Richardson, Henry Handel (1870–1946)

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Richardson, Henry Handel (1870–1946)

Australian author, best known for her trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (1915–1929), who did not achieve fame until she was almost 60. Name variations: Henrietta Richardson; Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson. Born Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson near Melbourne, Australia, on January 3, 1870; died at home near Hastings, England, on March 30, 1946; eldest child of Walter Lindesay Richardson (a medical doctor) and Mary Bailey Richardson; educated at home until 1883; attended the Ladies Presbyterian College in Melbourne, 1883–88, and continued her study of the piano at the Music Conservatorium in Leipzig, Germany, 1889–92; married John G. Robertson (chair of German and Scandinavian literature at the University of London), on December 20, 1895; no children.

Gave up a musical career (1892) after becoming engaged to John G. Robertson; lived in Strasbourg, France (1897–1903), where her husband taught German literature and where she translated two works by Scandinavian authors and began writing her first novel, Maurice Guest; lived in London, where her husband served as chair of German and Scandinavian literature at the University of London while she, working under the pen name of Henry Handel Richardson, completed Maurice Guest, The Getting of Wisdom and The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (1903–33); with the publication of Ultima Thule (1929), the third and final volume in the Mahony series, finally won universal praise in the English-speaking world; awarded the Australian Literature Society's Gold Medal (1930); nominated for the Nobel Prize(1932); following husband's death, moved to "Green Ridges" in Sussex (1934), where she continued to write until her death 12 years later.

Selected writings:

Richardson wrote slowly, completing only six novels (the last was The Young Cosima, 1939) over a period of 41 years; The Getting of Wisdom and the trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony are regarded as her finest work.

Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, who adopted the pen name Henry Handel Richardson, was born in 1870 near Melbourne, Australia, and set four of her six novels in her native land. However, because she lived abroad for 58 of her 76 years and was steeped in European literature, she is widely regarded as an expatriate writer. Both her parents were immigrants; her father Dr. Walter Lindesay Richardson was born in Ireland while her mother Mary Bailey Richardson , the daughter of a solicitor, was born in England. Her parents maintained strong ties with their respective families and in 1874, when Ethel was only four and her sister Lillian barely two, the prosperous family sailed for England. The children were left with their English relatives while Walter and Mary Richardson took the traditional grand tour of the European Continent.

I love every moment at my desk. How else could I have kept on writing all these years, getting nothing for it but starvation fees and obscurity.

—Henry Handel Richardson

On the Richardson family's return to Melbourne in 1875, they discovered that their investments had been wiped out. To make matters worse, Walter, who apparently had contracted syphilis in the gold fields during the early 1850s, gradually lost his mind and spent his last year in an insane asylum, dying at home in August 1879. Home in 1879 was the village of Koroit, in the remote western region of Victoria, where Mary Richardson supported her children by serving as the village's postmistress.

The terrible reversal of fortune, the constant quarrels over money, and the bleakness of life in Koroit haunted Ethel Richardson for the rest of her life. Worst of all, she could never forget that she felt only relief when her father died. It was no doubt to exorcise the ghosts of the past that, between 1910 and 1929, Richardson wrote a trilogy of novels, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, largely inspired by her father's fortunes and misfortunes in Australia and abroad.

Richardson's life dramatically changed in 1883, when she entered the Ladies Presbyterian College, a prestigious preparatory school in Melbourne. Thanks to her mother's wise administration of what was left of the family's fortune, Ethel was able to graduate from the college in 1887. By the time she arrived at the college, Richardson was an accomplished storyteller, a voracious reader and a promising young pianist. Mary, who had great ambitions for both Ethel and Lillian, must have been immensely pleased when Richardson won the Senior Pianoforte Scholarship in 1886, followed by First Class Honors in Senior English and History in 1887. Encouraged by the school's headmistress and Ethel's music teachers, Mary Richardson used the proceeds from the sale of her home to finance a year abroad. In 1889, she enrolled her daughters at the Music Conservatorium in Leipzig, Germany, where Ethel studied piano while Lillian studied the violin.

What was to have been a year's residence and study abroad turned into a permanent departure from Australia for Mary Richardson and her daughters. They lived in Leipzig for more than four years, years that Richardson remembered as among the happiest of her life. There she met John G. Robertson, a Scot who was completing his doctorate in German literature at Leipzig's university, and by 1892 the couple became engaged. That year Richardson informed her mother and her dismayed music teachers at the Conservatorium that she was giving up her studies because of her engagement to Robertson. Unlike Richardson's puzzled teachers, Mary understood that Ethel was abandoning a career as a concert pianist because of her terror of being stared at.

Ethel's marriage to John Robertson in Dublin, Ireland, on December 20, 1895, "must have been the greatest single stroke of luck that ever befell Richardson," according to the biographer and critic Dorothy Green . A prolific scholar and highly engaged teacher, Robertson encouraged his wife to immerse herself in contemporary French, German, Russian, and Scandinavian literature and to become first a translator and then a writer of fiction. The couple moved to Strasbourg in the fall of 1897, where Robertson was appointed lecturer and then professor of German literature at the university there. Within a month of their removal to Strasbourg, Mary Richardson died in Munich, where she was living with her daughter Lillian. Her mother's death in November 1897 at the age of 57 devastated Richardson, increasing greatly her dependence on her husband for emotional, moral and financial support. Also, Ethel and her sister Lillian, who married an optometrist, Dr. Otto Neustatter of Munich, in 1899, remained very close, especially when both settled in England.

Encouraged by Robertson, in the months after their marriage Richardson translated into English the Danish writer J.P. Jacobsen's tragic novel Niels Lyhne, and the Norwegian writer B. Bjornson's popular short novel, The Fisher Lass. By 1897, Richardson began her first novel, Maurice Guest, about a failed musician whose obsessive love for a faithless woman drives him to suicide. Heavily influenced by Niels Lyhne and by the novels of Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, Richardson took ten years to complete the lengthy Maurice Guest, which was published in London by Heinemann in 1908.

Maurice Guest was praised by some critics, such as Frank Harris, John Masefield, and Carl Van Vechten, but was judged to be morbid, depressing, dull and verbose by many others. Undaunted, Ethel, who had by now adopted the pen name of Henry Handel Richardson, went on to write a largely autobiographical novel about her years at the Ladies Presbyterian College, The Getting of Wisdom, which Heinemann published

in 1910. Many years later, the novel was praised as one of the most penetrating studies ever written about the mind of an adolescent girl, but in 1910 a number of English and especially Australian critics judged that Richardson maligned the Ladies Presbyterian College. They were disturbed by the novel's frank treatment of the obsessive love of Richardson's protagonist Laura for a fellow student, Evelyn. Laura was Richardson, of course, and Evelyn, as Richardson revealed in her unfinished memoir, Myself When Young, was Constance Bulteel . The two women remained friends for life and corresponded with each other until Bulteel's death in 1942.

Both Maurice Guest and The Getting of Wisdom were written in England, where Robertson accepted an appointment as professor of German and Scandinavian literature at the University of London in 1903. Except for a two-month visit to Australia in 1912, Richardson was to spend the remainder of her life, from 1903 to 1946, in England. At the University of London, Professor Robertson gained fame as a brilliant teacher and prolific scholar while his wife, who apparently was not interested in having children, spent each morning for over 40 years writing at her desk. A shy, reclusive woman, Richardson really did love every moment at her desk, and once asserted that "to write is to live."

By 1912 and after Richardson had returned from a two-month visit to Australia, she embarked on what was to be her major preoccupation for the next 17 years: writing a fictionalized account of her father's life. In 1917, Heinemann published her third novel, Australia Felix, the first volume in the Richard Mahony trilogy, which concerned her father's success as a gold miner and as a physician in Australia. Only a few critics noticed the novel, and it soon went out of print. As undaunted as ever, and urged on by her husband and a small circle of friends, Richardson went on to write the sequel, The Way Home, about her family's sojourn abroad in the mid-1870s. The novel ended with the family's dispirited departure for Australia after discovering that Richard Mahony's investments had failed. In both Australia Felix and The Way Home, Richardson depicted her father as an outsider, who never seemed to feel at home in England, or Australia, or anywhere else. Richardson also felt like an outsider most of her life. In Myself When Young, she stated that her husband "always maintained that, in my imaginary portrait of Richard Mahony I had drawn no other than my own."

When The Way Home appeared in 1925, it was largely ignored and barely sold 1,000 copies. Yet Richardson persevered and within three years completed the final volume of the trilogy, Ultima Thule, which concerned her father's last years and tragic death. When Heinemann informed Richardson that they could not bear the costs of publishing Ultima Thule because of heavy losses from The Way Home, Robertson came forward and paid the publishing expenses. To the immense surprise of Richardson and her circle, Ultima Thule was widely praised as Australia's greatest novel. The critic Gerald Gould wrote in The London Observer that the novel "is a masterpiece, worthy to rank with the greatest and saddest masterpieces of our day." Within months after its appearance in January 1929, Heinemann was able to reimburse Robertson, publishing five additional impressions in six months. In the United States, Ultima Thule, which was published by Norton, was so popular that it was taken up by the Book-of-the-Month Club and sold 80,000 copies in the first month alone. In addition, Richardson's first four novels were soon brought back into print in the United States and England. Finally, in 1930 she was awarded the Australian Gold Medal for Literature and in 1932 was nominated for the Nobel Prize.

But Richardson's happiness at achieving fame and fortune after many years of "starvation fees and obscurity" was short-lived. In 1933, her husband died after a brief illness. Her friend, secretary and travel companion, Olga Roncoroni , later recalled that Richardson was inconsolable. "In him I lose husband, father, brother rolled in one," she wrote. "He was everything to me."

Tired and ill, in 1934 Richardson sold the house in London she had shared with her husband for nearly 30 years and, with her ever-faithful friend Roncoroni, retired to "Green Ridges," a house by the sea near Hastings in Sussex. There Richardson took up writing again, completing her sixth and last novel, The Young Cosima, in 1939. Like her first novel, Maurice Guest, it was set in the musical world of late 19th-century Germany, and like all her novels was concerned primarily with character and human relationships. However, unlike Richardson's first five novels, The Young Cosima was about historic figures: Cosima Wagner , the daughter of Franz Liszt, her first husband, the musician Hans Von Bulow, and her second husband, the composer Richard Wagner. The novel did not sell well, for it appeared at the wrong time, on the eve of World War II. In addition, it concerned the wrong people, for both Cosima and Richard Wagner, Hitler's idol, were rabidly anti-Semitic.

There is evidence, especially in her autobiographical novel The Getting of Wisdom, that Richardson harbored anti-Semitic sentiments long before she wrote The Young Cosima. Unfortunately, Richardson was not alone in this, as Henry James and T.S. Eliot, to name but two, were also anti-Semitic. When critics praise Richardson's lack of prejudice and open-mindedness, they ignore her attitude towards Jews and instead focus on her "dispassionate acceptance" of another despised minority: homosexuals. The theme of homosexuality appears in Maurice Guest, The Getting of Wisdom, The Young Cosima, and in some of Richardson's short stories. In her unfinished autobiography, Myself When Young, Richardson confessed that her love for Constance Bulteel at the Ladies Presbyterian College in Australia "stirred me to my depths, rousing feelings I hadn't known I possessed. The attraction that this girl had for me was so strong that few others have surpassed it."

In the last seven years of her life, from 1939 to 1946, Richardson, despite increasing illness, continued to write. She began but never completed a novel, Nick and Sanny, about London low life, worked on her memoirs, and wrote short stories. In 1996, it was discovered that Richardson, who never abandoned the piano and practiced every day, wrote over 50 songs in her last years.

Even before Richardson's death in 1946, she fell into obscurity once again, and was dismissed by many Australians, including her fellow novelist Miles Franklin , as unauthentic and unrepresentative of Australian literature. But beginning in the 1970s and continuing into the late 1990s, Richardson has been rediscovered by Australian writers, critics, and filmmakers. The consensus now is that her novels are among the most important yet produced by an Australian writer.


Elliott, William D. Henry Handel Richardson. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1975.

Green, Dorothy. Ulysses Bound: Henry Handel Richardson and Her Fiction. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1973.

Palmer, Nettie . Henry Handel Richardson: A Study. London and Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1950.

Purdie, Edna and Olga M. Roncoroni, eds. Henry Handel Richardson: Some Personal Impressions. London and Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1957.

Triebel, Louis. Henry Handel Richardson: Australian Novelist and Lover of Wisdom. Hobart, Tasmania: Cat & Fiddle Press, 1976.

suggested reading:

Lever, Susan, and Catherine Pratt, eds. Henry Handel Richardson: The Getting of Wisdom, Stories, Selected Prose and Correspondence. St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1997.

Richardson, Henry Handel. The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. 3 vols. London and Sydney: Penguin, 1971.

——. Myself When Young. NY: W.W. Norton, 1948.

related media:

The Getting of Wisdom (100 min. Australian film), starring Susannah Fowle , screenplay by Eleanor Witcombe and Moya Iceton , directed by Bruce Beresford, produced by Southern Cross, 1977.

Anna Macías , Professor Emerita of History, Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio