Good, better, best/Never let it rest

14. Good, better, best/Never let it rest
      Till your good is better/And your better best

> PDF Cover Good, better, best/Never let it rest

A delayed reaction to Joseph Furphy’s (Tom Collins’) Such Is Life
(This revised version of the Furphy/Collins essay was completed on 14/4/2012 and replaces the version previously available on this website.)

On the farm where I grew up, we had a furphy. That was the name for a cylindrical water tank, sitting on wheels, with shafts so that it could be pulled by a horse. These tanks were made by Furphy Brothers of Shepparton, Victoria, and in a dry land they were ubiquitous. The once-famous doggerel could be found on the bulging ends of the tank, in English caps and in what I was told was shorthand. As a child, I was fascinated; the well-known lines were not exactly optimistic but leaned in that direction, something rare in the world of farmers.

Joseph Furphy, who used ‘Tom Collins’ as his nom de plume (and then turned Collins into a problematical character in his own book), was one of the brothers who produced these tanks. John Barnes (1) and Miles Franklin (2) speak of the hours he spent in a room added to his cottage near the Goulburn River, a place of much recall and conversation, no doubt. In his room he could turn his unremarkable life into a book that would outlast the way of life he chronicled – a word he used often – as a bringing to literary birth of the age of wool. Many years ago, on a visit to Paris, I was asked to explain to an American woman the meaning, the context, of a picture she had on her wall which both puzzled and interested her. It was George Lambert’s ‘Crossing the Black Soil Plains’, and it was later than Furphy’s account because the wagon was being pulled by horses, not bullocks, but those huge bales of wool were as I had known them in my childhood, when they were moved by trucks, not animals any more. A tradition had moved on.

And a tradition has to be created in the first place, and that leads me to ask – is this a silly question? – if the tradition is first created in the mind? Surely the mind, the imagination, follows reality; surely it can’t precede it? Or is it that reality and imagination are inseparable, as I am inclined to think, two things that have trouble divorcing each other, and are always being re-tied, re-bound, in the minds of writers. I have a feeling that Joseph Furphy would be of like mind in this matter, difficult as it is for his readers to do much more than guess at the intentions of this remarkable writer.

Look at the devices he gets up to! He has in his possession, he tells us, twenty two consecutive editions of Letts’ Pocket Diary, one week to the opening, ‘all filled up, and in a decent state of preservation’. He closes his eyes and picks up the diary for 1883, closes his eyes again and opens at random. ‘It is,’ he tells us, ‘the week beginning with Sunday, the 9th of September’. What follows, in the Furphy version of this fiction’s origins, is a development of things noted in the little diary, a chronicle, not a romance, for which form of writing he makes it clear that he has little enthusiasm. Marcus Clarke, Henry Kingsley and others have fed the public insipid versions of reality, Furphy says, and he’ll have none of what they’ve put on the public’s plate. What we’ll get from him is the fair-dinkum reality; hence his elaborate fandangle of diary entries and his scheme of delving into notes written long before, as if these, in some way, could not be recreated according to the whims and fancies of an author. The diary as origin of the tales, the use of narrator Tom Collins as the mask for Joseph Furphy’s intentions, are the elaborations of a complex mind seeking to prepare us for things we may not be ready for, things which, in fact, are far from what our previous reading had led us to expect. Yet even this summary of Furphy’s methods leaves out the ways he had to back-track on his stated intentions to give the book some layers that it might otherwise have lacked. (I will return to this theme later.)

Furphy is in no doubt that he has something new to present, on a background that’s very old. His chosen scene is two or three hundred miles from north to south, in the old measurement; Such Is Life is a work of the British empire – and a little less from west to east, from Echuca to Albury, as he tells us in Chapter III, one of the funniest things ever written in our country. Even this early in my reflections on Furphy I find myself wringing my hands, throwing them up in despair, or any other cliché you choose, at the prospect of trying to explain, or illuminate, the methods of a writer who is apparently as clear as crystal yet as devious as a Borgia plot. What on earth is he doing? At once I want to simplify my question, and turn it into, what has he done? This latter version gives me the advantage, or help, of history. I can use the century between Furphy’s presentation of his manuscript to The Bulletin and the writing of this essay to help me find a position from which I can see his achievement a little more clearly.

Yet it’s as hard as ever. In a recent conversation with Chris Wallace-Crabbe (sorry no footnote, I simply ran into him at the airport) he described Furphy as a pre-post-modernist. Yes, that’s right, pre-post. Silly, isn’t it, but it’s true. In the golden age of The Bulletin, when nationalism was more alive than it had ever been before, Furphy was writing prose which he knew, and expected the reader to know, was a construct, written for a purpose or perhaps many purposes, and which, in its effects, might contradict or separate from his narrative like diverging tracks in the Riverina district of New South Wales.

Diverging tracks: Furphy was a self-educated man, and it shows. Whether you think this a strength or a weakness will depend on many things, including your views on the question of whether an education enslaves by binding you to things proposed by earlier writers, or releases your mind for fresh thought by summarising the thinking that’s already been done. Or something else entirely. Those weaknesses and strengths I referred to are also traps: which is which? What may be a weakness to you may be a strength to me, or vice versa. We are, once again, making our way across a landscape which hadn’t been visited by the European mind until comparatively recently. Furphy knows this and has chosen his territory because he knows it, having worked there as a bullocky and as a minor government official for a couple of decades before he wrote about it. My own family settled in the southern end of this area at about the time he chose as his period, and this familiarity, his and mine, makes me aware of the strange dichotomy of the landscape and his writing about it: his realities are correct because he knew it well, but in some strange way, the more ‘factual’ the book is, the more clearly it declares itself to be a construct of the human imagination ...

... the likes of which had never been seen before. Furphy himself knew he’d done something new. In a letter to J.F.Archibald of The Bulletin, he described his ‘full-sized novel Such is Life; scene, Riverina and northern Vic.; temper democratic; bias, offensively Australian’. Famous words. Overland magazine has used them for decades as its banner, though ‘offensively’ has been omitted. Furphy, the self-educated man who worked with his brothers on the production of farming equipment at the same time as he wrote his novel, had no objection to being blunt if he felt it was called for. His amusement at the characters in his book who think that such superiority as they possessed in England gives them a like superiority in the colony of Australia is apparent. The men of the Riverina, the bullockies, teamsters, station hands and guardians of the stock and water supplies in the enormous paddocks, are all, crazy as they may be, expert in matters of survival. They have to be. Everybody understands everybody else. Again, they have to. This is all the more amusing because many of the people portrayed in the book are recent arrivals and Furphy/Collins sets down in considerable detail the laughable, baffling and barely decipherable ‘Englishes’ of the Germans, Chinese, Poms, Scots, Irish, and half-castes as they communicate whatever’s in their heads with people of other races and/or nationalities. So much of our modern understanding of outback Australia and the people who developed its character, and provided a basis for the story of a nation’s foundation, is based on the things chronicled – that word again – by Furphy that we are amazed that such coherence could be formed from such confusion. It isn’t possible! But it is. Such is life, Furphy tells us, over and over, hammering this simplicity into us so often and so hard that we’re forced to ask ourselves what he means by it and why he’s determined to drive it into our thinking.

Let us pause to think about this. Such is life, he says, again and again, and such is not life, he tells us once and only once, as far as I can recall. Almost everyone who hears the title of the book, or runs up against these endless reiterations of its theme, will remark that Furphy’s words were the words used by Ned Kelly on his way to be hanged (in 1880). They are not only Joseph Furphy’s words, they are words of their time, and this is an important clue.

‘Such is life’ is a statement of acceptance. It concedes that you can’t win. As one of my friends goes on to say, ‘There are only several ways of losing’. In choosing a particular way of living, you are choosing the way by which you will eventually be brought low. In the case of the common or garden workers in Furphy’s book, this has already happened. As early as Chapter 1, when the itinerant Collins meets the group of men who give his setting its human flavour, it becomes apparent that few of these men are Riverina born and bred; they’ve come from somewhere else, there’s a disaster or a failure behind most of them, and the poverty of their lives is something they’ve accepted because it’s a great deal better than nothing. They’re in endless battle with the station owners. Pushing their beasts along dry tracks, they need feed and water every day and will only get them if they cut a fence and slip their beasts into places where they’re not supposed to be. Station owners are on the lookout for this, and so are the humbler men employed by the stations, though they may be ambivalent in their loyalties, being battlers themselves. The owners and managers of the stations are also in an ambivalent position. They need the bullock teams to get supplies in and produce out, but they want any grass and water for their own stock, not for the transport teams, which must, therefore, be kept moving. Ultimately it is the land that suffers. Stations are overstocked because most have bank overdrafts which need to be reduced, and quite a few of the itinerant workers are aware of the pieces of property most suitable for ‘free selection’ under the Land Acts of the 1860s, designed to give the small man a chance to become a landholder alongside the earlier band of squatters. Such laws as regulate this situation are made in the parliaments in Sydney and Melbourne by men who may or may not be familiar with the lands they’re regulating, so that it is the station holders and the lesser beings who work for or against them who have the real, on-the-ground knowledge, and they are the men whose doings and endless talk enliven the pages of Furphy’s book. What does Joseph Furphy think of this world he’s describing? This is easy:

I replaced the glass [telescope], thinking, with sorrow rather than conceit, that I could make a better world myself.

And a couple of chapters later:

“I say, Collins – don’t split!”

“Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this great thing?”

“Second Kings,” whispered the poor necromancer, in eager fellowship, and displaying a knowledge of the Bible rare among his sect. “God bless you, Collins! May we meet in a better world!”

“It won’t be difficult to do that,” I replied dejectedly, as I withdrew to enjoy my unearned slumber.

The itinerant men in Furphy’s pages are the spiritual antecedents of Australia’s soldiers of two world wars – men who, having nothing, demonstrate a certain generosity of spirit against the surrounding void, and a dogged determination to maintain and express their dignity even though their circumstances don’t support their efforts. Furphy needed, I think, to create a world separate from London and all the links between the worlds of English business and the places where wool was grown, shorn, then carted on hulking wagons that were easily bogged when rain fell on the black soil plains. He needed to be out of sympathy with the destinations that lay beyond that rectangle, that patch of Riverina, if you remember, where he set his action ...

Action? Furphy tells us, any number of times, that he’s out to do something more difficult than offer a plot with appropriate dénouement. In one way or another, and by means which he will have to improvise, because what he’s attempting to do has not been set up as a goal before, he wants to show life in a form that’s new to the world, and this commits him to the philosophising that I earlier described as the musings of a self-educated man. Educated men haven’t written about the world he wants to show, so he has to devise his own ways and means, and the amazing, the wonderful thing about his book is that he succeeds.

He’s very confident that he can do what he’s set out to do. Here’s a passage from the start of the second last chapter.

They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly, but, bear-like, I must fight the course. Ay! your first-person-singular novelist delights in relating his love-story, simply because he can invent something to pamper his own romantic notions; whereas, a similar undertaking makes the faithful chronicler squirm, inasmuch as – Oh! you’ll find out soon enough.

What will we find? Furphy has answers here and there, usually early in each chapter, when he’s musing about the meanings of the things he intends to show. His style’s discursive, each of the seven chapters dawdling across the countryside like a team of miserably fed bullocks, yet in each case there’s a thread or threads tying things together, sometimes allowing us to think about things less distressing than the theme of the chapter if it’s painful, as it is in Chapter V, at the heart of which is the search for and eventual discovery of the lost child Mary, aged a little over five, who’s found dead some twenty miles from the place where her walk had started. Mary left home because she thought her father had left home, and she set out to find him. Lost child stories are a part of Australia’s bush-writing tradition, but never so wrenchingly done as this, because never so well prepared. We met Mary three chapters earlier, when Collins and the reader found her delightful, but two things about this chapter gave the reader warning. Clever as the little girl is, she’s fallible, as we see when, after a discussion of how she will have to go away to school one day, she writes her name. The capital M has five downward strokes instead of four, and two letters are transposed, thus - MRAY.

And there’s another signal too. Collins, approaching the shack where Mary’s parents live, observes a swaggy settling down to sleep. Collins thinks about greeting him but decides that the man has chosen not to approach the dwelling until it’s too dark for him to be given the job of cutting firewood; rather than that, he’ll have a sleep. The man is later found dead, and the discovery sent a shudder through this reader, because I felt that the death was too close, too pertinent, to be the swaggy’s death alone, but was death in a more general form, never very far from anybody, and not far enough from Mary, who was vulnerable, in her extreme isolation, through the love she has for her father. Three chapters separate this first Mary, button-bright and devoted to her dad, from the same little girl, equally devoted, who gets it in her head that her father has disappeared and must be found, and in going out to search for him, dies herself. The point I wish to make is that the overwhelming sadness we feel as we realise that what we have feared is inevitable, is in part a product of Furphy’s separation of the chapters, so that the fear induced by that association of Mary with the man who died near her home has had time to take root in our thoughts, making us vulnerable too. Such is Life is more than a collection of yarns and stories. In spacing out its events in the way I’ve described, Furphy is borrowing the techniques of the types of writers he scoffs at elsewhere.

It is worth mentioning, I think, that there is also, in Furphy’s account of the incidents surrounding Mary, something intended, I’m sure, but unexplored, about the tension between Mary’s father – adored by the child – and mother. Furphy is clearly on the man’s side, and what this expresses about him and the marriage in his own life, I cannot say, but there’s something weighty, down-dragging, in the darkness surrounding this matter.

Perhaps I can link this question of Furphy’s misogyny, or is it marital disappointment, with the relationship the reader senses but can’t altogether grasp between Furphy, the ultimate creator, and Tom Collins, the minor official who wanders through the book as its apparent narrator. My edition (1) has no mention of Joseph Furphy on spine or title page; without the introduction by editor John Barnes there would be no mention of Joseph Furphy in the book at all. A book without an author? A book written by its own main character? Did I say this was a pre-post modern work? (There’s even, on page 340, a passage where Collins, talking about his meerschaum pipe, wonders whether he smokes it or it smokes him!) Where is the author, then? Who is he? If we interrogate the book along these lines we’re forced to go looking for Furphy, but he’s almost impossible, to find ... and yet we know he’s there. Who else caused Tom Collins to lose his clothes in Chapter III? Who caused the mighty wind that blew Tom’s hat away at the start of Chapter VII, and then prompted Jack the Shellback to give the bare-headed Collins a replacement?

“I’ll fix you up for a hat,” he continued, in language of matchless force and piquancy. “Bend her; she’ll about fit you. I dropped across her one day I was in the road paddock.”

‘She’ was a drab bell-topper, in perfect preservation, with a crown nothing less than a foot and a half high, and a narrow, wavy brim. She proved a perfect fit when I ‘bent’ her. I wore her afterward for many a week, till one night she rolled away from my camp, and I saw her no more, though I sought her diligently. Take her all in all, I shall not look upon her like again.

This is the farcical hat Tom wears throughout the final chapter, but we can’t help being aware that it’s Joseph Furphy, the almost invisible author, who’s put it in his way. Someone, and it’s got to be Furphy, is causing the unexpected to happen from time to time, because Furphy, for all he says about plots and dénouements, does believe in these devices, so long as they contribute to the creation, the elucidation, of meaning. His book’s about the way life treats us and what we can discern of purpose or the lack of it in this frequently unjust process. In the last pages we learn that a man – a swagman, Collins calls him – was jailed for three months for the burning of a haystack in Chapter III, a matter which caused us to laugh heartily at the time. A man was put in jail? Yes, and as the book ends, this swaggie encounters the man who really lit the stack, but doesn’t recognise him. Is this because of the dark glasses he’s wearing, the silly hat, or something else? Collins doesn’t quite tell us, but he knows well enough who took the punishment for what he did himself. This is not his only deceit. He’s caused other men to tell stories about him so that they’ll reach the ears of Mrs Beaudesert, who fancies Tom for her fourth husband. The first three husbands left her considerable wealth when they died, money that Tom Collins doesn’t have, so that if Mrs Beaudesert was successful in leading him to matrimony then it would be for reasons of respectability or even – heaven help us! – true love. But this is not a book about true love. It’s a book about men who are, for the most part, living at a distance from the places where their lives were formed. It’s the Riverina and in Furphy’s telling of its tales, it’s a place without a past, a stage for the acting out of the quaint to farcical events he’s chosen to tell us. Its characters have made their mistakes elsewhere, they’ve been stripped of identity and character in other places, and they’ve found a new place, an almost un-historical stage for their later-in-life actions. This explains, I think, the way the book ends:

These men are deaf to the symphony of the Silences; blind to the horizonless areas of the Unknown; unresponsive to the touch of the Impalpable; oblivious to the machinery of the Moral Universe – in a word, in a word, indifferent to the mysterious Motive of Nature’s all-pervading Soul ...

And the very last lines includes a reference to William Shakespeare, whose writing, as I will try to show, has been an influence throughout Such Is Life:

Now I had to enact the Cynic philosopher to Moriarty and Butler, and the aristocratic man with a ‘past’ to Mrs Beaudesert; with the satisfaction of knowing that each of these was acting a part to me. Such is life, my fellow-mummers – just like a poor player, that bluffs and feints his hour upon the stage, and then cheapens down to mere nonentity. But let me not hear any small witticism to the further effect that its story is a tale told by a vulgarian, full of slang and blanky, signifying – nothing.

Let me not hear, the book says, at the end, and I think it is Joseph Furphy who is talking, rather than his alter ego Tom Collins, let me not hear that it all signifies nothing. A double negative it may be but we are meant to take it as a positive. Furphy is sure that he’s given us a tank that holds real water, and we can drink from it if we’re not too proud.

Why the Riverina? Furphy worked there for two decades before he added that room to his Goulburn River home and started to write. John Barnes quotes another Furphy letter:

Before this {writing of a yarn] was finished, another motif had suggested itself – then another – and another. And I made a point of loosely federating these yarns (if you understand me); till by-and-by the scheme of “S’Life” suggested itself. Then I selected and altered and largely re-wrote 7 of these stories, until they came out as you see.

The key word in this for me is ‘federating’; unusual as it may seem, and almost inapplicable to the business of writing, it was in the air at the time because the six states of Australia had recently done the very same thing. Midway through Chapter II Furphy speaks of his country with surprising eloquence: ‘Our virgin continent! How long has she tarried her bridal day!’ The long paragraph beginning in this way ends with ‘The mind retires from such speculation, unsatisfied but impressed.’

Gravely impressed. For this recordless land – this land of our lawful solicitude and imperative responsibility – is exempt from many a bane of territorial rather than racial impress. She is committed to no usages of petrified injustice; she is clogged by no fealty to shadowy idols, enshrined by Ignorance, and upheld by misplaced homage alone; she is cursed by no memories of fanaticism and persecution; she is innocent of hereditary national jealousy, and free from the envy of sister states.

Then think how immeasurably higher are the possibilities of a Future than the memories of any Past since history began. By comparison, the Past, though glozed beyond all semblance of truth, is a clinging heritage of canonised ignorance, brutality and baseness; a drag rather than a stimulus. And as day by day, year by year, our own fluid Present congeals into a fixed Past, we shall do well to take heed that, in time to come, our own memory may not be held justly accursed.

So time itself, and its endless movement, is to be our conscience, and we must face these judgements alone because we are separate from the rest of the world. It’s not hard to break this down into a statement that the rest of the world has had its chance and it’s now Australia’s turn to make a play for greatness of a sort never seen before. Why else would Furphy separate the Riverina except that it’s his case study to see what the new men are like when considered on their own. If he had been a sociological novelist he’d have linked his people and their place with the world outside – Sydney, Melbourne, London, and the ancient cultures he so frequently refers to. He doesn’t. The outside world is mentioned but it’s the rectangle he’s defined for himself that occupies him. It’s where humanity can be studied. Forced to give account of itself. It’s been observed that Furphy doesn’t talk about shearers, who move as freely about the Riverina as the teamsters, but he doesn’t need them. They’re not so different from the bullock men that they can offer anything fresh ... and it’s not types, or categories, so much, that Furphy’s after, it’s yarns. Stories. As he himself said, ‘Then I selected and altered and largely re-wrote 7 of these stories, until they came out as you see.’ He describes himself, repeatedly, as being a chronicler in order to prevent us noticing that he’s an artist. One of the pleasures of reading Furphy is to perform what the financial world calls ‘due diligence’ on one of his chapters, observing its digressions, surprises, movements and unexpected intrusions. He’s writing in expression of an aesthetic which takes its principles from the life he knew in his years on the track. I’ve referred to him as self-educated; one of the characteristics of such people is that they know what their problems are because they’ve never been trained to mix the thoughts in their own head with other people’s interpretations of them. It is a little easier for them to stay focussed. Furphy makes great virtue out of keeping his eyes fixed where he wants them; he could never have allowed himself so many diversions and sideways shuffles if he hadn’t been certain of where he was – that rectangle two or three hundred miles deep and Echuca-to-Albury wide, which he boxed in at the beginning. Furphy is a prime example of a writer drawing strength from limitation. His chosen year, 1883, could have been any year, but it wasn’t, it was chosen, arbitrarily enough, but with some good reason no doubt, and then he chose the days of his diary – or so he tells us! – as the starting places of his stories ... and then (Chapter VII) he alters his plan! I think this is all a conjuror’s sleight of hand to keep our attention where he wants it – where he can best control it – while he works his tricks somewhere out of sight.

His tricks? Where and what are they? He has so many of them, some simply verbal, others philosophical. Here’s a good example of Furphy/Collins at word play:

“And he was just as good on the piano as on the fiddle, though his hand must have been badly out. Mooney thinks he jibbed on singing because the women were there. Alf’s a mis-mis-mish--dash it”-

“Mischief-maker?” I suggested.


“Mysterious character?”

“No, no. –Mis-mis”--

“Try a synonym.”

“Is that it? I think it is. Well Alf’s a misasynonym – woman-hater – among other things. When he comes to the station, he dodges the women like a criminal.”

Sometimes, though, his trickery is on an entirely different level. Early in Chapter IV, Tom Collins goes to the camp of a bullock driver called Warrigal Alf to deliver a message. The Alf he discovers is very sick indeed. Collins gets him a drink of water, then goes off to find out, if he can, what’s happened to Alf’s beasts. This leads him to a meeting with a boundary rider which needn’t concern us, although it gives Furphy/Collins an opportunity to present whole paragraphs of this man’s version of the English language. More importantly, perhaps, we follow Collins in getting something he likes to think is ‘medicine’ and adding it to the water he gives Warrigal Alf. Alf becomes talkative, and produces a few more of the bush stories that fill this book. This is deceptive because Furphy is leading us away from what he wants us to see. Alf talks on and on, until Collins notices sounds in the distance of cattle being moved, and, apologising to Warrigal Alf for having to leave him, he sets out to reclaim the animals, but not before he overhears the sick man’s weak, frail voice call: “O Molly! Molly, my girl! – my poor love! – my darling!” Collins makes very little out of this but in Chapter VI we come on another Alf, a boundary rider living in a hut on ‘his’ own. There is conversation, Collins plays a jew’s harp, hoping to cause ‘Alf’ to bring out the violin he is locally famous for. He does. He plays, and then he sings. More than this, he causes Collins to reflect on what he’s being offered:

A weary, wistful melancholy, beyond repining or tears, beyond impatience or passion; it was the involuntary record of a gentle heart breaking slowly under discipline untempered by one ray of earthly hope.

Collins doesn’t realise, and leaves in the morning without knowing, that this second ‘Alf’ is the Molly we heard about in Chapter IV. He is a she. She is desperately unhappy because an accident with a horse has left her with a smashed-in face, hidden by cloth. She hasn’t married, she’s not known for what she is, and she wants nobody to find out. I am inclined to think this is the heart of the book because it can, in my view, be seen as an elaborate device, not only to separate the foolish Collins from the somewhat more knowing Furphy, but because it is also the moment when Furphy/Collins breaks his own rule and introduces, from outside his Riverina rectangle, the culture, the feelings and desires which have been given free and full expression in the music of the old world.

Molly/Alf is, in her way, a visitation of that European culture which Furphy/Collins ruled out when he laid down the rectangle already referred to, east-west from Echuca to Albury, north-south from above the Lachlan River to a little below the Murray. And it’s time to say that this same culture creeps into the book in another way, via the self-educated writer’s respect for the ne plus ultra of writers, William Shakespeare.

I have already referred to Furphy saying that his book does not signify nothing. Let me now make a distinction between his subject and his method of focussing on it. Again a quote, this time from early in Chapter VII:

In view of the soul-destroying ignorance which saturates society, it may be well to repeat that this central point of the universe, Riverina Proper, consists of a wide promontory of open and level plain ...

Furphy/Collins goes on to talk about clumps of red box, patches of scrub or timber, inevitable red gum flats, and so on, but we can hardly expect an author whose identity is largely hidden behind his central character to analyse his methods of judging the people he is showing, as opposed to the place. Joseph Furphy may have been self-educated but his numerous teachers numbered the greatest of them all. I think we can say, as we venture into an area where no certainty can be expected, that he took it for granted that his readers, whether educated or not, would know their Shakespeare. This means that he can use the famous playwright as a reference point when he feels the need. We’ve already looked at one example; here’s another. Late in the book he devotes a couple of pages to the contrast between horse-man and Hamlet-man, these figures roughly approximating to the Riverina types he’s writing about and the great statements about humanity in Shakespeare as the primary representative of European culture. Horse-man and Hamlet-man link Furphy’s intentions to those of other writers in a contrasting way.

A novelist is always able to bring forth out of his imagination the very thing required by the exigencies of his story – just as he unmasks the villain at the critical moment, and, for the young hero’s benefit, gently shifts the amiable old potterer to a better land in the very nick of time. Such is not life.

Such is not life. Joseph Furphy was one of our most thoughtful, most serious novelists, determined to give us a novel unlike any he’d read himself. Australia was a new country – aboriginal Australia scarcely existed in the understanding of his time – and it required new methods to record – to chronicle – its ways. There could be no looseness, of method or construction, in the doing of this task, yet Australian life, certainly in Furphy’s time, rejected many of the methods and constructions of England, the model for our social life. What to do? The problem couldn’t be solved unless it was contained, and yet – such was the nature of the life Furphy sought to portray – the life inside his stories had to seem loose, unconstructed. Furphy’s methods had to be as new as the vast array of improvisations that his countrymen adopted in order to cope with new problems. The stump-jump plough was a source of pride to the farmers of my childhood, a thing as necessary and as unfailing as the water cart from Shepparton to be found on farm after farm. And yet, although the country demanded adaptation, and Australians, wanting to think of themselves as a coming race, perhaps the coming race, were proud of the way they were adapting to their country, they couldn’t entirely throw over the ways of considering humanity which had been brought to the new land from the old.

The British Isles. Shakespeare. The playwright is frequently referred to. In Chapter II he’s contrasted with Solomon, whose ‘estimate of woman is shockingly low’, whereas ‘On the other hand, Shakespeare’s estimate of woman is high.’ Furphy/Collins’ proposal for harmonising these two views is to work forwards from Solomon and backwards from Shakespeare, bringing us, he says, to the moment where the Virgin says, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For He hath regarded the low estate of his Handmaiden; for behold! From henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.’ The self-educated Furphy and the who-knows-how-educated Collins are in agreement about this rather quirky way of configuring historical narrative and judgement. Shakespeare is a handy reference point for greatness, expressiveness, insight and poetic eloquence throughout the book. Collins rides a horse called Cleopatra; the Egyptian queen is an historical figure, of course, but I think we can regard Collins’ giving this name to his horse as a sign of respect for the playwright.

I also feel Shakespeare is an influence at many points where he’s not named, and in particular, in those sections of Chapter III where the by-now-naked Collins is trying to get back to his camp or to steal suitable garments that have been washed and hung out to dry. (This leads to the burning of the haystack, mentioned before.) He’s ridiculous, he’s farcical, and will resort to any measures to acquire an even halfway respectable cover for his nakedness. This is not only funny in itself as a form of slipped-out-of-civilisation narrative, I think its depiction of a man desperate to retain a few shreds of dignity while his situation is humiliating, even shameful, draws its aptitude from Shakespeare, one of whose themes was the importance of pride (or lack of it) to what he himself called ‘proud’ man. I think Furphy had a variety of Shakespearean figures, including Malvolio and possibly including a number of his clowns, in mind when writing the third of his chapters. Keen as he was to ‘chronicle’ the things that happened daily in that rectangle he’d chosen as his setting, he imported Shakespeare as an influence on his writing and touchstone for his readers, a way of recognising and evaluating the things he chose to show them.

And now, by way of ending, a confession. I hadn’t read Such Is Life until I reached the age of seventy-six. I bought it decades earlier but left it sitting on my shelves until it occurred to me that it might give rise to an essay. So, and finally, I read it. I loved it. Why hadn’t I read it before? I think I had it in my head that it would be dull. Never have I been more pleased to be wrong. We have only to compare Furphy to Frederic Manning, who saw no need to separate himself from the empire of which he was a part, or Patrick White, whose life was in many ways a violent struggle to reconcile where he chose to be with where he’d been, to see what Joseph Furphy did when he decided to be Tom Collins, and then put himself through the strains of being a man he wasn’t entirely suited to being. His memory was too long, no matter how much he tried to restrict himself to what was in front of those ever-searching eyes.


1. Such Is Life: Being Certain Extracts from the Diary of Tom Collins, first published 1903, my edition published by The Discovery Press, Penrith NSW, 1968, with an introduction by John Barnes

2. Joseph Furphy: The Legend of a Man and his Book, by Miles Franklin in association with Kate Baker, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1944 and dedicated ‘For Australia’

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