river port of Echuca on the Murray River which marks the Victoria/NSW border – Steve Thompson’s twenty; Cooper’s eighteen; Dixon’s eighteen; and Price’s two teams of fourteen. Collins, knowing Thompson, Dixon and Price settles down with them and joins their consultations. The bullockies’ pressing need is to settle somewhere for the evening where their cattle can get feed and water, and where they won’t be chased off by the actual owner of the paddock they choose to camp on.

The annotations are endnotes, with no indication in the text that there is one, so that you must read the front and the back of the book at the same time, for text and annotation to match.

Such is Life The thematic phrase which gives the book its title did not originate with Ned Kelly, though the belief that he used it at his hanging explains its currency in Australia. It is at least as old as WJ Temple, 1796: “This interruption is very teasing; but such is Life”.

Kangaroo dog. A greyhound-deerhound cross

Riverina Proper ‘This central point of the universe’. In the C19th the term applied to all southern NSW north of the Murray, east of the Darling and west of the Great Divide.

Pine Ridge We are out on the Hay plains, whose almost perfectly flatness, hence ‘the geodesic curve’ of the horizon, is broken in places by lines of sandhills bound by the Australian cypress pine.


FD Glass, R Eaden, GW Turner, L Hoffman eds, The Annotated Such is Life, by Joseph Furphy, Halstead Classics, Sydney, 1999. 297pp (plus 170pp notes and annotations).


Next. Such is Life (02) >

35 thoughts on “Such is Life (01), Joseph Furphy

  1. You guys have pig dogs and kangaroo dogs. I wonder if there is something in their breed that makes them seek out only one type of animal. In the U.S. we have “hunting dogs,” and they’ll hunt most anything you train them to: deer, turkey, pheasant, ducks, etc. Did I ever tell you that a wallaby held my hand? I was at Busch Gardens, an animal-themed entertainment park, and we were allowed to buy food and feed these wallabies. Well, apparently I was not feeding one of them quickly enough, so it grabbed the hand with food in both its wee hands, and pulled my hand closer to get the snacks closer to its face. *SQUEE* Any excuse to tell that story.


    • Luckily, our sheep dogs don’t hunt sheep (but don’t get between a sausage dog and a sausage). I’m glad you found an excuse to tell the wallaby story. A kangaroo might try to disembowel you if it got that close but I’m guessing a wallaby would be too small.


    • I would have been a bullocky back then (or maybe a Tom Collins) or a drover. I love being out in the bush just slowly walking along behind a mob of sheep. The book will tell us a little bit about life in the C19th, but it deliberately focuses on men who even then were a long way outside mainstream Australian life.


  2. Good on you Bill for doing this. I look forward to seeing your posts over the year. I wonder if I could take on a slow read for a year? Hmmm… if I did, what would it be?

    I love that the cover calls it “the prose classic”!


  3. I wish I could read epubs, as I see this is available as an epub through our library (and in hard copy in reference copies only, not available in COVID times) and it seems like a book that would be fun to read along. That style of endnote, I kinda like (for its not being disruptive) and dislike (for its being invisible). Hah. But I love the ones with the edges of the story free for diagrams and mini-maps and the like (even though this hardly ever happens).


    • One of the attractions of SIL for me is I’ve always been well acquainted with where it’s set, from constantly when I was younger driving backwards and forwards through there. Even today I was in Echuca where I’m pretty sure there’s a coffee palace (temperance hotel) mentioned in the book. That would be great if you were to read along. You have plenty of time to catch up, I’ll still be on Ch.1 in February.


    • BIP. I had this link on a previous post and seems to lead to a readable version of the novel
      AustLit, The Joseph Furphy Digital Archive
      click on “Such is Life (1903)” [twice for some reason] then make you way to the text in a box and use the arrows underneath to scroll through. I’m sure you know how to use arrows, but I had to look for them to work out what to do next.


  4. Reading that Joseph was the brother of John Furphy of Furphy’s Foundry reminds me that my FIL often told the origin story of the saying about ‘telling a furphy’. B23 and B20 will never forget their Pop regaling them with the tale of the Furphy water cart travelling around Northern Vic and into the Riverina, and wherever it stopped the farmers would gather to catch up, tell stories and gossip. As the cart moved around it also spread the tall tales and gossip, spreading furphies far and wide!

    His BIL, our Uncle Lew, still likes to quote the self-improvement poem painted on the side of the water carts – Good Better Best, Never Let it Rest, Until your Good is Better, And your Better Best – that his mother constantly berated him with as a boy!


    • Interestingly and completely coincidentally, “Tom Collins” was also the name for a rumour monger (until replaced by “Furphy” during the War when Furphy water carts were used by the army).
      I was in Shepparton a few weeks ago doing a pickup and as I came round the corner in the industrial area there was John Furphy & Sons foundry still going strong.

      In Grade 6 woodwork our teacher Mr Harley always insisted that “Near enough is not good enough” but of course it usually is.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great to read a review on an old Aussie book. My last old Aussie read was ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney.’ I’ve often been surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed these stories and why they aren’t more popular.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good to have you here. Thank you for commenting. I’ve read and reviewed quite a few old books. From Richard Mahoney you might go towards to Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land, or back in time to Ada Cambridge – say the Three Miss Kings


  6. How wonderful to find this post! I too am reading Such is Life. I first read the standard edition. Then I heard about the Annotated Such is Life, which really appealed to me because I kept wanting to know the origins and hidden meanings of the many allusions in the narrative. So I’m into the first [annotated] chapter, and I find it is enriching my enjoyment of the text, even though some of the notes seem a little pedantic. But then, Furphy is pedantic too, leavened by his dry humour and his penetrating observation of human nature. I was drawn to the story because I grew up in the Riverina. I’m so glad that at last I have entered the Furphy world. I wonder if there is a Tom Collins Facebook page?


    • Glad to have you here Christina. Having gone from the text to the annotations to a blog about the annotations you should be pretty well full bottle by the end.
      By the end which for me is just coming into sight. I have a week to write up and post on the first part of the last chapter and then there’s just one post to go
      It’s never occurred to me to look for a Tom Collins page, but I’m always searching for more written material about Such is Life to use here, so I expect I would have seen it if there was one.
      You know I’m sure that there are two more Furphy books, both excised from his original Such is Life ms – Rigby’s Romance and The Buln Buln and the Brolga – so there’s plenty more to read.


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