Walter and Mary Richardson’s Letters and The Fortunes of Richard Mahony

On 27 May 1887, Richardson had written in an exercise book she was using as a diary, now also among the Richardson Papers in the National Library: 'Read a lot of Father's and Mother's letters. It is like reading a love story of 30 years ago. I wonder if anyone will ever be as fond of me as he was of her.' When she wrote this, Richardson was still recovering from her own unhappy love for her school friend Connie Cochran, which had followed an earlier infatuation with a local vicar, Jack Stretch. Axel Clark notes in his biography that she still saw both of them occasionally in 1887: 'But by now these affections which had once sustained her brought her nothing but pain' (158-59). This, no doubt, did not sweeten Richardson's temper or do anything to improve her always stormy relationship with her mother: 'I refused to conform to her ideas of what I ought to do and to be; and the older I grew the more vigorously I fought against them. Our differences, our conflicts were endless' (Myself When Young 48). One might therefore perceive a note of jealousy as well as envy of her mother in Richardson's comment on her parents' letters and Walter's obvious love for Mary, and in her failure to note Mary's equally strong love for her husband.

As she acknowledged in Myself When Young, Richardson drew on her early affairs of the heart for both Maurice Guest (1908) and The Getting of Wisdom (1910). Both novels were, for their period, particularly frank in their treatment of love in its painful, and sexual, as well as romantic aspects. If one reads Richardson's novels through in the order of their composition, it is quite a surprise to discover that the three volumes of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (1917; 1925; 1929) are so sexless. When writing a Masters thesis on Richardson in the early 1960s, I'd assumed that this new-found reticence was part of her passion for historical accuracy - the Victorians did not discuss sex in public and so she had decided, in writing about them, not to discuss sex either. Then, some ten years later, I read the letters written by Richardson's mother and father, and found that some Victorians - female as well as male - were not all that reticent when it carne to describing their feelings for each other. Clearly, that had been Richardson's own response on first reading her parents' letters in 1887. Yet, when she came some twenty-five years later to begin writing the story of Richard and Mary Mahony, sexual passion was strikingly absent. There have been many interpretations of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony but I don't think it has ever been called a love story.

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Published 1 May 1998 in Volume 18 No. 3. Subjects: Characterisation, Correspondence, Family relationships, Romantic love, Writer's inspiration.

Cite as: Webby, Elizabeth. ‘Walter and Mary Richardson’s Letters and The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 18, no. 3, 1998. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.8b8fe515a7.