Such is Life (06), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)
Such is Life (03)
Such is Life (04)
Such is Life (05)

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.

06, we should be half way. Of course we’re not, but I’ll get a move on. Though not straight away, let’s go back to the beginning. This month’s cover, and I hope I manage to come up with 12, is of the latest edition, from Text who are doing us all a favour and simultaneously, I hope making money, publishing old, out of copyright, Australian classics. The photo of course is of Furphy and the text around his head is the book’s opening line. His meaning is that he will now have time to write.

… my enforced furlough tacitly conveys the responsibility of extending a ray of information, however narrow and feeble, across the path of such fellow-pilgrims as have led lives more sedentary than my own – particularly as I have enough money to frank myself in a frugal way for some weeks, as well as to purchase the few requisites of authorship.

“[A] ray of information, however narrow and feeble, across the path of such fellow-pilgrims as have led lives more sedentary than my own” sounds a bit like me and Journals, but neither I nor Furphy had enough money to frank ourselves, and are/were obliged to keep on working, the task taking not “weeks” but years.

The authority I have chosen to consult this month is HM Green’s A History of Australian Literature. Green’s History, if you don’t know it, is 1500 pages of almost continuous text, broken into a few sections and only occasionally into paragraphs. One man giving his opinions on every book and writer from 1788 to the 1950s. Luckily Vol II contains an Index, so not completely unmanageable. A good deal of the 20pp he devotes to Such is Life is based on Miles Franklin’s biog., Josephy Furphy, and on critics like the American Hartley Grattan “who knows more about Australian literature than most Australians”, who considered Furphy a great writer and Such is Life “a superb book”.

Green’s opinion is that “Furphy is the most original writer that Australia has yet produced, and one of the most vital and unrestrained”, though he ranks him second in talent behind Henry Handel Richardson. Such is Life, says Green, “may be described as a novel only in a very extended sense of the term”; Furphy, writing to a friend, referred to it as “one long, involved lie.”

Such is Life may be compared to a great smooth boulder composed of a number of strata: the principal strata consist of masses of outback experience and fireside yarns; but interspersed with these are other strata which consist of moral, philosophic, and scientific observations … on subjects as different as Religion and Irish History, Freewill and Destiny, Buckjumping, English fairplay, Music and Mathematics, The Larger Morality and Man ‘o War Hawks. Through these diverse strata, fastening them together, run not only the personality of the narrator, but a number of stories and sketches, broken but quite traceable, like veins or filaments of metal injected into the stone.

Green, p661

Last month we left Tom naked and on the wrong side of the Murray River. He becomes increasing forceful in accosting men and attempting to steal a pair of ______ to cover his modesty. Interestingly the theme of the night becomes his extreme courtesy towards women. When one young man reacts to being forcefully undressed by screaming, “the thought flashed through my mind he was one of those De Lacy Evanses we often read of in novels; and in two seconds I was fifty yards away …” because of course only women react to outrage by screaming.

After falling over his dog into more thistles and standing on a snake, he accosts a woman in her home, presumably alone, and she of course replies that if he doesn’t go away she will wake her husband, which is what he wants, as he couldn’t ask a woman for _____.

Luckily he finds an abandoned camp fire, which he covers with green branches to keep off the mosquitoes, and sleeps away the rest of the night. In the early morning he sees that he is opposite a farmhouse with (male) clothes on the line and an approaching horseman. The farce continues – he approaches the horseman, Jim; Jim turns out to be Jemima, riding astride “like a clothes peg”; throwing himself behind an inadequate log he lets her pass; she calls her father who rushes out with a shotgun; Tom sets fire to an old haystack to create a diversion and steals the clothes off the line.

Tom is free but the farmer has his dog. He returns to his camp, dresses in his own spare clothes, and returns to the farm where he has a friendly meeting with Jemima – who tells him that the neighbour’s white pig had broken through the fence but her father had failed to shoot it in the excitement of the haystack catching fire; a less friendly meeting with the farmer; and recovers Pup.

Text Classics (here). I know, I can’t really say what proportion of Text Classics’ list is not covered by copyright, which persists until 70 years after the death of the author, if named, otherwise until 70 years after initial publication. The Text Such is Life, with an introduction by David Malouf (which I have not read) was published in 2013 and is available as an ebook.

a pair of ______. Mock delicacy, and as HM Green points out, a bit of fun at the expense of Victorian sensibilities. In case you’re still wondering – trousers.

De Lacy Evans. A (not fictional) woman in Victoria living as a man. Or possibly a man living as a woman. See Edward De Lacy Evans (1835?-1901) (wiki).

Frankenstein. Tom mentions Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein a few times: in the context of looking into windows (to learn how to behave as a man); stealing his maker’s clothes, and the difficulty of an 8 ft monster finding breeches to fit; and cleverly looping back to the first man to befriend him – De Lacey.


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).


Next. Such is Life (07) >

< Previous. Such is Life (05)

17 thoughts on “Such is Life (06), Joseph Furphy

    • I don’t mind FoRM, it was everyone’s GAN up till the 1960s. It’s a very conventional work in an Australian context and I couldn’t possibly rank it ahead of SIL or Voss or The Pea Pickers. Sorry! I also think both Maurice Guest and the school one are more interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Don’t be sorry; it’s what makes reading & blogging so interesting. I’m still to read Maurice Guest, so I may change my mind. And certainly pea-pickers is now right up there too. I must try Voss again. I found it impossible at 19.

        Dare I say, maybe it’s an age thing. I had never heard of FoRM until a decade ago & when I read it a few years ago, was amazed that so many people already knew it. I thought I was discovering something amazing that nobody knew about 😂


      • Benang is also in my top 10, which coincidentally you seem to be making your way through. Have you read The Swan Book yet? It’s up there too.
        I remember the excitement of discovering our C19th women – Cambridge, Praed, Martin, Spence – around 1988. It was a great feeling.


  1. This section is all about Tom’s quest for a pair of _____ to cover his nakedness, and then we have to guess whether Jemima is only pretending that what she saw was the neighbour’s white pig, is all about modesty in fact. Or false modesty. Furphy is pretty sharp in his observations, disguised by his laconic delivery. There are always things going on at multiple levels.


  2. For the briefest part of a second, I read Miles Franklin’s biog as Miles Franklin’s BLOG! And I thought, oh wouldn’t that be fun, with her stuck out here in the bush so much of the time, maybe she won’t feel so lonely.

    I’m glad you continue to post these updates and include references to critical studies of this book I’ll probably never read because it reminds me how much there is to know about Oceanic lit. Maybe it’s not that different from my posting about short stories, in that, when they are posted, the interaction might be quiet or reduced, but those posts do get traffic in the years to come. Surely there are students (and possibly just ordinary serious readers) who will come across these posts later and find they coincide with one of their reading projects even though they weren’t around when we were doing our own reading for them. 🙂


    • Our dear MF was as close to a blogger as you might wish in those pen & ink days, constantly letter writing and letting her acerbic, well informed opinions be known. And then there are her diaries and a book of essays/lectures.

      I agree with you about projects like this that they make a resource for ourselves, our community and yes hopefully for others. My most striking evidence of that is the constant stream of hits I am getting from outsiders on my Aboriginal massacre posts.


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