Richardson, Henry Handel

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RICHARDSON, Henry Handel

A pseudonym for Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson. Nationality: Australian. Born: Melbourne, Victoria, 3 January 1870. Education: Presbyterian Ladies' College, Melbourne, 1883-86; studied music at the Leipzig Conservatorium, 1889-92. Family: Married John George Robertson in 1895 (died 1933). Career: Lived in Strasbourg, 1896-1903, London, 1903-32, and Sussex from 1933; visited Australia, 1912. Awards: Australian Literature Society gold medal, 1929. Died: 20 March 1946.


Short Stories

Two Studies. 1931.

The End of a Childhood and Other Stories. 1934.

The Adventures of Cuffy Mahony and Other Stories. 1979.


Maurice Guest. 1908.

The Getting of Wisdom. 1910.

The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. 1930.

Australia Felix. 1917.

The Way Home. 1925.

Ultima Thule. 1929.

The Young Cosima. 1939.


Myself When Young (unfinished autobiography). 1948.

Letters to Nettie Palmer, edited by Karl-Johan Rossing. 1953.

Henry Handel Richardson: The Getting of Wisdom, Stories, Selected Prose and Correspondence, edited by Susan Lever and Catherine Pratt, 1997.

Translator, Siren Voices, by J. P. Jacobsen. 1896. Translator, The Fisher Lass, by B. Bjørnson. 1896.



Richardson 1870-1949: A Bibliography to Honour the Centenary of Her Birth by Gay Howells, 1970; Henry Handel Richardson by Susan Lever and Catherine Pratt, 1996.

Critical Studies:

Richardson: A Study by Nettie Palmer, 1950; Richardson and Some of Her Sources, 1954, A Companion to Australia Felix, 1962, Myself When Laura: Fact and Fiction in Richardson's School Career, 1966, and Richardson, 1967, all by Leonie Kramer; Richardson by Vincent Buckley, 1961; Ulysses Bound: Richardson and Her Fiction by Dorothy Green, 1973, revised edition, as Richardson and Her Fiction, 1986; Richardson by William D. Elliott, 1975; Richardson by Louis Triebel, 1976; Art and Irony: The Tragic Vision of Richardson by J. R. Nichols, 1982; The Portrayal of Women in the Fiction of Richardson by Eva Jarring Corones, 1983; Richardson: A Critical Study by Karen McLeod, 1985; Richardson: Fiction in the Making (vol. 1 of biography) by Axel Clark, 1990.

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Although Henry Handel Richardson won most of her fame as a novelist, she also wrote two small collections of short stories that contain several fine and much anthologized pieces. Born in Melbourne, Richardson traveled to Germany to continue a prospective career as a pianist but abandoned it to begin writing and translating. She married J. G. Robertson, a student and later a professor of German literature, in 1895 and lived the rest of her life in London, returning to Australia only for one brief visit of two months in 1912 after the death of her mother.

Mostly between her masterpiece, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, and her final, disappointing novel, The Young Cosima, Richardson wrote a number of short stories that were gathered together as Two Studies and The End of a Childhood and Other Stories. Long after her death an Australian publisher brought out The Adventures of Cuffy Mahony and Other Stories, which contains these stories and new, previously uncollected ones.

The Adventures of Cuffy Mahony is a kind of coda to Richard-son's giant novel. It opens twelve months after the close of the novel and carries on the story of Cuffy Mahony, Richard's son, who had appeared in the final volume of the trilogy, and his mother Mary, who dies in the course of the story after suffering an infected leg. In general the two main themes of the collection are adolescence and death. Mary broods on death continually but without coming much closer to any answers than she did in the novel. Memories of the past come back to her as she lies delirious (as they do to the title character in "Mary Christina," another of Richard-son's finest), and she tries without success to fathom the workings of providence.

Nine of the stories, gathered together as "Growing Pains," are sketches of female adolescents and contain some of Richardson's best writing. Though they vary in quality and ambition, collectively they form a moving and delicate study of the pains and humiliations of growing up and entering adulthood: "shame" is probably the most repeated word in the collection and is the central experience in many of the stories. Beginning with very young adolescents, the stories move steadily closer to the treatment of sexual dilemmas, often involving a young and a rather older girl. Males are absent for the most part, though an exception is "The Wrong Turning," in which a young boy and girl are out on a boat ride when they accidentally come across a group of sailors bathing naked. Their shame and humiliation ruin their embryonic relationship.

The famous and much-anthologized story "And Women Must Weep" depicts the situation of a girl at a ball receiving no invitations to dance, except under duress. The note of sexual protest implicit in the story ("Oh, these men, who walked round and chose just who they fancied and left who they didn't … how she hated them! It wasn't fair … it wasn't fair") emerges more openly in "Two Hanged Women," in which a young girl is boasting to her older female friend of her new boy. The story touches most closely and delicately on quasi-lesbian themes, as it slowly becomes clear that Fred is merely an excuse for the girl to escape the competing and opposed demands on her of her friend and her mother and that in reality she has a fear and horror of male sexuality. The story ends ambiguously with the older girl holding and stroking her but with no real solution to the implied impasse.

The remaining five stories mostly deal with death. "Life and Death of Peterle Luthy" is a grim account of a baby who is unwanted and neglected to the point where he finally dies. Henrietta, whose preoccupation with dancing had led to her child's death, displays at the end a kind of peasant-like stoicism, or perhaps merely indifference: "Her arms felt, and no doubt for a day or two would feel, strangely empty. Still, it was better so. Two were enough, more than enough. And she would take care—oh! such care…."

"The Professor's Experiment" is one of the longest and finest stories in the collection. A stuffy bookworm of a man marries a young woman who is full of charm and spirit. They go to live with the professor's domineering sister Annemarie, and the two make life highly unpleasant for the young bride. After she dies in childbirth, however, Annemarie unexpectedly comes to see the emptiness of her own life and the false god she had been serving in her brother, and the story ends on a note of ominous rebellion.

"The Coat" is interesting largely as a rare excursion into at least partial fantasy. "Succedaneum," similarly, is significant in its author's body of work as the most direct and simple treatment of the relationship between life and art, a question that preoccupied Richardson throughout her life. "Mary Christina" is a fine story that is reminiscent in many ways of Tolstoi's "The Death of Ivan Illich." Written in 1911 upon the death of her mother and originally titled "Death," it ends characteristically on a note of scepticism: "Now, she asked for rest—only rest. Not immortality: no fresh existence, to be endured and fought out in some new shadow-land, among unquiet spirits."

Critics are divided as to Richardson's status as a short story writer, and the shorter work tends in any case to be concealed by the novels. But had she written only these stories she would still have had a place in Australian literature. The best of them are fine pieces, written in a spare, compressed but delicate style, but without abandoning the hard-headed realism and maturity that were always Richardson's trademarks.

—Laurie Clancy

Henry Handel Richardson

views updated May 23 2018

Henry Handel Richardson

Henry Handel Richardson was the pen name of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson (1870-1946), an expatriate Australian novelist. She based a series of novels on characters and incidents taken mainly from her life.

Born in Melbourne on Jan. 3, 1870, Ethel Richardson was the daughter of an Irish doctor who emigrated in the 1850s, living at first on the Victorian goldfields and later practicing in Melbourne. During a generally unhappy childhood she attended the Presbyterian Ladies' College, and after her father's death she taught briefly as a governess. At 17, she went abroad with her mother and sister; she studied music at Leipzig and in 1895 married a Scottish student, John G. Robertson, meanwhile studying the masters of the European novel.

Henry Handel Richardson began her literary career as a translator of Niels Lyhne by Danish novelist Jens Jacobsen; this was published as Siren Voices (1896). Jacobsen's style—"romanticism imbued with the scientific spirit, and essentially based on realism," in her view—profoundly influenced all her writing; imagery in character construction and meticulous realism in the detail of settings became her guideposts. Her first novel, Maurice Guest (1908), was autobiographical to the extent that the central character is an Australian girl studying music in Germany. The novel, somber and naturalistic, was coolly received, being stigmatized variously as dull, verbose, morbid, and erotic. However, because of its revealing attention to detail, it had a considerable influence among writers and was a forerunner of novels presenting amoral behavior dispassionately.

The Getting of Wisdom (1910) was an engaging study of school life; it won only limited praise. Nevertheless, proceeds from it made it possible for Henry Handel Richardson to visit Australia briefly in 1912 "to test memories" and to gather material for the first volume of the Fortunes of Richard Mahony trilogy.

The Trilogy

Marking a major expansion in Henry Handel Richardson's creative range, Australia Felix (1917) re-creates the mental climate as well as the sights and sounds of the goldfields life. Richard Mahony is portrayed as an intellectual groping for the unknown through spiritualism (just as the author's father had done) but unable to find contentment. Irony supplies much of the tension. Mahony voices his displeasure with life in the colony, which seems to have brought curses rather than blessings; the end of the novel marks his departure for England full of expectations.

In The Way Home (1925) Mahony's temporary pleasure at being able to relive the familiar within a richly civilized society turns quickly to disillusionment when he and his colonial-born wife experience its provincial narrowness. In Europe he learns of financial losses, which make it necessary for him to return to Australia. Back in Melbourne, he finds his fortune restored; now he can build the mansion he has dreamed of so long—to be named Ultima Thule— but here his mental and physical deterioration begins.

In the final volume, Ultima Thule (1929), the author overlays her own psychological interpretations on the facts of her father's life and suggests that the emptiness and barrenness of the setting in which the fictional Mahony finds himself are powerful causes of his final mental disintegration. The trilogy has been described as an unusually thorough analysis of the "geographic disorientation" that sensitive immigrants suffered.

With the success of the Richard Mahony trilogy, the author's identity, previously concealed, was revealed. Her earlier novels were reprinted and reassessed. Her final work, The Young Cosima (1939), reconstructs the life of Franz Liszt's illegitimate daughter, Cosima. Fictionalizing the turbulent and massive influence of the life of Richard Wagner (whom Cosima married in 1870, after having left Hans von Bülow in 1865), this documentary novel is richly redolent with fact in its re-creation of the atmosphere of the period and its portraits of the great musicians.

In 1939 Henry Handel Richardson began writing her autobiography to 1903; she died before completing it, and it ends in 1895. It was published in 1948 as Myself when Young. She died at Hastings, Sussex, on March 20, 1946.

Further Reading

A comprehensive exposition, accompanied by some personal recollections and correspondence, is given in Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson: A Study (1950). An interesting review of Henry Handel Richardson's method is contained in Leonie J. Gibson, Henry Handel Richardson and Some of Her Sources (1954). Her writing style, as well as literary influences, is discussed in H. M. Green, A History of Australian Literature (2 vols., 1961). A telling analysis of the novels, with special attention to her aim of "scientific realism" in writing, is given by Leonie Kramer in Geoffrey Dutton, ed., The Literature of Australia (1964).

Additional Sources

Buckley, Vincent, Henry Handel Richardson, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.

Clark, Axel, Henry Handel Richardson: fiction in the making, Brookvale, NSW: Simon & Schuster Australia: St. Peters, NSW: New Endeavour Press, 1990.

Green, Dorothy, Henry Handel Richardson and her fiction, Sydney; Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1986. □

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