Joseph Furphy (1843-1912) was an author, poet, farmer, bullock-driver, and iron worker. He is best known as the author of the novel Such is Life: Being Certain Extracts From the Diary of Tom Collins (1903), which is widely regarded as a classic piece of Australian literature. He also wrote for various periodicals, such as The Bulletin and Steele Rudd’s Magazine. Most of his works appeared under the pseudonym of “Tom Collins”.
Joseph Furphy was born on 26 September 1843 at Yering (near Yarra Glen, Victoria). His parents, who came to Australia from Ireland in 1841, were Samuel Furphy (a farmer) and Judith Furphy (née Hare). In 1850 the family moved to Kangaroo Ground (about 8 km. west of Yering), and then moved again two years later to Kyneton.
Joseph married Leonie Germain in 1867 and bought a small farm near Colbinabbin (north-east of Bendigo); however, the farm was not a success, so he sold the land and purchased a team of bullocks, driving them for a living. Hard times during the drought of 1883 forced him out of the carting business, so Joseph got a job at his brother’s iron foundry in Shepparton (where the well-known Furphy’s water carts were made).
His experiences in his working life, on the track with the bullock teams and dealing with country folk, served him well as a basis for his writings.
Furphy had developed certain opinions on the human condition, which he expressed in Such is Life. In the novel he makes clear several points of view, such as an opposition to granted ranks of nobility (“I acknowledge no aristocracy except one of service and self-sacrifice”), a pro-union viewpoint (“The labour-leader, of accredited integrity and capability … has moral force in reserve”), and a promotion of simple living (saying that, in the future, “all private wealth, beyond simplest maintenance, will seem as the spoils of the street gutter”).
In October 1886 he met Kate Baker, a school teacher who was deeply impressed by Furphy, and they struck up a strong and lasting friendship. It appears that their feelings for each other ran deep, but he was married with children, with strong moral and religious values, and the relationship was kept on a platonic level. However, during an illness (and thus apparently when she wasn’t thinking clearly), Kate wrote a love letter to him, which was unfortunately intercepted by his wife; although, once Kate became well again, she reportedly couldn’t even remember writing it. Joseph seems to have held reciprocal feelings for Kate, as indicated by a 1903 letter to her, in which he told her of a story he was writing “where I shall endeavour to describe how Tom C. fell in love with the fat-lydy-teacher”; as Tom Collins was the pseudonym that Joseph Furphy used for himself, and as Kate Baker was known to be rather plump, it appears that he was expressing his feelings for her in a semi-cryptic fashion.
He was a patriotic man, as demonstrated not only in his writings, but also by the fact that he signed off many of his letters with the words “For Australia”, a phrase that was also used by The Bulletin. In a 1910 letter he says that he (as Tom Collins), Grant Hervey (author and poet), and Dr. Strong (founder of the Australian Church) were all “working strenuously toward the same goal, namely, the uplifting and upbuilding of Australia.”
Joseph Furphy described himself as a socialist, which was not uncommon for working men in the days when the poor of Australia did not have the welfare safety net that exists in modern times. In an 1893 letter he expressed his admiration for William Lane’s utopian socialist settlement in Paraguay, whilst he later wrote of voting for Labor candidates in Western Australia in 1906.
In keeping with the racial attitudes of the time, in Such is Life Furphy expresses a disapproval of the Asian presence in Australia, as demonstrated in his book by the utterances of the main character, Tom Collins, who says “Let us pit the honest frankness of the played-out Caucasian against the cunning of the successful Mongol”; also yelling to a Chinese man “Out of my way, you Manchurian leper, or I’ll run over you!”; and referring to a Chinese person as “another yellow agony”. He also makes reference to a “slant-eyed menace” facing Australia, in his poem “A Psalm of Counsel”.
In his letters to Kate Baker, Joseph Furphy makes clear his support for a White Australia. In a 1907 letter he says (referring to his friend, the author and poet Grant Hervey) “Australia Yet is the title of G.H.’s new book; and so say I, with deeper meaning. Ay, White Australia.” In 1908 he writes “But through all the rugged prose of life there runs a strain of poetry, and the name of the poem is White Australia.” In another piece of correspondence from 1908, he says “Ile [I’ll] do something for Australia yet … A White Australia.” In a 1910 letter (just two years before his death), in reference to a poem he was working on, he wrote “it is intended to be Bulletinesque and patriotic. It is for the long, lean, sunburnt comrades I left among the mulga — with a subtle undercurrent of homage to the Ideal that is always with me, namely The White Australia. There is nothing else I am so thankful for as for the White Australia.”
Furphy was well-read, a fact which is often revealed in his work. Such is Life is full of references to classic literature (such as the works of Shakespeare), as well as Latin and French phraseology. It also contains various allusions to subjects which were then current, but which would be more elusive for readers in later times. As an aid to modern readers The Annotated Such is Life (edited by Frances Devlin Glass, Robin Eaden, Lois Hoffman, and G.W. Turner) was published in 1999, which, in addition to Furphy’s book, includes 158 pages of annotations that explain most of the terms and references found in the novel.
Joseph Furphy submitted his manuscript of Such is Life to The Bulletin Company in 1897, where it was recognised by A.G. Stephens as a potential Australian classic; however, it took six years to be published as a book, finally appearing in August 1903. During his lifetime Such is Life was not a best-seller, but after his death it was promoted widely by Kate Baker, who was deeply convinced of the novel’s worth, and who was largely responsible for ensuring that Joseph Furphy’s work attained a later prominence in Australian literature. It was also Kate Baker who gathered together his poetical works and, four years after he had passed away, published them as The Poems of Joseph Furphy.
Two stories written by Furphy, originally intended as chapters for of Such is Life, were later published separately. One was published in a serial format in the Barrier Truth in 1905-1906, and later released as a book, Rigby’s Romance, in 1921 (an abridged version), and in 1946 (the full version). The second story was published as The Buln-Buln and the Brolga in 1948.
In 1904 Furphy and his wife relocated to Claremont (in the western suburbs of Perth, WA), after having been invited to move there by their two sons, who were living in Perth (as was their daughter). Eight years later, Joseph Furphy died in Osborne, on Friday 13 September 1912, and was laid to rest in the cemetery at Karrakatta (where John Curtin, Sir John Forrest, and Sir Paul Hasluck are also buried). He was survived by his wife Leonie, their two sons Felix and Sam, and their daughter Sylvia.
Furphy’s writings expressed not only a love of country and his own moral values, but also reflected the times in which he lived and the way of life of many people in rural Australia. His various works, many of which were published during his lifetime in popular periodicals (such as The Bulletin), as well as those which were published posthumously, have all added to the rich treasury of Australian literature.
Books and other works by Joseph Furphy:
Works of Joseph Furphy
Manning Clark, “Furphy, Joseph (1843–1912)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University (accessed 26 August 2012)
“Announcements”, The Western Mail (Perth, WA), 21 September 1912, p. 35 [death notice]
“In memoriam”, The West Australian (Perth, WA), 13 September 1913, p. 1
“Perth prattle”, The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), 25 February 1917, p. 21
“Celebrating the original larrikin”, The Age, 26 July 2003 (accessed 28 August 2012)
John Barnes and Lois Hoffman, Bushman and Bookworm: Letters of Joseph Furphy, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. ix-xii, 15, 108, 119, 133-134, 174, 178, 194-198, 225, 232, 243, 254, 258, 259
John Barnes, The Order of Things: A Life of Joseph Furphy, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1990
Miles Franklin, Joseph Furphy: The Legend of a Man and his Book, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1944 [re-published by Halstead Classics, Rushcutters Bay (NSW), 2001]
Frances Devlin Glass, et al (editors), The Annotated Such is Life, Rushcutters Bay (NSW): Halstead Press, 1999
“Joseph Furphy”, Wikipedia
Updated 6 June 2021
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