FURPHY, Joseph Tom Collins (1843-1912)

FURPHY, Joseph Tom Collins (1843-1912)
was born at Yering Station, the site of Yarra Glen, Victoria, on 26 September 1843. His father, Samuel Furphy, who had come from the north of Ireland with his wife in 1841, was head gardener on the station. There was no school in the district and at first Joseph was educated by his mother. The only books available were the Bible and Shakespeare, and at seven years of age Furphy was already learning passages of each by heart. He never forgot them. About 1850 the family removed to Kangaroo Ground, and here the parents of the district built a school and obtained a master. In 1852 another move was made to Kyneton where Samuel Furphy began business as a hay and corn merchant. A few years later he leased a farm and also bought a threshing plant. This was worked by Joseph and a brother and both became competent engine-drivers. In 1864 Furphy bought a threshing outfit and travelled the Daylesford and surrounding districts. At Glenlyon he met Leonie Germain, a girl of 16, of French extraction, and in 1866 they were married. Soon afterwards his wife's mother went to New Zealand and Furphy for a time carried on her farm, but two years later took up a selection near Colbinabbin. The land proved to be poor, and about 1873 he sold out and soon afterwards bought a team of bullocks. He became prosperous as the years went by, but the drought came and he had heavy losses. Some of his bullocks and horses died from pleuro-pneumonia, and about 1884 he accepted a position in the foundry of his brother John at Shepparton. There he worked for some 20 years doing much reading and writing in the evenings. In his youth he had written many verses and in December 1867 he had been awarded the first prize of £3 at the Kyneton. Literary Society for a vigorous set of verses on "The Death of President Lincoln".
When Miss Kate Baker came to Shepparton as a teacher at the state school she boarded with Furphy's mother, and having read some of his sketches she suggested that he should write a book. Heartened by her encouragement, a book gradually took shape, and about the end of April 1897 A. G. Stephens (q.v.), who was then conducting the Red Page of the Bulletin, received the huge manuscript of Such is Life, Being Certain Extracts from the Diary of Tom Collins. Stephens at once recognized its merit but its size made publication impracticable. It was returned to Furphy who found that a large section, afterwards to be published as Rigby's Romance, could be cut out. Stephens realized that even in its reduced form the book was not a commercial proposition, but he succeeded in persuading Archibald (q.v.) and Macleod (q.v.), the proprietors of the Bulletin, that here was a national Australian book which should be published. It came out in 1903, made very little stir, and only about one third of the edition was sold. In 1905 Furphy gave the manuscript of Rigby's Romance to the Barrier Truth at Broken Hill in which it appeared in serial form. His sons, Felix and Samuel, who had been trained in their uncle's foundry at Shepparton, went to Western Australia and established a foundry at Fremantle. Their parents joined them early in 1905, and on 13 September 1912 Joseph Furphy died at Claremont. He was survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter. In 1917 Miss Baker purchased the copyright and remaining sheets of the Bulletin edition of Such is Life, and published a second edition at Melbourne with a preface by Vance Palmer. Another edition abridged by Vance Palmer was published in London in 1937 by Jonathan Cape, and a complete edition was brought out, by Angus and Robertson at Sydney in 1944. The Poems of Joseph Furphy, collected and edited by Miss Baker, with a portrait frontispiece, was brought out in 1916, and Rigby's Romance was published in 1921. Its second edition, published in 1946, included nine chapters omitted from the first edition. A bronze medallion by Wallace Anderson is at the state school, Yarra Glen. This school is close to the site of Furphy's birthplace.
Furphy was a rather tall fair man with blue eyes. When he went to Sydney while Such is Life was being printed, Stephens described him as "a lean, shrewd, proud, modest, kindly man of sixty". Though in his writings his characters use a great deal of strong language and slang, Furphy personally used neither. He was a member of the Church of Christ and sometimes took part in its services, but he had none of the narrowness often attributed to members of the smaller sects; he was indeed completely charitable in his attitude to all creeds, beliefs and unbeliefs. He had read widely and his books give a cross section of the minds of thinking people in the second half of the nineteenth century. Such is Life has many discussions in it, enlivened often with the sense of humour that was an essential part of Furphy. His pathos is completely true. He believed in the common man and loved him. His narrative style is sometimes a little heavy and wordy, his attempt to suggest the bush vernacular by the use of (adj.) for swearing and other devices are not always successful, but these cavillings become lost in the great sweep of the book, its vigour and originality, its human charity, its fundamental Australianism. Rigby's Romance has similar qualities but is not so good, and the volume of poems though it has much good swinging verse in it, does not give Furphy the right to be called a poet. His reputation rests on Such is Life which 40 years after publication remains one of the really important books in Australian literature.
E. E. Pescott, The Life Story of Joseph Furphy; A. G. Stephens, preface to Rigby's Romance; Vance Palmer, preface to second edition of Such is Life; E. Morris Miller, Australian Literature; Miles Franklin in association with Kate Baker, Joseph Furphy; private information.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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