Joseph Furphy (1843-1912) was an Australian writer whose reputation rests on "Such Is Life," a major novel that gives accurate representations of the emerging national character and customs in colonial Australia's "age of gusto," the 1890s.
Joseph Furphy was born at Yering, a rural district outside Melbourne, on Sept. 26, 1843. He was educated at home, mainly by his mother, with the Bible and Shakespeare as his first readers. At 23 Furphy bought a threshing machine and at harvest time took it through wheat areas. He became a homesteader in 1868 but after 5 years of hard times became a wool carrier. This occupation took him deep into the main pastoral areas, about which he was later to write so knowledgably. In slack times he tried his hand at gold mining. In his late 30s he joined his brother at Shepparton, in central Victoria, a rural town in which he spent the 1880s and 1890s.
Here, under the pen name Tom Collins, Joseph Furphy contributed regularly to the Bulletin, a weekly established in 1880 which reflected (and helped shape) the erupting Australianism of the day. In it, writers came forward to interpret Australians to themselves rather than to English readers. The movement had its roots in the back-country, where social tensions sprang from the sheep raisers' legal struggle to hold their estates against homesteading and, more immediately, from prolonged strikes involving rural workers.
In this atmosphere Furphy wrote Such Is Life, delineating life in the pastoral lands of southeast Australia. It was the first rounded view of the Australian inland—a record written with a conscious rejection of romanticism. Furphy completed the long novel in 1897 and submitted it to the Bulletin, where its merit was immediately recognized. Accepting editorial advice, Furphy excised large sections; the reduced text was published in 1903. Reviews were excellent, but sales were meager. Through the efforts of a family friend, Such Is Life was again published in 1917; other editions were released in England and Australia.
Shrewd, proud and tolerant, Furphy had a quiet sense of humor and was self-effacing and devoted to his family— characteristics which were reflected in his writing. The warmth of his outlook and the richness of his experience add luster to Such Is Life, and in spite of some stylistic flaws it stands as "the most original and vigorous novel to come out of Australia." Discursive and laden with quotations and erudite allusions, it is marked by real humor in the presentation of character and scene, with an unfailing belief in and affection for the common man. Such Is Life is an extraordinary book in the ambitiousness and complexity of its structure. Furphy's editorial mentor, A. G. Stephens, described it as being like a riverboat, "carrying all manner of freight for all manner of people, and tieing up at a tree every night for tea, tucker [food], tobacco, and philosophical reflections."
Furphy was absorbed with the discussion going on among those trying to shape a political and social philosophy appropriate to the developing frontier society. Supporting the view of the small landowner against that of the big sheep and cattle raisers, he admitted to something of the egalitarian approach. He picked up the prevailing views expressed in dissertations among shearers, drovers, teamsters, prospectors, and general roustabouts—men with a new political awareness sharpened by the varying "socialist" teachings of the American social writers Edward Bellamy and Henry George, whose books were being spread among ranch workers by union organizers. Furphy's writing possesses an intellectual content and background; yet it is narrow and parochial.
Two subsidiary novels taken from the great mass from which Such Is Life was quarried became Rigby's Romance and The Buln Buln and the Brolga. In 1905 Furphy submitted the former to a miners newspaper, where it was serialized; it came out in book form in 1921. The Buln Buln and the Brolga was not published until 1946. Both novels rely for their interest on their association with the greater work.
In 1905 Furphy moved to Western Australia, where two of his sons had established a business. He died at Claremont, a suburb of Perth, on Sept. 13, 1912.
The principal authority on Furphy's life is Miles Franklin in association with Kate Baker, Joseph Furphy: The Legend of a Man and His Book (1944 which, although sometimes vague and fragmentary, brings together good material on Furphy and his work. A concise sketch of Furphy and Such Is Life and an annotated list of his output are given (under his pen name, Tom Collins) in Edmund M. Miller, Australian Literature: A Bibliography to 1938; Extended to 1950, edited by Frederick T. Macartney (1956). A fuller appreciation of Furphy and his place in Australian literature is in H. M. Green, A History of Australian Literature, vol. 1 (1961).
Barnes, John, The order of things: a life of Joseph Furphy, Melbourne; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. □