I’ve written a lot about my wonderful weekend in Maldon, celebrating the life of Henry Handel Richardson, but not nearly enough about why anybody should be bothered reading her books. Some may know The Getting of Wisdom from the 1978 Bruce Beresford film but that’s thirty years old now, based on a book written in 1910. That book was followed by Australia Felix in 1917, The Way Home 1925, and Ultima Thule 1929, these three brought together as the trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney in 1930. (She also wrote The Young Cosima in 1939 but I have never seen that one in print).
Maurice Guest, which was published in 1908 is then the oldest of her novels, and yet it seems remarkably fresh. It is a brilliant study of obsession, explored from both male and female points of view. As I read it, I found myself reacting as Madeleine the character does. Irritated, observing these self-absorbed characters weave their own web of self-destruction, I kept thinking ‘Why don’t they just stop…?’ But of course they can’t.
Obsession is a theme that crops up again and again in literature. Captain Ahab in Moby Dick is obsessed with the whale; Don Quixote is obsessed by chivalry. In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff’s mutual obsession with Catherine is gothic, while Peter Ackroyd in Chatterton, treats Charles’s obsession with a 17th century poet with some levity. Mostly obsession leads to the destruction of self; Don Quixote’s rehabilitation is rare.
Almost everyone in Maurice Guest is obsessive; the city of Leipzig in the 1890s lends itself to obsession. Maurice abandons his career as a schoolteacher living a dull life in England because he longs to be a pianist, but he soon discovers that everyone else in this city of music is as obsessed as he is. His first friend Madeleine spends all her time having lessons, practising and attending the concerts of other students, and although the young men of their circle spend a fair bit of time carousing around, all their talk is of music, musicians and the merits of respective teachers of music. Maurice Guest the outsider, (a guest, get it?) and Louise Dufrayer, the femme fatale all the way from exotic Australia, (a place so distant one would never set foot there nor know its culture is different p104), : they fail to become absorbed into the musical culture of Leipzig but become obsessed by unattainable love instead.
What I found so interesting in this novel is how closely Henry Handel Richardson’s plot and settings mirror the known factors that contribute to obsession. As ever, Wikipedia provides some interesting information about obsessive love. The key characteristic is that ‘obsessive lovers believe that only the person they fixate on can make them feel happy and fulfilled’ and both Maurice and Louise suffer from this fixation. From the moment Maurice sets eyes on Louise, he invests everything in one short meeting (p105) and is incapable of taking any pleasure in anything else from then on. Alas, she is fixated on Schilsky, a rather cavalier young man who dumps her because she won’t leave him alone to get on with composing his music.
The factors which create the climate for these obsessions, as listed on Wikipedia, are all there in the novel.
- Leisure, because obsessive love almost always coincides with boredom: Louise is a lady of leisure and has nothing to do in Leipzig except moon about over Schilsky; and although Maurice ought to be slaving away at the piano, he isn’t. This is partly because he can’t afford to take private lessons with the Great Men (Schwarz and Bendel), and partly because he thinks he can achieve his dreams without hours of practice.
- Feelings of vulnerability and a perceived failure to belong: neither Maurice nor Louise belong in the musical milieu of Leipzig, and not just because they are from elsewhere. Maurice goes into raptures when he hears a performance of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (p5) only to discover from Madeleine that it was a second-rate performance (p9-10). Louise has no real interest in music at all. Or anything, really. Not even food, apparently. She does like dancing, but she doesn’t fit in there either because she makes an exhibition of herself with her extravagant gestures and too-obvious clothes. Maurice, on the other hand, can’t cope with the joviality of the crowds on the street and disconsolately goes down alleyways on his own to get away from them (p11); he is actually repelled ‘by the aloofness of this foreign town’ (p12). He never does make any real friends, (though there are some odd episodes here and there with Krafft, and he flirts with Elphie, a young and silly American).
- An inflated opinion of oneself: Maurice rejects his home and parents because he believes he is destined for great things; he doesn’t think he needs to listen to anybody’s advice (especially not Madeleine’s). Louise just assumes she is irresistible.
- Particular childhood experiences: Maurice feels bitter about his irksome childhood as the son of a ‘silent, undemonstrative father who surrounded himself with an unscalable wall of indifference’…and a ‘hard-faced, careworn mother’ (p15) – no wonder he seeks out a passionate relationship!
- Feelings of being special and/or different: Maurice feels free to disappoint his parents and to ignore Madeleine’s prudent advice because he has an artistic temperament. ‘Away! – to go out into the world and be a musician! – that was his longing and his dream.And he never came to quite an honest understanding with himself on this point, for desire and dream were interwoven in his mind. (p16)
- Inequality between the lover and the beloved, e.g., the beloved may be married/taken, too old or young, famous, far away, from different social class or attractiveness level or otherwise unattainable: Louise is infatuated with Schilsky who is unattainable because (a) he doesn’t have time for her and (b) abandons her and goes off to a different city; while Louise is unattainable by Maurice because (a) she’s fixated on somebody else and (b) beyond his means to support because she’s wealthy and he’s got no money at all.
Now I don’t know just when these factors that create a climate for obsession were identified, but I think it’s quite remarkable that they are all there, and in more detail than I’ve outlined above, in a novel written back in 1908!
Interesting as this is, it’s not a reason for reading Maurice Guest. Read it because it’s a fascinating look at a lost world, the innocent world of pre-Holocaust Germany, and a brilliant recreation of a hothouse musical mileau that does not exist in Australia. The story of Louise and Maurice is fascinating: especially their hours and hours in each other’s company, in darkened rooms full of scented flowers, their relationship powered along by passionate scenes of anguish and despair. Bossy, disarmingly frank Madeleine – who might have been in love with Maurice herself – is a wonderful character, and the histrionics of the music teachers Bendel and Schwarz are quite comic.
Henry Handel Richardson was herself a student in Leipzig and her familiarity with the great works of classical music and a student’s repertoire is personal. Allusions to well-known and to not-so-well-known pieces imbue the story with the atmosphere of the town, and if I were marketing this book, I would include a CD of the works referred to. I often wished that I could have a piece playing as I read - but didn’t want to stop reading to go and organise it. Music is heard in the streets as characters walk along, they hum difficult sections they have to learn, they judge the playing of their fellows at concerts, and they worry over which piece they may be permitted to play for their exhibition and so on. Landladies don’t seem to complain about late night practice, but I suppose no landlady who did would last long in a music-obsessed town!
There are some very irritating proof-reading errors that should have been corrected in this edition. Here and there, slabs of italics have been left in place when they should have been removed on p181; p491; and p580. Hyphens, presumably from a line break in the original text from which this edition was scanned, disrupt the flow of reading: ‘ac-cepted’ (p135); ‘tam-pered’ (p236); ‘rudi-ments’ (p255); ‘attrac-ted’ (p260); ‘experi-enced’ (p316); ‘new-comer’ (p479); ‘cyni-cal’ (p553). And what sort of a word is ‘nosingle’? (p275). There’s ‘lappe’l instead of ‘lapel’ (p165) and ‘wereyoupractising’ is so obvious an error I wonder how any proof-reader could possibly have missed it with that large slab of empty space followed by the three words run together like that! (p108). This sort of sloppiness is really not good enough, especially not at the RRP of $39.95.
Title: Maurice Guest
Author: Henry Handel Richardson
Series: The Australian Classics Library
Publisher: Sydney University Press, 2008, in association with CAL & AustLit.
Review copy courtesy of Sydney University Press.
Maurice Guest is now available in the Text Classics series, hopefully without the proof reading problems in the SUP edition. See Maurice Guest (Text Classics)