Such is Life (05), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)
Such is Life (03)
Such is Life (04)

The fictitious memoir of Tom Collins, a NSW Government official, “of the ninth class” and former bullocky. Being reviewed in 12 parts over the course of 2021.

Have I persuaded you yet that Such is Life is a major work of Modernist fiction, and probably the only reason Joseph Furphy is not up there with Woolf, Joyce, Lawrence is, you know, cultural cringe.

Such Is Life … “was instantly seen as a major example of the “radical nationalism” of the time and praised for its realistic representation of life on the frontier in the 1880s. But it was forty years before many readers realized that the novel was also a subtle comment on fiction itself and that within it were hidden stories that revealed a world of “romance” within its “realist” representation of life. Such Is Life can be read as the first experimental novel in Australian literature and the first Australian literary expression of a twentieth-century sensibility of the provisionality of life and reality.”

Julian Croft, ‘Joseph Furphy.’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 230

On with the show, to Chapter III, another month on, in which Tom goes for a swim and causes a minor sensation.

The pages of the —— Express, the journal of record of a town on the Murray River, between Echuca and Albury, report two apparently unrelated stories from the night of 9th of November, 1883. In one a naked man, a “Lunatic at Large”, was sighted in various locations along the river. An ‘Inspector Collins of the NSW Public Service’ told the paper that he believed the man was an escapee from Beechworth Asylum who must subsequently have drowned. And in the other, Mr Q____ , a farmer lost a valuable stack of hay by fire.

Tom, as is his wont, takes his time relating his part in these stories, but on the afternoon of the 9th he was camped near a mate’s place on a bend in the river, on the NSW side. It is germane to this story that the Murray takes such a convoluted course that there are places along the river where Victoria is north of NSW, and this was near one such place. After several pages of smoking his pipe and philosophizing, and several more having a cup of tea with a swagman, he is accosted from the other side of the river by a farmer, B____ he knows and is persuaded to cross to the Victorian side using an improvised ferry – a bark canoe and a wire across the river between two trees.

Once again, he chooses between seemingly inconsequential alternatives and fate has him in its grip.

Halfway across the river a huge log is bearing down on him; he stands in the canoe and lifts the wire above it; Pup, his kangaroo dog chooses that moment to join him in the canoe, overturning it, and leaving both of them stranded on the log; no worries, he’ll strip off his clothes, tie the bundle to his head and swim for it; once more Pup intervenes, leaping from the log to his head and the clothes are lost; Tom swims to the northern shore thinking to walk back to his campsite; and finds himself on the Victorian side, after nightfall, stark naked.

His adventures as he accosts each passing traveller in the dark, most of them spooning couples from a Sunday School reunion picnic, is constantly attacked by mosquitos and walks through nettles and into unseen fences, are of course farcical.

Such is Life has seven chapters so for a couple of months I’ll have to cover a whole chapter, but not this month. I’ll leave you hanging with Tom naked by the roadside, or as he puts it, “into which, according to immemorial usage, I had been born without a rag of clothes”.

B____ – named later as Binney. The owner of the burned haystack, Q____ is likewise later named (though instead of giving the name the annotations point to 131:49 (page:line) where I find Jim Quarterman who no doubt turns up again later).

Victoria to the north. This puts the location of Tom’s adventure in the vicinity of Barmah (map). As does his mention of the locality ‘Moira’. I probably shouldn’t point out that heading downstream NSW is always on your right, why spoil a good story. Let’s say Tom was momentarily confused and swam with the setting sun on his left.

Quotations. Every third or fourth line seemingly, Furphy uses a phrase alluding to some other literary work. For example Tom looks in a cottage window seeking a man to help him out but sees only a woman and her children. “Like Enoch Arden (in my own little tin-pot way) I turned silently and sadly from the window, for I wasn’t wanted in that company.” In Tennyson’s ‘Enoch Arden’, Arden, believed lost at sea, returns to see through the window his wife re-married.
As Tom turns away he treads on a cactus (of course) and falls to the ground “comforting myself with the thought that a brave man battling with the storms of fate is a sight worthy of the admiration of gods”. From “Pope’s Prologue to Addison’s Cato“.

according to immemorial usage. cf. Job 1:21 – “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither.”


Joseph Furphy, Such is Life, Bulletin, Sydney, 1903

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).

The book cover at the top is the 2nd Ed., published by Furphy’s literary executor Kate Baker in 1917 using pages printed for the Bulletin’s 1st Ed., but not used, and with the addition of an Introduction by Vance Palmer. See the UNSW Digital Collections Library (here).


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18 thoughts on “Such is Life (05), Joseph Furphy

  1. Those literary allusions make me think about how the idea of being well-read has changed over time, and how back then if people read a lot, they were likely reading all/mostly the same stories, but how different that is now, that each person could read a hundred books in a year and the chance of overlap with other readers also reading 100 books each year wouldn’t necessarily translate into much/any overlap/familiarity among those hundreds. I also think about the evening chatter between Austen characters, how their witty banter to cultural works was based in that kind of shared literary experience. Even among our online reading friends, avid readers, overlap is slim.


    • Growing up I read lots of old books and was always frustrated and slightly embarrassed that the literary allusions were beyond me. They were to “the classics” – Greeks and Romans, Byron, Tennyson, the Bible – works I was never going to read. Furphy goes beyond that, uses phrases he read once and then has his friends look up (I must put that in my commentary, thank you BIP)
      The Austens at least had the advantage of shared libraries – the books they owned and those they borrowed. But yes the canon was manageable back then.


  2. On the subject of quotations, works written at this time all seem to assume that their audience will have grown up learning Latin and reading the literature of antiquity – which I guess is a function of the fact that education for middle and upper middle classes all involved a lot of classical study. I can normally identify biblical quotes and occasionally the Romantic poets, but otherwise I am always a bit lost. I remember looking up Cowper because Marianne was so obsessed with him in Sense and Sensibility, and not really seeing what all the hoopla was about.


    • Hi Lou, sorry for the delay in responding. Furphy in 1903 is probably a bit later than the usual writers who expect their readers to understand Latin and he in fact had an ordinary state school education in about the 1880s. I will have to address this further, but I think he is using classical quotations to mock his readers – it is an in-joke that a very low level public servant and former bullocky should be so well read.

      As you imply with your remark about Marianne, Tom is well read in the fashion of 50 or 100 years earlier. Personally, like you, I don’t see why those poets were such ‘pop stars’.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Steve does a similar thing in The Pea Pickers, constantly name dropping poets in particular. I spent ages at the beginning looking up each one, but by the end, I had to let them wash over me unexplored, otherwise I may never have finished the book. I guess that’s why annotated editions of older books like this can be so enlightening and helpful to modern readers.


    • When I was reading The Pea Pickers for my degree, I was still thinking of writing on what those old writers read. In PP I counted 150 named writers. Lawson was a big influence on how Langley saw herself but who influenced her writing I couldn’t say (I wish I could show she had read Virginia Woolf).

      BTW Your posts etc seem to be properly labelled in Hotmail now.

      Liked by 1 person

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