Wednesday 12 November 2014

The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson

I used #AusReadingMonth as an opportunity to tick off another book from my Classics Club challenge by reading The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson.

Henry Handel was the pseudonym of Ethel Florence Lindsay Richardson.

She was born in 1870 in Victoria. Her family was fairly well-off in the early days, but fell on hard times, after her father died. She attended the Presbyterian Ladies' College in Melbourne from age 13 - 17.

The Getting of Wisdom was written in 1910, but was set in 1890's Melbourne & loosely followed Richardson's own experiences at boarding school.

Curiously none of the girls (or women) in The Getting of Wisdom are very likeable. They're mean, snobbish, selfish & bitchy. Even Laura, who you empathise with at the start, never learns from her mistakes. And in fact, her self-deception, lying, cheating & self-absorption at the expense of others grew worse with time.

...the usual fate of the robust liar had overtaken her: she was beginning to believe her own lies.

At the end, I was left wondering "wisdom, what wisdom?"

Richardson did have some interesting things to say about conformity, creativity, moderation, honesty, integrity & the status of women in Victorain society, via her characters.

"But what is truth, anyhow?" asked Laura.

"The Bible is truth. Can you do away with the Bible, pray?"

"Of course not. But M.P....The Bible isn't quite all truth, you know....whales don't have big enough throats ever to have swallowed Jonah."

"Little girls shouldn't talk about what they don't understand. The Bible is God's Word; and God is Truth....Truth has got to be - and honesty too. If it didn't exist, there couldn't be any state, or laws, or any social life. It's one of the things that make men different from animals, and the people who boss us know pretty well what they're about." 

And her descriptions were gorgeous.

Richardson was writing during a time in Australian history & culture when we were starting to be proud of our unique heritage and environment.

The Goldrush era of the mid 1850's produced a burst of independence and self-sufficiency in the Australian psyche. The result of this was a flurry of proud, new Australian writing and art.

Richardson waxes lyrical about the Australian bush and coast as only one who has grown up in it can.

The sea was a blue-green mirror, on the surface of which they swam. The sky was a stretched sheet of blue, in which the sun hung a very ball of fire.

She writes about the towns and regions with the expectation that we will know where and what she is talking about. For the first time we were reading stories about us.

Then the boat stood to sea again and sailed past high, grass-grown cliffs, from which a few old cannons, pointing their noses at you, watched over the safety of the Bay—in the event, say, of the Japanese or the Russians entering the Heads past the pretty township, and the beflagged bathing-enclosures on the beach below. They neared the tall, granite lighthouse at the point, with the flagstaff at its side where incoming steamers were signalled; and as soon as they had rounded this corner they were in view of the Heads themselves. From the distant cliffs there ran out, on either side, brown reefs, which made the inrushing water dance and foam, and the entrance to the Bay narrow and dangerous: on one side, there projected the portion of a wreck which had lain there as long as Laura had been in the world. Then, having made a sharp turn to the left, the boat crossed to the opposite coast, and steamed past barrack-like buildings lying asleep in the fierce sunshine of the afternoon; and, in due course, it stopped at Laura's destination.

For anyone who has spent time in Melbourne and the Mornington Penisnula, these places are instantly recognisable - the cannons at Williamstown - the bathing sheds at Brighton Beach- the Black Lighthouse at Queenscliff - the barracks at Point Nepean, the back beaches of Sorrento including Cheviot Beach where the SS Cheviot floundered on the reef 19th Oct 1887 (the very same beach where our former Prime Minister Harold Holt went missing, presumed drowned in 1967).

The Getting of Wisdom was a thoroughly enjoyable read as I was reading it. But I am now left with doubts about the purpose of the story. Wisdom, self-awareness and understanding seemed to elude every single character.

I cannot, in good faith, call this a coming of age story, as no-one experienced personal growth, especially not our OTT, lying protagonist, Laura.

Perhaps, this story was simply a cathartic purge on Richardson's behalf about her own childhood boarding school?


  1. Most books that are worthwhile do end up with someone learning something, even it is a negative thing.

    Perhaps the lack of learning was the lesson here.

    Great review on this one Brona.

    1. Yes as the day progressed, I wondered if the the lack of wisdom and understanding actually reflected how many people do go through life repeating the same mistakes, lying to others and deluding themselves, cheating etc and that there often are no real consequences for this behaviour....just like Laura.


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