Henry Handel Richardson
Ulysses Bound

by Dorothy Green, ANU Press, 1973.

ABC radio review

Many of us, at some time or other, have been party to the game of discovering the Great Australian Novel. Throughout those sessions, never once did I hear a call for the great Australian work of literary criticism. Unheralded, it has appeared.

Dorothy Green has written it. The ANU published it. It is about Henry Handel Richardson, It is called Ulysses Bound.

There are so many features to praise about this volume that it is perplexing to know where to begin. It will certainly not be possible to do the work justice in the time available. So what follows is a notice, rather than a review.

To deal with a supplementary virtue first. When I first picked this volume up I was taken by its physical beauty. It is a large book – nearly six hundred pages. It has a delicate grey and black and grey jacket. At the commencement of each chapter there is a full-page drawing. Ulysses Bound is a pleasure to touch. I am not usually afflicted with this element of bibliomania, but this is such a handsome piece of book-manship that it would be unfair not to mention how splendid a gift it will make.

Now to the content. Dorothy Green has a case to argue, and put simply it is this: Henry Handel Richardson is a genuinely creative artist, and not a dull recounter of facts. Several distinguished critics fall victim to Green’s lethal prose as she presents this interpretation. Indeed, so well written is this critical study that it must demand attention as a work of literature in its own right.

Of course, there is more to Green’s argument than I have indicated. She pursues the sources of Richardson’s writings into the German philosophical tradition. The indebtedness to Richardson’s husband is spelt out. Instead of being an oddity in the Australian tradition, Henry Handel Richardson emerges as part of a rich and long strand of European ideas.

Green’s scholarship on this aspect is not the least of her achievements as she isolates and identifies the influences. Each novel is explored in turn. Substantial quotations enable even those unfamiliar with the work to follow the analysis.

At the heart of the book, and as the core of her reading, Green has placed the three volumes of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. Of this trilogy, Green concludes:

To know The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, thoroughly, is one of the most elementary and obvious duties of Australian culture.

Dealing with the final part, Ultima Thule, Green is at her most compelling:

There are some who have found Ultima Thule too painful to read, others more numerous who have found it too painful to re-read; others again, who, no matter how often they may re-read it, can still be moved to tears.

Much of the book’s interest lies in the parallel which Green draws between Richardson and Mahony. What Mahony rejected, and Richardson found was “A Saving Occupation” – an activity to keep oneself sane. From this notion comes the book’s title. In order to resist the entreaties of the sires, Ulysses had himself bound to the mast of his ship. So it is with the creative spirit. Unless creativity is bound to work, to the production of art, it destroys the personality.

To claim that Ulysses Bound is the first work of Australian criticism is not merely to comment upon Green’s tireless labours. Nor is it to contrast her tome with the fragments and essays upon which reputations have hitherto been founded in this country.

Green has all the attributes of a team of theses writers. And if a dozen of them had laboured for three years, they could have collected much of the material for this volume. But there is a quality which they could never have supplied, a quality largely absent from academic criticism the world over. This quality makes Dorothy’s Green’s study of Henry Handel Richardson such as outstanding work. That quantity is her thoroughly worked out moral universe.

If Richardson wrote because she had something to say, there is a similar urgency about Green’s analysis. Her views are not picked up from a couple of seminars and a stray acquaintance with existentialism. They are settled deep within her experience, both intellectual and personal. Against this definite standard, she judges Richardson, the characters in the novels, other critics, perhaps all of us.

Ulysses Bound is a grand, disturbing, elegant achievement. We are the better for its appearance.