Such is Life (10), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)
Such is Life (03)
Such is Life (04)
Such is Life (05)
Such is Life (06)
Such is Life (07)
Such is Life (08)
Such is Life (09)

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.

We are at VI, the penultimate chapter. Tom’s diary, open at Sat., February 9th, 1884, reminds him that he was once again on Runnymede, on whose home paddock the bullockies were camped in Chapter I. It is a standing joke amongst all his acquaintance that the housekeeper of Runnymede, a widow formerly of some social standing (in the bush), is intent on marrying him. And now, due to government business, he has been spending some days within her reach.

No spoilers this month, though the answer to one of the novel’s little underlying mysteries, who is Nosey Alf, is within Tom’s grasp by the end of the chapter if only he realised. In fact, it is only by reading the commentaries that I am aware of just how many mysteries run as undercurrents through the stories Tom relates and listens to. Tom knows his saddle is better than it should be, but from whom was it stolen? Where did his kangaroo dog, Pup, come from? What happened to the swagman he ‘helped’ the night he got naked? Is he still in touch with Jim (Jemima)? and so on.

Tom begins the chapter by philosophising about the minute gradations of class on a station, “The folk-lore of Riverina is rich in variations of a mythus, pointing to the David-and-Goliath combat between a quiet wage-slave and a domineering squatter …” At the homestead, each class has its own quarters, from the house for the boss and his family, to the barracks for narangies, to the men’s hut, to “the nearest pine ridge” or a hut by the woolshed for swaggies. Tom, in his official capacity, “being a little too exalted for the men’s hut, and a great deal too vile for the boss’s house” was quartered with the narrangies.

Social status, apart from all considerations of mind, manners, or even money, is more accurately weighed on a right-thinking Australian station than anywhere else in the world.

Mrs Beaudesert, the housekeeper, had made £25,000 marrying and burying her first husband, only for her second, a refugee from Belgravia, to get through it at £10,000 a year, and so she was reduced to living on the charity of her old school friend, the boss’s wife. Unfortunately for Tom, she had a mistaken belief about his lineage and prospects, and “such was her hypnotic power, or my adaptability, that in the atmosphere of Runnymede I became a Conservative of the good old type.”

Eventually, after adjudicating in an argument between Mrs B and a servant girl, he begins to make his escape. The mail brings a letter from head office, but it is only a love letter and he discards it. As he is mounting, another horseman wishes to discuss ‘Was Hamlet mad?’. There is a contretemps with a bullocky taking a short cut across the best paddocks instead of going back out the front gate and around the long way. But at last Tom makes his own way across the station to Nosey Alf’s hut on the boundary.

Nosey Alf, in fact had no nose, having been kicked in the face by a horse. Tom describes Alf variously as “more beautiful, otherwise, than a man’s face is justified in being”; with “lithe, graceful movements”; and “no scrub to burn off, except a faint moustache”; not to mention “unbecomingly clean for a Saturday”.

They exchange “swapping books” and discuss Zola, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Longfellow. Alf corrects Tom’s characterization of bombazine as “cheap, carpetty-looking fabric” for women’s gowns, leading Tom to assume Alf had been a draper’s assistant in his Sydney days.

Tom gives Alf news, at some length, of their mutual acquaintance, the misanthropic Warrigal Alf.

Alf takes out a violin –

.. he didn’t confine himself to the comfortable vulgarity of popular airs. He played selections from Handel, Mozart, Wagner and I don’t know whom; while the time past unnoticed by both of us. At length he laid the violin across his knees, and, after a pause, his voice rose in one of the sweetest songs ever woven from words.

As he takes his leave in the morning, Tom’s final, grateful thought is that never once did Alf attempt “any witticism respecting Mrs Beaudesert”.


Runnymede. At that time, in a 200 mile stretch along the Murrimbidgee there was only one station, Pevensey, that did not have an Aboriginal name. “Perhaps Pevensey, the site of a king’s victory, suggested Runnymede, the site of a king’s defeat.”

Narangy. A self-appointed boss of doubtful authority. A man who transmitted orders but didn’t formulate them. From similar Aboriginal words recorded in the Sydney region meaning small or junior.

Love letter. Possibly from Jim as her father had Tom’s work address

Was Hamlet mad? A burning question in Melbourne in 1867, following rival performances, and a spate of letters to the Argus.

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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).

Vance Palmer edited two editions of Such is Life, the second, published by Kate Baker in 1917, and the abridged edition published in England by Jonathon Cape in 1937. The cover above would appear to be of the latter (here). My earlier post, Such is Life Abridged! (here)

Last month one of my brothers (B3) wrote and said that if I was short of covers I could use his, which was a Xmas present from our parents in 1972. I had already set up my covers for the rest of the year but here’s his, as a bonus, a hardback from boutique publisher Lloyd O’Neill. The cover painting is Tom Roberts’ Charcoal Burners (1886), though the colours appear a bit off.

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Next. Such is Life (11)>

< Previous. Such is Life (09)

18 thoughts on “Such is Life (10), Joseph Furphy

  1. I’m also currently reading a longer book that has loads to puzzle out, meaning as I look back, I realize what had been there all along that I didn’t see while reading. It certainly makes a compelling case for wanting to do a re-read, but I have a hard time convincing myself to read a large book, let alone re-read it. Do you think you’ll ever come back to Such is Life in a few years?

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    • I’m currently rereading Vanity Fair, which is about 650 pages with lots of complex and interweaving parts (and small font), and I’m actually finding the process of rereading very rewarding, even though it was a little intimidating when I first thought about tackling it. There is a lot that I missed when I last read it (probably as a teenager).

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      • Lou, you’ve reminded me that I listened to Vanity Fair a few years ago, knowing no more about it than the name and of course the name ‘Becky Thatcher’. I found it fascinating, and it would certainly bear re-reading.
        While of course I have benefited from a close re-reading of Such is Life, my real purpose was to push it under the noses of Australians who ignore its importance. Not something at which I was ever going to succeed of course, so I am grateful for those few of you who have stuck with me.

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    • I may well (come back), especially if I see it in the library as an audiobook. It’s actually been a bit disconcerting reading it one chapter a month. Like studying, you read a book so closely you lose sight of what it’s like overall.
      Because I spend day after day with books more or less flowing over me, I have no problem with the good ones being repeated.

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  2. If you didn’t know that it’s the penultimate chapter, would you say this section has that feel, you can fell it’s rounding up? The two covers in this post make for quite the contrast: the bottom one reminds me of school editions of Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain) and the top reminds me of the mid-century Everyman’s Edition covers, just the facts ma’am (i.e. the title and author). Of the 100 libraries in this city, there’s an exceptionally good literary fiction branch at Runnymede (not that I’ve visited since pre-Covid but it’s still there of course). Good luck with your final post!

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    • Penultimate: No, there’s still lots going on. The annotaters, and the lit. theorists I’ve been reading make me aware that certain story lines are being wound up, but I don’t think Ch. VI feels that way particularly.

      Covers: I can’t see any pre-War dustjackets on my nearer shelves, but I’m sure there wasn’t a lot of money around for four-colour printing and fancy pictures – though there was by the 1950s. A lot of Australian out-of-copyright printings use out-of-copyright paintings from the Heidelberg (that’s a Melbourne suburb) school of Australian Impressionists. (Personally, I don’t believe out-of-copyright material should be available for commercial exploitation, but that’s not a debate anyone else is even thinking about).

      Runnymede: I’m sure old English battles have some importance for someone, but I’m not even going to look them up.

      Mark Twain. We read Tom Sawyer in school too (third form I think). MT in Oz – http://www.mcyseki.com/twain.html

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