Deep Digging’: Henry Handel Richardson, Transnational Allegory and the Unsettled Epic

Oil painting measuring 70.5 cm x 90.3 cm, painted about 1855 by Edwin Stocqueler (1829-1895), showing men working on the Bendigo gold field in Victoria.
Oil painting measuring 70.5 cm x 90.3 cm, painted about 1855 by Edwin Stocqueler (1829-1895), showing men working on the Bendigo gold field in Victoria. This image adorned the front cover of both the Angus and Robertson Classics and Penguin Classics edition of Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney.

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In late 1910 in a soundproof room in Regent’s Park, London, Henry Handel Richardson began work on Australia Felix, the first volume of what was to become known as The Fortunes of Richard Mahony trilogy (Australia Felix 1917, The Way Home 1925, and Ultima Thule 1929). It was in 1903, during a Bavarian sojourn that Richardson had first turned to the matter of Australia. Perhaps provoked by a need for material lighter than the tragic Maurice Guest (her first novel, 1908), or perhaps in response to the Federation of Australia in 1901, or even the success of Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career in the same year, this work became The Getting of Wisdom (1910). Having seen this short novel into print, Richardson immediately began to work with the life story of her parents, commencing with their courtship during the turbulent goldrush days of the colony of Victoria. As she moved backwards in time from schoolgirl bildung in the late nineteenth century to a national history set “sixty years before”, Richardson moved from the intense interiors of Laura Tweedle Rambotham’s boarding school years to the epic scale of continent, colonial migration, settler invasion and a three-volume magnum opus. This paper takes as its starting point the ways in which Richardson, as a formidable transnational woman writer, consciously negotiated the formal and thematic challenge of historical representation and geographical scale.

Richardson commences her historical fiction of colonial fortunes/misfortunes (1854-1888) with a harrowing vision of a mining accident that occurs a month before the events of the Eureka rebellion in late 1854. The liveburial of a miner provides the opening moment of a panoramic vision of restless gold frenzy, alienated migrant workers and ecological destruction that comprises Part I of Australia Felix. The liveburial is perhaps one of the most famous scenes in the Australian literary canon; a hugely influential tableau that has captured and even determined for generations the challenge of scale and disorientation that the island continent of Australia poses for the settler invader writer and reader. It is in the context of contemporary discussions of colonial unsettlement that this paper returns to this scene, investigating this opening as a moment in which the allegory of nation appears to be both powerfully constructed and profoundly destabilised. The paper explores the extent to which the liveburial represents what Jody Castricano has called the “contradictory topography of the inside outside” of the crypt, which signals the encryption of both generational trauma and white settler dispossession; the “shameful secret” that sits at the heart of Richardson’s account of Victorian settlement. The categorical indistinction between inside and the outside evident throughout the Proem aligns with (allegorises) the material and thematic complexity of a national epic written in transnational space about a man caught relentlessly and tragically between here and there, past and present, unable to negotiate personal or territorial fixity or signify stable national ground.

Fiona Morrison is an Associate Professor in literary studies at UNSW, Australia, where she teaches and supervises postgraduate research in post-colonial and transnational literatures in English and Australian literature. Her 2019 book, Christina Stead and the Matter of America (SUP, 2019), was recently awarded the Walter McRae Russell Award for literary scholarship. She has published on a range of Australian women’s writing in the twentieth century and her current project sees a return to work on Henry Handel Richardson. Fiona has recently finished a two-year role as President of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature.

Date & time

Thu 05 Aug 2021, 4.30–6pm


Online (Zoom)


Fiona Morrison, Literary Studies, University of New South Wales


Monique Rooney


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