The life of Mary Mahoney
I mentioned I'd been reading The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson, the pen-name of Ethel, described in the blurb as "recognised as one of the greatest novels in the English language".
I think that is not an unfair description, yet I'd never previously heard of it, the text having never featured on any school curricula that I know of. The length of the work - originally published in three volumes - more than 800 dense-packed pages in my Angus and Robertson 1983 edition - undoubtedly tells against it, but it is eminently readable, finely observed, and surprisingly feminist.
Although the story, put simply, is the account of the life of the title character, its central figure is really his wife Mary. He is a bright but wayward figure - irresponsible, reckless and unsettled - while she is the one that holds both the text and their fictional lives together. Her female friends and relations are also more real than the male, and acutely aware of the restrictions of their gender.
"Mary had a glimpse into depths that were closed to her menkind. Just to be married! It meant that solace of woman who was getting on in years - the plain gold band on the ring finger. It meant no longer being shut out from the great Society of Matrons; no longer needing to look the other way were certain subjects alluded to; or pretending not to notice the nods and winks, the silently mouthed words that went on behind your back. It was all very well when you were young; when your very youth and innocence made up for it: as you grew older, it turned to a downright mortification - like that of going in to dinner after the bride of 18." (p.445)
Tilly: "A figure for all the soft sawder that's talked about marriage. The long and the short of it is, marriage is sent to try us women, and for nothin' on earth besides." (p. 685)
That might sum up Mary's life. As the novel finishes she, having been one of Australia's ladies of society, is reduced to being a postmistress in an outback town, slaving to maintain her gentility, and particularly that of her children, against all odds.