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While Miles Franklin tends to get a lot of attention because of the literary award, another prominent Australian who chose to publish under a male pseudonym may not be so well known. That author is Ethel Florence Lindsay Richardson, better known as Henry Handel Richardson. Richardson, a talented musician, was born in East Melbourne in 1870, but moved with her mother to Europe in 1888 so she could study at the Leipzig Conservatorium. She published several books, including Maurice Guest and the trilogy,The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.

This year, The Henry Handel Richardson Society is running the Henry Handel Richardson Centenary Writing Competition to celebrate the ex-pat author’s only return to Australia in 1912. (Entries don’t close till August 31, so there’s plenty of time to enter.) Here author, editor and agent, Virgina Lloyd, reviews another of Richardson’s novels, The Getting of Wisdom.

Virginia Lloyd writes:

The Brooklyn
Public Library, a brisk ten-minute walk from my apartment, holds one copy of
Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom
(1910). It is a Dial Press tie-in edition to the
1977 film adaptation. The cover features a still photograph of Sigrid Thornton
as the central character, Laura Tweedle Rambotham.
As the
library’s holdings of Australian fiction are sparse, I was surprised but glad
to find a copy locally. I’m researching musically trained women writers – of whom
there are many – and I needed to read it: Henry Handel Richardson was a gifted
pianist whose family travelled to Leipzig, Germany, in 1888 so she could pursue
her studies. Her experiences as a student there led her to write her first
novel, Maurice Guest
Happily The Getting of Wisdom
second novel, is not only shorter but also a far more enjoyable reading
experience – at least for this reader.
The ghost of
Jane Eyre’s school, Lowood, haunts the pages of The Getting of Wisdom
, which is primarily a coming of age
story told through Laura’s eyes. In the opening pages of the novel we see Laura
clash with her mother and feel stifled by the cloying attention of her younger
sister, who goes by the nickname Pin. Laura feels more than ready for boarding
school but is shocked and disoriented by the factional behaviour of the other
girls once she gets there. Richardson vividly draws Laura’s horribly awkward
first day at school and her inept efforts at trying to make friends. As an
outgoing but poor student whose mother works for a living – a secret Laura
tries hard to keep – she fails repeatedly to fit in to a culture that rejects
idiosyncrasy. Richardson writes: Laura “suffered …and it was
suffering; for her schoolfellows were
cruel with that intolerance, that unimaginative dullness, which makes a woman’s
cruelty so hard to bear.” Unfortunately most women have experienced just this
sort of thing at one time or another. My own experiences of being ostracized at
school made these passages spring brilliantly to life.
My biggest
disappointment with reading this 1910 novel in 2012 was that it struck me as
anti-feminist. This is not just about the pseudonym that Ethel Florence
Lindesay Richardson chose to wear like a coat throughout her writing life. As
Germaine Greer points out in the introduction to the Dial edition, the
tradition of the pseudonymous woman writer had been well established by the
Bronte sisters and numerous others over the 19th century. Richardson
claimed that she wanted to test the assertion that had been in the press at the
time about how easy it was to distinguish a woman’s writing from a man’s.
(Didn’t we just go through this with V. S. Naipaul’s sexist comments about
being able to detect a women’s work within a couple of paragraphs – to smell,
as Francine Prose put it in Harper’s
, the estrogen in the ink? Plus ça change… .) As Greer says, “Why
Henry Handel Richardson should have assumed her more ponderous male mask is not
so readily apparent” when compared with someone like Marian Evans (George
Eliot), whose books’ moral high ground would have been eroded by the revelation
of her “scandalous private life”.
I suspect that
the male pseudonym was for Richardson a more complicated issue than she would
admit even to herself. On reading The Getting of Wisdom
, I could not help but feel that
Richardson had a great deal of ambivalence about being a woman.
In one early
scene, an exasperated visiting teacher accuses Laura’s friend Inez  of having “a real woman’s brain: vague,
slippery, inexact, interested only in the personal aspect of a thing.  You can’t concentrate your thoughts,
and, worst of all, you’ve no curiosity – about anything that really matters. …
It makes me ashamed to belong the same sex.” This condemnation of an entire sex
on the basis of one lazy student seems extreme if not pathological. In terms of
the plot, however, the teacher’s criticism provides Laura with the motivation
she has lacked to now. The narrator writes of Laura: “[S]he did not want to
have a woman’s brain, thank you; not one of that sort; and she smarted for the
whole class.” From that moment on Laura applies herself to her studies and
makes dramatic progress in all subjects except arithmetic.
The most
independent woman in the novel is Laura’s financially independent aunt, who
makes her own living, lives by herself, and helps Laura to get into the school
and to keep her there. But Richardson describes her as “an independent, manly
person”, which is a curious and pointed choice of adjective.
The logic of
the novel seems to suggest that Laura’s striking independence of thought and
behavior reflects the conscious turning away from the humiliation of having a “woman’s
brain”. Perhaps in Richardson’s mind this includes being preoccupied with men
and marriage. Laura’s lack of interest in these subjects for most of the novel
is a refreshing change not only from the obsessions of her peers, but from the
subject matter of much fiction both then and now.
In Laura,
Richardson gives us a wonderfully complex character. She is willful and
intelligent, if not terribly smart. Her lack of shyness causes her to leap into
situations she lives to regret, such as when she plays the piano for the
headmistress, who condemns her afterward for her “shameless” physical
performance and her choice of repertoire (Thalberg instead of Mozart). Laura is
vain, lonely, vulnerable, and prone to lying to impress friends. The hole she
digs for herself over her stay at the house of the married curate, in which she
invents an elaborate story about their wild romance, is hilarious.
I also loved
the way Richardson draws this novel to a close. The final third is masterfully
controlled in pacing and character development. For any other latecomers to the
work I will not spoil it here. It is enough to say that Richardson takes Laura
on an emotionally challenging journey towards the end of her school days, and
is not afraid to make her heroine suffer.
Germaine Greer
contended that The Getting of Wisdom
is Richardson’s “only great book, precisely
because the subject is like the rest of us, ordinary, and therefore deeply
important.” I think Laura Rambotham is a character well worth getting to know.
The novel is fascinating reading, if only to provoke a reader to think about
how much, and how little, changes in the lives of women.

Viginia Lloyd is a Sydney-born Australian literary agent, editor and freelance writer who currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her memoir, The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement, was published in 2009 by Penguin and is available from a major international bookseller as an ebook.

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