Adorable little beast

“Your little rag of a girl is a most adorable little beast…and the way it is done is wonderful; I do not think that particular thing could have been done better.” — H.G. Wells to Henry Handel Richardson on Laura in The Getting of Wisdom.

In the second session of the Wheeler Centre’s ‘Australian Literature 101’ series, acclaimed author Rodney Hall gave a talk on Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Widsom (1910). Some older folk will recall Bruce Beresford’s 1977 film of the book (see this youtube alluringly titled “schoolgirl lesbian romance”, right); it’s certainly the most accessible of her novels. As Hall said, Getting of Wisdom has ‘a transparent style, unlike the rest of her work. This one aims at a voice of direct simplicity.’

In the market for men, no trivial matter

Rodney Hall (left) introduced the book by warning against reading the novel through biography, even though Wisdom is about a young girl who goes up to a Melbourne boarding school from the country, just like HHR/Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson herself.

He explained that, in those days, school for girls was “an education in how to survive in the world after . . . how to make oneself agreeable. So the girls in school are all rivals of each other.’ They were ‘in the market for men — not a trivial matter’ as there were exceedingly few things women were allowed to do. (HHR’s career was morally and financially supported by her husband.)

Hall: They’re in a ‘passionate desperation — to know what the chances are going to be — and what liberties they will lose and surrender to their husband — they all know this.’ He noted how Laura starts off badly with a school mistress and ‘persistently puts her foot into it for the next 200 pages.’

He thought that The Getting of Wisdom was the inheritor of Jane Austen’s Emma, in the way it played with the psychology of the reader, rather than the protagonist.


The heart and soul of a novel

Rodney Hall is a man in a state of elevated buffness. Wearing a plaid check short sleeve, rolled up over his bulging arms, he was, as they used to say, nut brown and looked ready for an immediate spot of sailing or woodchopping. I mean, he is a writer! — his biceps are blatant, plus … he is 77 this year! God grief, as my ancient father-in-law would say. (Pretty pumped up when he was younger, too.)

Hall, getting up in the middle of an exchange with the presenter, Ramona Koval, to swap his reading glasses for his normal ones on the lectern: ‘Problems of extreme age … Ah, yes, now, I can hear you.’

On fiction: ‘Remaining true to life is the heart and soul of a novel.’

On the attraction of Laura: ‘Painted Roofs by Dorothy Richardson, from around the same time, 1915, is an amazing book, the first stream-of-consciousness novel. It’s terrific but I didn’t care, whereas Getting of Wisdom makes you care.’

Hall advised people against reading introductions and noted that the current edition of Getting of Wisdom sports one by Germaine Greer. He points out that she praises Wisdom by demoting HHR’s first book, Maurice Guest, and emphatically contradicted Greer: ‘The Getting of Wisdom is a very good novel; Maurice Guest is a magnificent novel; one of the 9 or 10 best novels written by an Australian.’

He also wondered if HHR’s epic The Fortunes of Richard Mahony was worth the effort to arrive at the tremendous section in the last third. Hall’s excellent phrase for that demanding mode: ‘The grind of realism.’

On fiction: ‘Novels deal with truth. Non-fiction deals with facts.’

‘It’s not about what you can explain; it’s about what you can embody. The novel is about what it embodies.’

In my drawing above the speech bubble quotes Hall saying: ‘I don’t think it’s productive tying a novel to its sources.’ Around that notion he had a very interesting line about how it’s no use trying to verify a novel — that a novelist has all this information and ideas and pictures and feelings in a surrounding cloud (my metaphor) and s/he draws from this atmosphere, the elements all come together to mix and infect each other. That is, writing is simultaneous.

Contsant Gardener, who has read several Rodney Hall books including his recent memoir, is also a huge fan of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony; and found Hall’s talk somewhat uninspiring. I thought perhaps Hall was a little dry-ish, but formidable with conviction; I feel enthused to read HHR’s Maurice Guest. A well regarded author later informed me that Patrick White had called Maurice Guest a “novelette” — bitch! Elsewhere, the poet Gwen Harwood countered: ‘PW was very dismissive of the novel & said he couldn’t read it, but my delight in it is undiminished. Him and his prejudices!!! He really is a sour old genius.’

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Win a centenary prize from HHR

The Henry Handel Richardson Society is holding a writing prize to be judged by Helen Garner. The adult winner receives $1K and a boxed set of HHR works. The student prize (Y10-12) is $350 plus a set of Text Classics.  Closing date 31 August, entry details here.