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Joseph Furphy (1843–1912)

by Manning Clark

This article was published:

Joseph Furphy (1843-1912), by Peirce, c1900

Joseph Furphy (1843-1912), by Peirce, c1900

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24101954

Joseph Furphy (1843-1912), writer, was born on 26 September 1843 at Yering, near Yarra Glen, Port Phillip District, son of Samuel Furphy, a tenant farmer, and his wife Judith, née Hare, who had migrated from Northern Ireland in 1841. John Furphy was an elder brother. Joseph was educated by his mother who introduced him at an early age to the Bible and Shakespeare. In 1850 the family moved to Kangaroo Ground, where Joseph briefly attended the local school, and in 1852 to Kyneton, where Samuel Furphy ran a corn and hay business. Later he leased a farm and acquired a threshing plant, and Joseph became his agent in the district. At Glenlyon he met Leonie Selina Germain, of French descent. They were married at Christchurch, Daylesford, on 27 May 1867; Leonie was 16. His wife was to remain an enigma to him and a mystery to both her contemporaries and to later observers of the human scene.

After his marriage Furphy purchased a selection in the district of Colbinabbin. For the next six years he strove unsuccessfully to establish himself as a farmer. By 1872 he had decided that the land he was working was not suitable for farming. In 1873 he sold the farm, bought a team of bullocks, and set up business as a carter in the Riverina district of New South Wales. There he established a reputation as a Sterne in moleskins or a Munchhausen among the bullock-drivers. Nature had planted in him a vast fund of cheery optimism. All his life he was a stranger to the pessimism and the melancholy which weighed down Henry Lawson and other bush writers. During his years in the Riverina his literary talents blossomed in the long, bantering, half-humorous, letters which he wrote to his mother.

By then he was a self-professed believer in the gospel of work, self-discipline and self-education. In conversations with his fellow bullock-drivers out on the Lachlan Plains, and in the district round Hay he began to have the 'vision splendid'. It was to be a more serious-minded, non-Dionysian view of the fate of being a man in Australia. Furphy spurned the wild drinking-bouts with which the itinerant bushworkers consoled themselves for being deprived of creature comforts, and a woman's tender care. He was never the Bohemian either of the heart or the bar-room in the bush shanty. When his fellow bullock-drivers drank deeply of the waters of stupefaction Furphy was reading by a slush lamp in a tent pitched by some river bank on those inhospitable plains. His relations with his wife became even more tenuous.

He was changing slowly from the cheery optimist into the self-taught man who believed he had a message for his fellow Australians. He had acquired some of the doctrine he would preach when the time came to put pen to paper. He shared the Psalmists' condemnation of putting money upon usury. He went further and chided himself for making too much money. He seemed to accept the Pauline teaching that the love of money was the root of much evil. He told his father in February 1882 that the man who pursued money had made a 'compact with the evil one'. At the same time he preached the benefits of temperance to the bushworkers. While the Bohemians of the Bulletin were looking into the wine cup when it was red, Furphy was counselling remittance men and others out on the plains of desolation who had been 'imbibing the accursed thing for about a week' to promise to abstain until at least the following Sunday.

The drought of 1883 ended abruptly his life as a bullock-driver. In 1884 he began to work with his brother John in his iron foundry at Shepparton. There by night Furphy continued to read voraciously in an endeavour to find the meaning of life and the probable future of society in Australia. From the few of his observations which have survived from that period he emerges as a man who did not whine, or wail, scowl or snarl. He had a religion. He called it a proud, humane religion that had no Thirty-nine Articles or surpliced flummery about it. He saw himself as a kind-hearted man. His friends said of him at the time that a kinder-hearted man never aimed a hammer at an anvil, or thrust a pen at an ink-bottle.

By the time of the depression of the 1890s Furphy was chewing over ideas for a work which would convey his vision of life. He already had some practice as a writer. In 1867 the Kyneton Literary Society had awarded him the first prize for some verses on the death of President Lincoln. It was perhaps significant that he should have taken as his principal character a man of heroic proportions, and a moralist. For Furphy was by nature a prophet, albeit a very humorous prophet denouncing the sins of the members of his own generation. In January 1893 he wrote to a friend about 'the hideous depression brought on by the unbridled greed of vile men in high places'. By then he was contributing stories and sketches to the Bulletin.

His friend was Kate Baker, a school teacher. She was encouraging Furphy to put his ideas on life down on paper. He had already tried to do just that, but was still agonizing over the medium he should choose. At that time he told Kate Baker that the only duty he recognized both in his life and in his writing was 'the very momentous one of forwarding the New Order'. That was the subject over which he laboured in the shed in the backyard at Shepparton.

At the end of March 1897 he wrote the last words of the manuscript:

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.

Using the pen-name 'Tom Collins,' Furphy believed he had written a moral for his age and, he hoped, a moral for all times and places about the human situation. Like all great confessions about life it had come out of his own experiences, as a bullock-driver in the Riverina.

The next task was to get it published. On 4 April 1897 he wrote to the Bulletin for advice. Characteristically he asked for a reply of two or three words only. He asked Alfred George Stephens to recommend a publishing firm. Stephens sent a reply Furphy would relish: 'Send the animal for inspection'.

The first response by Stephens summed up what subsequent readers were to find.

Rather long-winded, yet Such is Life is good. It seems fit to me to become an Australian classic, or semi-classic, since it embalms accurate representations of our character and customs, life and scenery which in so skilled and methodical a form occur in no other book I know. I think the book ought to be published and would find a sale.

Stephens offered to edit the work for Furphy.

When Furphy arrived in Sydney to discuss publication, the Bohemians of the Bulletin found him a very naive man. An anonymous wit published this description of him

Tom Collins
Who never drinks and never bets
And loves his wife and pays his debts,
And feels content with what he gets.

While the Bohemians of Sydney were mocking at conventional morality Furphy was writing high-minded letters to his mother about the 'possible righteousness of the human race', or telling her that 'the day of carousal' was past, and 'the day of work' had begun.

On the advice of Stephens Furphy agreed to take out of his original manuscript two huge slices. He then took the manuscript back to Shepparton where he laboriously typed it. In 1903 it was published in Sydney by Bulletin publications.

The reception of the work was very much as Stephens had predicted. Critics sensed Furphy was a formidable man: they perceived that the work was by a man inspired by a great moral passion; they agreed that the aim of the author had been to assist the Australian reading public to get both wisdom and understanding, but they were not able to agree on precisely what that wisdom consisted of. Some called Furphy the 'sage of Riverine', and left it at that. The reading public was also slow to respond. The sales of the work disappointed both Stephens and the author.

There was an equally indifferent response to the publication of the two deleted sections of the original manuscript of Such is Life. Chapter V, after suitable revisions by Furphy, was published first as a serial in the Barrier Truth, Broken Hill, in 1905-06. As Rigby's Romance it was first published as a book in an abridged form in 1921, and complete in 1946. Chapter II was revised and published as The Buln-Buln and the Brolga in 1948. There was a second edition of Such is Life with a preface by Vance Palmer in 1917, an abridged edition with an introduction by Vance Palmer in 1937, another edition of the full text in 1944, and a reissue of that text in 1948. That year Chicago University Press published the 1903 text with a biographical sketch and commentary by the American literary critic and historian, Clinton Hartley Grattan.

The critics both in Australia and the United States of America had insisted that the work was a minor classic, or that, at the least, it enjoyed a very special position in the history of Australian literature. Yet by an odd irony the only words by Furphy which lingered on in the memory of subsequent generations were the words he tossed off in his brief letter to the Bulletin on 4 April 1897: 'temper, democratic; bias, offensively Australian'. Critics such as Vance Palmer, Arthur Phillips, John Barnes, Guy Howarth and Ian Turner have endeavoured to detect deeper purposes, and subtleties in the development of the story.

What is clear is that Furphy held very passionate opinions on human behaviour in Australia. He had called his work 'offensively Australian'. He certainly believed in the virtues and capacities of the Australian bushman. He believed in a meritocracy: 'I acknowledge no aristocracy except one of service and self-sacrifice, in which he that is chief shall be servant, and he that is greatest of all, servant of all'. He believed in moral enlightenment. He believed that by a blending of the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount and the Enlightenment, humanity would move out of the darkness in to the light. He believed that by such moral persuasion a good time would come for the whole of humanity. Yet, paradoxically, the good time would not be accompanied by the pleasures which appealed to the Australian bushman such as drinking and general profanity. Furphy went on believing that 'honest water never left men in the mire'. Also he did not have much faith in love between man and woman. For him, it would seem, the great personal pain was his failure to know happiness with a woman. On why this was so, he remained silent all his life. Joseph Furphy was a private man, who never risked showing his heart in any public place.

He was also a very witty man. Possibly the two most memorable passages in his work were the section in Rigby's Romance in which the bullock-drivers out in the Lachlan Plains described their reactions on first reading the story of Moses in the Old Testament, and the section in The Buln-Buln and the Brolga where the honest bushman recounted his reactions to a Shakespeare play. But through all these works this boisterous humour lived side by side with a dignified melancholy, and a sadness about woman's love. Furphy remained possibly as much a mystery to himself as to his critics and readers.

The year after the publication of Such is Life Furphy and his wife joined their two sons at Claremont in Western Australia. Survived by his wife, sons and a daughter, he died there on 13 September 1912, and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery after a Church of Christ service. After his death Kate Baker devoted the remainder of her life to keeping his name alive for Australian readers. In 1916 she collected and edited The Poems of Joseph Furphy. In 1944 she published in collaboration with Miles Franklin Joseph Furphy: The Legend of a Man and his Book. Extracts from the letters of Joseph Furphy were published in the Bulletin on 16 January 1935. But the devotion of his admirers, and the praise of some critics have not upset his standing as the author of a classic which few were to read and no one was ever to establish clearly what it was all about.

Select Bibliography

  • A. L. Archer, Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy) as I Knew Him (Melb, 1941)
  • J. Barnes, Joseph Furphy (Melb, 1963)
  • Furphy papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Manning Clark, 'Furphy, Joseph (1843–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Joseph Furphy (1843-1912), by Peirce, c1900

Joseph Furphy (1843-1912), by Peirce, c1900

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24101954

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Collins, Tom

26 September, 1843
Yarra Glen, Victoria, Australia


13 September, 1912 (aged 68)
Claremont, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.