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Published April 2023Become a subscriber
The medium is a woman in her sixties, with long, thin, blonde hair stretched back into a ponytail. She rises from her chair and moves to the centre of the stage. Energy in the room shifts immediately. Everyone goes still and silent and sits up slightly taller in their white plastic chairs. A sense of dutifulness had accompanied the guided meditations, the reverend’s reminders to the congregation (pay yearly membership fees, book a table at Psychic High Tea, check the website for more information on the ‘All About Auras’ course starting next month), and the hymns, which were startlingly atonal and accompanied by music blasted through a CD player atop a piano. But this section of the Victorian Spiritualists’ Union Sunday Service – the ‘demonstrations’ – is the reason we are all here. This is when the connecting with the spirits happens. I’m attending with a specific purpose: to make contact with the spirit of the author Henry Handel Richardson. Some might question the likelihood of this occurring in a bland, repurposed office building off Flemington Road, North Melbourne. I’m sceptical. But I’m here now.
The medium, Helen, grips the top of a wooden chair for support and launches into her demonstration. Helen speaks confidently and with a strong Eastern European accent.
‘I will begin now…I am being drawn…okay…what’s that?…yes…okay…towards this side of the room…’
This side of the room – the right side, from where I’m sitting – is much like the left side. About fifty people are here, mostly white, mostly middle-aged, mostly solo, about two thirds female. There are outliers. A middle-aged gay couple in matching cotton T-shirts. Two relatively young women in their early thirties, sitting separately. A tall man with dark shadows under his eyes, also in his thirties, who wears red-and-black leather Nike Air Jordans and keeps yawning aggressively into his cap. In style and manner, though, the majority of the crowd feels homogenous – people you might see at an RSL or a nursing home fête in the outer suburbs.
‘I am being drawn…here…to you…the woman in orange, with your arms crossed…please uncross them…may I work with you, dahlink?’ One of the young attendees nods and uncrosses her arms. Before long, she is receiving communication from her dead grandfather.
Spiritualism is a Christian offshoot that began in the seventeenth century. Members believe that the dead can communicate with the living. Agents of the afterlife are supposedly omnipresent, only the thinnest membrane separating you and me from angels. Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg’s writings are typical of Spiritualist literature:
People have no idea whatever that the Lord governs them through angels and spirits, or that at least two spirits and two angels accompany each of them. The spirits create a link with the world of spirits, and the angels create one with heaven. We cannot possibly live without a channel of communication open to the world of spirits through spirits and to heaven through angels (and in this way to the Lord through heaven). Our life depends totally on such a connection. If the spirits and angels withdrew from us, we would be destroyed in a second.
The tenor of the relationship between the living and the dead is primarily gentle, with moments of abysmal terror. (‘If the spirits and angels withdrew from us, we would be destroyed in a second’? Horrifying!) Swedenborg and other spiritualist thinkers’ ideas became popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, especially throughout the UK, US and Australia. Grieving families who had lost relatives in the American Civil War and World War I were drawn to the possibility of saying farewell from across the grave.
The office building I’m in – grey, unassuming, neighboured by a computer consultancy – has been the home of the Victorian Spiritualists Union (VSU) since 2016. The branch was founded in 1870. It was previously known as the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists; bureaucratic acronyms didn’t really take off until the late twentieth century. Back in the halcyon days, thousands of people packed public debates on spiritualist philosophy. Séances conducted by prominent mediums were standing room only. Celebrities loved spiritualism; Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle was a prominent devotee. Doyle had allegedly made contact with the spirits of his son and brother, who had both died in 1918 (war injuries and the Spanish flu, respectively). He toured extensively to promote the movement. The International Psychic Gazette publicised his visit down under with a striking headline: ‘WAKE UP AUSTRALIA!’ Some Australians already had. The newly federated nation’s second prime minister, Alfred Deakin, was a devoted spiritualist. So was Henry Handel Richardson’s father, Walter Lindesay Richardson. Walter was more than just a casual fan – he was the first president of the entity now known as the VSU.
I’m attending one of the VSU’s regular Sunday Services to better understand Henry Handel Richardson (or ‘HHR,’ as the author called herself). Why? Psychic due diligence. Curiosity. I want to trace the throughline between the intellectual movement so central to the world HHR, her family, and her fictional characters inhabited, and spiritualism in Australia today. And I want to think, more specifically, about HHR’s relationship to her family – in particular, her father – and spiritualism. HHR followed Walter’s footsteps. She regularly attended spiritualist society lectures, joined séances, and conducted ouija board ceremonies. The belief system appears throughout her novels.
Even before the VSU Sunday Service, it felt as though I had been in the presence of HHR all summer. I was reading her magnum opus, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. The most recent edition is 943 pages. It’s a brick. Or, as HRR said, using more epic proportions, a ‘Colosse’. Once I started, I felt compelled to finish. But I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times that I considered flinging the book away for juicier beach reading fare. As an incentive, I started fantasising that the author was hovering off-page, her spirit surveying me balefully. HHR has a stern face, with intense, hooded eyes, a masculine nose, and wavy hair parted to the side in a bob – her black-and-white author photos often resemble those of Virginia Woolf. I imagined her daring me to abandon the tome in chapters set in Ballarat, Hawthorn, London and Barambogie. In the 1850s, 60s and 70s. For weeks, I wafted flies away while reading at the park and the pool. Turned page after page. Finally finished. The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is an important book, although not for reasons put forth by its initial fans. Local critics believed it to be, finally, the Great Australian Novel. I’m not convinced. But there is something weird and amazing about HHR’s sustained – and I think quasi-spiritualist – attempt at using fiction writing to bridge vast gaps in consciousness: between father and daughter, husband and wife, masculinity and femininity, dead parent and adult child.
HHR was born Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson in 1870. In broad strokes, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony closely matches the trajectory of the Richardson family until the patriarch Walter’s death in 1879 (the likely cause: syphilitic infection of the brain). Life also made its way into the author’s other books. Aged thirteen, HHR began boarding at Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Melbourne. High school experiences here would become the source matter for her most beloved novel, the bildungsroman The Getting of Wisdom (1910). A key theme of this book is the protagonist’s homoerotic intimacy with another student – an echo of HHR’s fixation with fellow boarder Connie Cochran.
After graduating and a brief stint teaching, HHR moved to Germany to study as a concert pianist. In 1891, she became engaged to George Robertson, a literary scholar from Scotland. The pair moved to a Georgian terrace house in London and shared a harmonious marriage shaped by rigid routine, waking up early to write and take breakfast in separate studies. HHR’s nephew recalled that ‘at about 11 a.m. a small cup of Mocha coffee with cream and a dish of fruit were taken up to her. But the tray was put into the study silently, and unless spoken to, the bearer retired (without banging the door!).’ Optimal writing conditions were thus achieved. With George’s artistic, financial, and culinary support, Ethel Robertson began publishing as Henry Handel Richardson.
‘Lots of people here today!’ murmurs one attendee at the VSU Sunday Service I attend. But the crowd is hardly impressive. It’s about the size of a decent book launch – certainly no urban mega church. One hates to imagine what a bad turnout looks like. Still, engagement levels are high. A tongue-in-cheek humour runs through the sermons. ‘Just because the curtain is twitching, doesn’t mean it’s the Spirit!’ a visiting Reverend quips. Wink wink, nod nod. A wave of laughter. But you do believe it is…at least sometimes, I think.
The medium Helen’s performance immediately cracks the congregants’ veneer of self-protective irony. One middle-aged man has a powerful encounter with a child-spirit. Another man, alone, bald pate visible through dyed-black hair, quickly moves seats so that he is directly in Helen’s line of sight. No dice. Instead, she chooses a woman in a different part of the room to work with.
‘I see…behind you…an Indian…’
What the hell? I think.
‘A Native Indian man is standing right behind you…he is with you…guiding you every day…’
I look around. It seems extremely unlikely that the spirit of an unnamed Native American man is in the room with us. And yet…all the congregation members are smiling and nodding, glassy-eyed, as though this proposition makes perfect sense. When Helen follows up a connection with an elderly spirit man plagued by hip problems with a message from a wise Tibetan monk, my tolerance falters. Thankfully the service wraps up shortly afterwards.
HHR was a member of the London Society for Psychical Research, the London Spiritualist Alliance, and the International Society for Psychical Research. She was also a frequent visitor to the National Laboratory for Psychical Research at London University. In the twenty-first century, these organisations have followed a similar trajectory to their Australian counterparts: much-diminished congregation numbers and an awkward navigation between progressive Christian-ish theological study and New Age esotericism.
After George Robertson’s death, HHR frequently attempted to contact him via spiritualist means. Apparently, she would ask for feedback about her new work. (Who among us has not longed for psychic editorial guidance from a dead husband?) Ultimately, the books that HHR completed in the later years of her life never gained as much attention or acclaim as her earlier works, and her literary stardom dimmed in the second half of the twentieth century. The last volume of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony was estimated to sell one hundred thousand copies a month in the US at peak twentieth-century circulation. In 2007, the book wasn’t even in print in Australia, though it was revived in 2012 in the Text Classics series. In his introduction, Peter Craven calls The Fortunes of Richard Mahony ‘a great book, a book full of grace and truth’. In comparison, introducing The Getting of Wisdom, Germaine Greer dismisses Mahony as minor, beloved only by Australians who ‘share the common misconception that breadth equals profundity, especially when it is accompanied by seriousness of tone and turgidity of style’. I’d say I fall somewhere between these two positions.
In broad historical and geographic sweeps, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony closely matches the life of the Richardson family. The novel was first published in three separate volumes – Australia Felix (1917), The Way Home (1925), and Ultima Thule (1929) – then as a trilogy in 1930. We follow the titular character from youth to death as he makes his way as a doctor in pre-Federation Australia. In genre, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is a belated twentieth-century iteration of the Victorian novel. The epic English social form is transplanted from the drizzly milieus of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy to a world of wind-whipped, sun-baked colonials. Zadie Smith has written that Eliot’s novelsare ‘the narrative equivalent of surround sound’, a ‘riot of subjectivity’. The same goes for The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. HHR penned moments of finely textured brilliance in her account of colonial life – the social paranoias, how women coped when babies seemed to die as often as they were born, the unpleasantness of being crammed into a hot horse-drawn buggy with one too many passengers. The dispossession of Indigenous people is, revealingly, near-absent from the book – this was a time of denied violenceand assimilation policies. Mahony is the focus. His perspective most often oscillates with that of his wife, Mary, followed by those of their three children (a boy, Cuffy, who is HHR’s proxy, and twin girls).
In Australia Felix, we meet Richard as an impoverished shopkeeper on the Ballarat goldfields, ashamed to bring his young wife back to his bachelor squat. Mary cries when she arrives, looking at the table set for her first conjugal dinner: ‘an array of tins…preserved salmon, sardines, condensed milk – their tops forced back to show their contents’. By book two, The Way Home, meat pies, jellies, and good claret are on the table. Fortunes are on the rise. Mahony has ventured as a doctor to Ballarat, then England, then back to Australia. The family moves into a terrace home in rapidly growing Melbourne. Mahony is now supporting Mary and their three young children with returns on his investments in the stock market. He has begun to read and write prolifically on spiritualism, which has emerged as a popular counterpoint to the excesses of atheism and new science. Mahony turns away from the harshest Darwinists and Nietzscheans:
Arrogantly sure of themselves, carried away by a passion for facts, they covered with ridicule those – the seers, the poets, the childlike in heart – who, over and above the rational and knowable, caught glimpses of what was assumed to be unknowable… For his part, he could not see why the evolution-formula should be held utterly to rule out the transcendental formula.
All is going well. Then, midway through a trip to Europe, Mahony learns that a swindling financier has relieved the family of their savings. They must get back on the ship to Australia and start from scratch again.
At this point, I was ready to chuck the book in the bin. It felt like I would contract scurvy if I had to board that vessel back to the Antipodes. But persistence pays off.
In the third and best instalment, Ultima Thule, everything unravels. HHR begins:
When, for the third time, Richard Mahony set foot in Australia, it was to find that the fortune with which that country but some six years back had so airily invested him no longer existed. He was a ruined man.
The doctor’s urge to move from place to place takes on the quality of frenzy. Mahony gets into debt starting a practice in Hawthorn; it fails. The family pack up to a tiny country town on the rumour of an incoming mining boom. No business comes. One of the twins dies. Broke and grief-stricken, Mahony attempts suicide. The Mahonys move, again, to the seaside, where Richard has a final and complete mental breakdown and incinerates the family home. Stoic Mary must become a postmistress in a nothing country town. The trilogy ends with Richard’s death: ‘All that was mortal of Richard Mahony has long since crumbled to dust… The rich and kindly earth of his adopted country absorbed his perishable body’. But, the final line goes, the colony had never entirely taken in his ‘wayward, vagrant spirit’.
The mainstream appeal of nineteenth and early twentieth century spiritualism has fizzled. Now, it’s just daggy esotericism. Colonial socialites have been replaced by lower-middle-class empaths looking for connection, in this world and the next. The biggest win the VSU has experienced recently is straight from the pages of, surprisingly, Artforum and Frieze; the international art world is obsessed with abstract watercolour paintings by Georgiana Houghton, a British medium-artist who worked in London in the 1860s and 1870s. Houghton is the lesser-known counterpoint to Hilma af Klimt, the star of transcendental abstraction.
The VSU has a globally significant collection of Houghton’s art. Originals are in storage for conservation reasons, so reproductions line the walls of the worship office space. The display is amateur. Captions are in a hideous font and formatted according to no art historical convention. But the work is incredible – like a bunch of faded peacock feathers viewed on acid. Whooshes of gold, crimson, and turquoise-blue paint wind across the backgrounds of the compositions. On the upper-most layers, Houghton has added thin, vibrating lines of filigree that spiral, overlap, diverge and dot. These marks are often white, as though a ghostly web stretches across the subterranean layer of pigment.
I buy two Houghton postcards after the service – my contribution to the art boom keeping the VSU afloat. On my way out, I take a closer look at a bunch of sepia-toned images of bearded, besuited men stuck up on a wall. The previous generation of settler-spiritualists. Some of the men look vaguely familiar. ‘Alfred Deakin was the head of the organisation, you know,’ a woman says to me. ‘He was also the prime minister.’ I want to ask, which role is more impressive? Instead, I say: ‘Yes, thank you!’ and walk out the door.
When HHR began writing The Fortunes of Richard Mahony in her forties, she supplemented childhood memories with authorial research. She travelled from London to Australia to see the landscapes and colonial cities once again, and reread spiritualist philosophy and accounts of life in the early days of the Ballarat gold rush. Letters between her parents, Walter and Mary, became a major source of material. Of ‘fact and fiction in Richard Mahony,’ the biographer Dorothy Green writes, HHR ‘did with her personal sources what she did with her historical facts: she discarded what was of no use for her artistic purposes and retained what was, altering dates if it suited her.’ Many key events, historical circumstances, and locations are the same in the book as in life. Many are not. Names, deaths, children, temperaments and plot points were added to the story where HHR saw fit. Points of departure from reality are fascinating.
The matriarch Mary’s relationship to the spiritualist movement is one key difference. In real life, Mary believed in spiritualism and often happily accompanied Walter to lectures and demonstrations. In The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, Mary is a sceptic. (Also notable: Mary’s name stays the same, but Walter changes to Richard. The patriarch’s identity remains sacrosanct?) Mary, a stolid pragmatist, constantly hides her disbelief so as not to upset fragile Richard. Repression is not always possible. The pair have a vicious fight after Mary’s friend, Tilly, embarrasses Richard at a séance. Tilly grabbed the medium in the dark, turned the light on, and showed that spirits fondling the attendees were, in fact, a concealed bunch of tickly feathers. Richard is humiliated. He is also sick of playing host to Mary’s working-class friends. Mary is furious:
‘You prefer these wretched mediums and the silly people who are taken in by them. I wish spiritualism had never been invented!’
‘Don’t talk about what you don’t understand!’
‘I do. I know nearly every time we go out now, I have to sit by and watch you letting yourself be humbugged. And then I’m not to open my mouth, or say what I see, or have any opinion of my own.’
‘No! I shall leave that to the superior wits of your friend!’
Spiritualism is a symbolic sore point between husband and wife, prodding their differences in disposition as much as their belief systems. Mary is social; Richard is inward-looking. She is unphased by strict hierarchies; he is tortured by the maintenance of class appearances. Perhaps belying my own biases, I initially thought HHR would personally err on the side of Mary. But we know the author practiced spiritualism for years. Rather, then, this complex filial picture of a marriage is a site for staging irresolvable questions. Can pragmatists and dreamers ever coexist peacefully? How can hustlers and scammers be batted away without forsaking the parts of life that transcend rationality? Where’s the spirit and where’s the bullshit?
Mary appears most vividly as a mouthpiece for the panicked mental calculations and re-calculations of middle-class money troubles. In our precarious, crisis-riddled age, Victorian-style inequality seems closer now than it once did – this summer was marked by ambient panic about the ‘cost of living’, with everything from apartments to salted butter inflated in price. Mary is relatable. Here she is, in the middle of the night, contemplating taking up the postmistress role without Richard’s support:
Those rents, those dreadful rents, which hung around her neck like millstones…might she not perhaps…but, oh! The come-down…the indignity…the publicity of the thing…she, a postmistress!… Oh, it was easy to say you don’t mind what you turned your hand to. But when it came to doing it! – And then, too, suppose she wasn’t equal to the work?
Still, the unthinkable, panic-sweat-inducing tasks imagined at four in the morning nearly always transform into banalities, bitterness fading, by new day’s light. At least, the Protestant work ethic makes it so… The Mahony family scrapes by under their new circumstances. Mary brushes away Richard’s pompous fixation on propriety – they can’t afford it – and proves herself equal to work. This fortitude is cast as admirable. But ultimately, the book is not The Fortunes of Mary Mahony. HHR’s real fascination lies with Richard.
Richard’s alter ego, Walter, died when the author was nine years old. Her memories of him were primarily of the traumatic final years of severe mental illness. Cuffy, HHR’s proxy in the book, is a cloyingly childish narrator. Nonetheless, the character gives insight into how scary the father’s instability must have been. Cuffy cannot stand it when,
…every afternoon, Mamma went out and left him and Luce [one of the twins] quite alone…with Papa. (And you didn’t like to be with Papa, since he couldn’t speak right: when you heard him say a spoon and he meant a chair, it made you feel sick inside, like when you saw a snake.)
The siblings must take Richard for a daily walk. Other residents of the town laugh and point as the doctor mumbles to himself. For Cuffy, his father’s decline is a source of excruciating embarrassment; children can sense unstable adult behaviour with the uncanny instinct of dependent subjects. Kids are selfish. They have to be, and don’t know better. HHR uses the distance of adulthood and the novel’s magisterial quality to reconstruct and interpret her father’s erratic behaviour. Retroactive understanding slips in.
There is something bizarre and entrancing about the familial implications of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. HHR uses her fictionalised version of Walter and Mary’s marriage to stage an extended dialectic between spiritualist devotees and critics; it is as though she becomes her parents, and they her, in a displaced tussle between the metaphysical and the domestic. Imagine writing a nearly thousand-page reconstruction of your dead father’s life. I find this idea terrifying – taboo, even. But it also makes for a deeply empathic book. Writing becomes another means of channelling the spirit world.
There is no clear contact from the spirit of HHR at the VSU Sunday Service or in the immediate aftermath. Honestly, this is as expected. But a week later, I receive a message from a new friend, Julia. ‘Would you like to come to a spooky house this weekend?’ she asks. Julia is having her birthday party at Alfred Deakin’s holiday home in Point Lonsdale, on the Victorian coast. My dismissal of the spiritualists suddenly seems a little arrogant, a little hasty. Of course, I have to go.
The house is called ‘Ballara’. It’s from 1907, heritage-listed, a Federation bungalow with a wide wooden deck surrounded by bush. Inside, creaky rooms are filled with photographs of colonial families in stiff poses and shelves of cloth-bound books. There is a chaise longue and a piano. It feels like I’ve walked into a scene from The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, except everyone is wearing Adidas, drinking natural wine and taking photos on iPhones. A handwritten poem is tacked to the back of the toilet door. It is addressed to ‘Uncle Evan, whoever you may be’. We hypothesise he is a spirit former visitors met in a séance.
That night, I sleep in a single bed in the attic dormitory. I wake in the early hours of the morning to heavy rain hammering the weatherboard roof and sea wind rustling the grass trees outside. HHR, are you out there? Send us a sign. We’re still reading you.
Cameron Hurst is a writer and sessional academic who teaches art history at the University of Melbourne and Monash University. She is a contributing editor of Memo Review and Index Journal, founding editor of The Paris End, and co-host of the Clam & Jackie Bam show.Read more