Such is Life (03), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)

We’re at Chapter II which begins with Tom giving up on his idea of describing minutely every day of one week and instead determining “to pick out of each consecutive month the 9th day for amplification and comment, keeping not too long in one tune, but a snip and away”. This “transports” us to 9th October 1883 and a hundred miles northward, to Willandra Billabong, real black-soil desert country on the middle reaches of the Lachlan River which in dry times peters out and in flood spreads across country as far west as the Darling.

On the verandah of the Willandra Station men’s quarters an argument breaks out as to whether cattle can smell water. This leads of course to a story, in this case of Tom as a bullocky delivering fencing wire to Willandra two years earlier (his bullocks dying of thirst stood next to water without realizing it was there), and on to a second story of meeting an Irish shepherd at that time whom he had previously known when he (Tom) was a settler in northern Victoria, and thence to a considerable digression on the British fomenting trouble between Irish Catholic and Protestant tenant farmers.

Tom determines to call in on the shepherd again on his way northwards and soon he and his horses are fed and he’s ready to depart –

A few minutes afterward, Cleopatra was shaking this refreshment well down by means of the exercise with which he habitually opened the day’s work. But this was to be expected in the same spirit as the abusive language of a faithful pastor, It was all in the contract. ..I dare say I might have gradually weaned him from his besetting sin, but I didn’t want to be pestered with people borrowing him.

Travelling through “the monotonous variety of this interminable scrub” which he clearly loves, “painted by nature in its Impressionist mood”, he muses on its virgin state “sheltering little of animal life beyond half-specialised and belated types, anachronistic even to the Aboriginal savage” before running into the Irish shepherd, Rory O’Halloran, some miles from his hut. They travel together until a Rory sees some task to be done and sends Tom on ahead.

A half mile or so from the hut Tom espies a traveller resting under a tree. Etiquette stops him from hailing the traveller who would probably prefer to arrive at the hut after dusk when there was no danger of his having to chop the wood in exchange for a feed. But the author wants us to mark that this was a decisive turning point, and then discourses for some pages, citing Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet to make his point, that an option once taken cannot be reversed and will always have unexpected consequences.

Or put it in allegorical form. The misty expanse of Futurity is radiated with divergent lines of rigid steel; and along one of these lines, with diminishing carbon and sighing exhaust, you travel at schedule speed, At each junction, you switch right or left, and on you go still, up or down the way of your own choosing. But there is no stopping or turning back; and until you have passed the current section there is no divergence, except by voluntary catastrophe. Another junction flashes into sight, and again your choice is made; negligently enough, perhaps, but still with a view to what you consider the greatest good, present or prospective.

So Tom goes on, to meet the unwelcoming Mrs O’Halloran and their five year old daughter, Mary whose fate rings down through the novel.

transports you (saving reverence of our ‘birth stain’)” – A small pun on our origins as transported convicts

as far west as the Darling – The Lachlan nominally runs into the Murrumbidgee but this country is very flat.

Willandra – near present-day Hillston, in the middle of this map, and on the road-train route from Melbourne to North Queensland which I know well.

Willandra Station – have I made it clear that in Australia a ‘station’ is a very large grazing property on unimproved country, running sheep or cattle. Squatters are station owners. The state governments at various times – as late as the 1950s – made the squatters give up portions of their land to Settlers, but the squatters generally managed to hang on to the best watering places; and would sometimes put in Dummies to act as settlers on blocks they wished to retain. In passing, this policy of breaking up stations is why the anger of white commentators towards Zimbabwe’s Mugabe was a total confection. Yes, his execution of the policy was corrupt (or corrupted) but it was a policy common in all settler countries.

Tom, a settler – In 1868 Furphy, his father and brother took up land at Sand Hills between Bendigo and Shepparton but Joseph was unable to make a go of it (see Such is Life (01)).

The Irish question – Tom is presumably English Protestant but the Furphys (as was the shepherd) were Irish Catholics, from Tandragee, County Armagh in 1840.

“Cleopatra was shaking this refreshment well down” – you might recall, Tom’s horse responded to being remounted by bucking.

Tom in his musings “appears to subscribe to the Terra Nullius theory that completely disregards the long history of the country’s Aboriginal inhabitants, but this is at odds” with Furphy’s own published views. (annotation 66:7)

On re-reading, this is a very slow post, and it reflects the book’s slow build up to the underlying dramas. What I have failed to convey is the amusement derived by the reader from the individual stories as Tom wends his discursive way.


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 (04) >

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20 thoughts on “Such is Life (03), Joseph Furphy

  1. What an unexpected delight to find little jokes like the “transport” one. It’s also interesting to note the differences between squatters and settlers…at least, they’re meant to appear different, but I suppose all us settlers are squatters in another sense.


    • Furphy is one of those people who is always thinking of alternate meanings of words outside the context in which he is using them (my mind goes off like that during arguments, must be a nervous thing).
      The mythology of the Australian bush has settlers and squatters at daggers drawn, and of course we mostly side with the little guy, the settler. Because they were first, the squatters did most of the ‘dispersing’ (murdering) of Aboriginal people whose land they were taking. As early as the 1840s, in the eastern states, the original inhabitants had been forced to the margins. Small pox and possibly measles was a big part of that around Sydney, but further out I think it was mostly guns, poison and missionaries.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I wish that I was more attentive to specific meanings and interpretations of words sometimes; it can bring an additional layer of enjoyment to the work for sure. That latter phrase of yours would make a suitable book title (tragically).

        Liked by 1 person

      • Not a book I’ll write, but I do write about it when I can.
        Such is Life might be the only book I dig this deep into. I get one literary studies journal (which I read sporadically) and it only serves to highlight how shallowly I usually read.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “it only serves to highlight how shallowly I usually read.” I think we all feel like that at times Bill. I try to have one novel a year that I dig in deep, and a handful of others that get a lesser treatment. But I think reading should also be an entertainment or a comfort at times too. As always, it’s striking the balance that works best for you.

    When I first spotted the word squatter, I thought they should have been the underdogs – applying my urban grunge definition of the word squatter, instead of the traditional colonial one!


  3. Don’t have much to add, as my comments have been pretty much said by the previous commenters, but I did enjoy this post and wish I could commit to the slow read with you. I don’t know what I can’t really, except that time somehow seems at a premium.


    • I’m on holidays and time’s still at a premium (all my spare posts are now used up except SIL4) so I sympathise. Of course, it would be great if you joined in as a reader, it’s only 300 odd pages, and as I say, the biggest difficulty I have is not getting on with enjoying the byplay as the story unfolds.

      And with my posts spread over 12 months, while I hope my analysis is interesting enough that you all keep reading, I can’t and don’t expect readers to comment every time.

      Liked by 1 person

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