It is not clear even at the distance of more than a century whether Joseph Furphy (1843-1912) is one of our greatest writers, though he certainly wrote one of our greatest novels, Such is Life (1903) purportedly the memoir of time spent by Tom Collins, a minor NSW government official, with bullock drivers in the Riverina (southern NSW), “a classic which few were to read and no one was ever to establish clearly what it was all about.” (Manning Clark in Furphy’s ADB entry)
I have a first (and only, probably) edition of Miles Franklin’s Joseph Furphy, from now long-gone antiquarian book seller, Magpie’s, in Fremantle, originally belonging to a Paul Le Comte, “member W.A.H.S.” (WA Historical Society?) and including newspaper cuttings and – Emma and Lisa will like this – an information card for Furphy’s burial site in Perth’s Karrakatta Cemetery.
Franklin’s ‘Prefatory Note’ begins –
The time is not yet ripe for a definitive biography of Joseph Furphy. The Australian attitude toward biography opens the case for Mateship versus Modernity, and so far Mateship holds the pass. No frankly searching study of the lives of our prominent personages would be tolerated … because of the still lingering conventions of modesty and reticence by which British middle-class behavior was regulated until inhibition was loosened in the preliminary war of 1914-18.
Jill Roe (2008, p.388) thinks that Franklin is averting to the possibility of an affair between Furphy and Kate Baker (1861-1953), Franklin’s ‘collaborator’ in this work. The married Furphy and Baker, 18 years his junior, met in 1886 when Baker was teaching near Rushworth (in central Victoria). They became lifelong friends. Baker was important in encouraging Furphy to write, and after his death and her early retirement at 52 she did all she could to publicize and safeguard his work (ADB). By 1939, when she spent 5 months in Sydney with Franklin getting this biography underway, Baker was elderly and stone deaf and Franklin largely took over, so that the collaboration consisted of Franklin writing from the material Baker had collected over a lifetime.
Franklin was herself a Furphy fan and she and Furphy had exchanged complimentary letters and subsequently met, in 1904 (see also Such is Life, Abridged!).
It is sometimes stated that this biography won the 1944 Prior Prize, the year the book was published, but in fact Franklin won the 1939 Prior Prize for the essay Who was Joseph Furphy? which she dashed off after Baker had returned to Melbourne, though she shared the £100 with her (Franklin initially came second but the ms which beat her, MH Ellis’ biography of Governor Macquarie*, was belatedly judged to be insufficiently foot-noted).
Franklin begins at interesting point. After a brief ‘Furphian’ digression – one of the features of Such is Life is its flights down side alleys – on the development or otherwise of a distinctly Australian literature, she gives us Kate Baker, newly hatched school teacher, rushing to catch the train, and subsequently a coach and then a spring cart to the home of Isaac Furphy – brother of Joseph – and his family where she is to board for a year, before moving six miles to board another year at the home of Samuel and Mrs Furphy, Joseph’s parents, constantly inundated, by Joseph’s brothers and sisters and their children, by Joseph’s wife Leonie and their children, by everyone around except Joseph whom Kate finally meets only on the day of her departure.
When Joe began to talk he justified himself as the literary prodigy of the family. He was then forty-four, Kate Baker in her twenties.
Joe talked till 1.00 am, and again the following night. Then it was time to leave, and she asked him to visit her and her parents some time in Melbourne.
We then return conventionally to the beginning and Furphy’s surprisingly, almost Austenesque, literary home environment. Of his juvenilia Franklin writes:
A copy of “Childe Booth’s Pilgrimage” has been preserved. It bears traces of easy acquaintance with Scott, Longfellow, Homer, Byron, Burns, Moore and others. Written when the boy was between fourteen and fifteen years of age, it shows him in embryo the Furphy who in 1897 delivered of Such is Life.
Joseph was one of five brothers, and journals were kept by their mother of their writings, ballads and odes to lost loves. The Furphys had come out from Ireland in 1841, were employed and sometimes self-employed in various locations outside of Melbourne, including Kyneton 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, and it is there that Kate Baker came to teach.
Today it is an inspiring sight to gaze from Mount Burramboot over the glowing plains which reach away to the blue distance for leagues on every side. In the foreground Lake Cooper and its satellites glisten like sapphires in a shield.
Joe’s selection lived up to it’s name and after five years he 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 he had a settled home and could begin to write.
His first piece, “The Mythical Sundowner”, appeared in the Bulletin 5 Oct 1889, signed Warrigal Jack, though he later used Tom Collins, a “synonym for idle rumour” (as ‘Furphy’ was to become during WWI).
Over the next decade or so, he was engaged constantly, when he wasn’t working, in reading, writing, and researching, setting tasks for Kate Baker, and corresponding with fellow pedant and polymath William Cathels.
By 1897 he had an ms in want of a publisher. He wrote to the Bulletin seeking advice, and AG Stephens asked him to submit it to them – 1125 hand written pages. Furphy advised Stephens –
The plan of the book is not like any other that I know of – at least, I trust not. Also you will notice that a certain by-play in plot and éclaircissment is hidden from the philosophic narrator, however apparent to the matter of fact reader.
Stephens wrote at length to Furphy setting out in detail the economics of publication. First requirement was a typed copy and Furphy, fearful that a typist would bowdlerize his often profane masterpiece, purchased Shepparton’s third typewriter, taught himself to type, and knocked out a copy in … 12 months!
At his point in the book Franklin reproduces a great deal of (fascinating) correspondence. I find it interesting that both Stephens and Cathels, the first people to read and admire Such is Life, saw it as an idiosyncratic but essentially true-to-life account of Bush life, whereas I see it as one of the great works of Modernism, essentially about writing and language as Picasso’s work is about painting, not funny-looking women.
For three years the Bulletin prevaricated about publishing. It was a fine book, but much too long. They would bear a loss out of the goodness of their hearts. And so on. Furphy finally conceived the idea of excising two strands of the original, which would go on to be books in their own right, the novel Rigby’s Romance and the collection of stories which eventually became The Buln-Buln and the Brolga. Even so, correction, re-typing, illustration, proof reading dragged on through all of 1901 (when Miles Franklin’s own My Brilliant Career stole some of his thunder) and 1902.
Finally, in June 1903 Stephens wrote to Furphy that 2,000 copies had been printed and 500 bound, –
“… the book market is dead, have no hope of selling them for some time… Your whole affair is the curious instance of that dead and gone thing conscience. The book’s so good that it has got itself printed against foreknowledge and predestination absolute that it’ll have a darned slow sale. I mention this as a faint excuse for the shocking delays.”
Such is Life was finally released in August 1903 with an inappropriately floral cover, to mostly good reviews in Australia and adverse in Britain. Sales were poor, around 25 a month, making it impossible for the Bulletin to consider Rigby’s Romance. Furphy wrote a review of his own, concluding –
… the studied inconsecutiveness of the “memoirs” is made to mask coincidence and cross-purposes, sometimes too intricate.
In 1905 Furphy and his wife moved to Perth WA where their children were already established. They lived between the rail line and the sea, Cottesloe or Swanbourne. Between making their homes habitable, and surf bathing, he was fully occupied and after only little more than a decade, his writing career was at an end.
Rigby’s Romance was published in the Barrier Truth (Broken Hill) in 1905-6 and it was 15 years before Kate Baker could arrange to have it published as a book. Furphy died in 1912 without ever returning to see his friends in Melbourne, but maintained an active correspondence.
The last quarter of the biography is an analysis of Furphy’s work, including Miles’ frustration at Furphy’s inadequate depiction of women, ending with a discussion on the relative merits, and fame, of Ulysses, Such is Life and Remembrance of Times Past.
Miles Franklin, in association with Kate Barker, Joseph Furphy: The Legend of a Man and his Book, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1944.
Shane Maloney, Miles Franklin & Joseph Furphy, The Monthly, Sept 2009 (here)
Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2008
Such is Life is available from Text Classics in print (2013) and e-book.
*M. H. Ellis, Lachlan Macquarie: His Life, Adventures and Times – “after a fortnight’s examination, Ida [Leeson, Mitchell Library] declared the work undocumented and full of inaccuracies.” Franklin’s work was “elevated from ‘highly commended’ to first place, with a rider that entry No. 62 would have won had it been fully documented and the references checked.” From the NLA database it appears that Ellis’ work was published in stages from 1942 to 1952, and has since been reprinted.
This cutting fortuitously references not just Furphy but Mollie Skinner (see Writing the Boy in the Bush) who might come up again later in AWW Gen 2 Week
AWW Gen 2 Week posts you might have missed –
Monday Musings on Australian Literature: Capel Boake, Whispering Gums
Louise Mack, A Woman’s Experiences in the Great War, Nancy Elin