Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2009

Henry Handel Richardson, and Maldon in her writing

One of the best things about the Henry Handel Richardson Celebration Weekend in Maldon is that there is something for everyone…

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Source: Wikipedia Commons

The Spouse admits to never having read HHR, but he’s had a lovely time. He likes historic tourism while I like literary tourism, but here in Maldon this weekend the two have coalesced very nicely indeed. While we both enjoyed Peter Cuffley’s talk about 1880s Maldon, he was not so keen on hearing about how HHR used her experiences in Maldon in her writing, so he wandered off to enjoy some of the other features of this delightful town. He went to the Motoring Museum, the Mining Museum and the train station (to book us a ride on a steam train tomorrow) while I went back to the Community Centre to hear Clive Probyn talk about how Maldon influenced HHR.

Professor Probyn is a serious scholar of HHR. He is professor of English at Monash University and also literary executor of HHR’s estate He’s a very learned man with heaps of books and publications to his credit, but his talk was very accessible and not just for the academic.

He pointed out something I should have known, i.e. that HHR wrote progressively backwards. Written when she was 26, Maurice Guest (see my review) was her first book though it is set in her adult years when she was a student of music in Germany. It is her later books which return to her childhood and the trilogy which recreates her parents’ lives twenty years before she was born. All her books address two fundamental questions of identity:

  • Where do I come from?

  • Does understanding my origins help me to know who and what I am?

the getting of wisdomeAll her characters are created from within the orbit of her own experiences and are aspects of herself. This is obvious in The Getting of Wisdom because it covers her girlhood and adolescence and is the story of the making of herself . She was interested in exploring boundaries, and was in some ways a rebel, interested in seeing how far things might go. In this sense Maldon shapes her writing, and school does so too: Laura is unschooled by Maldon because here she had freedom from supervision while her mother was busy in the post office. It is at school at PLC in Melbourne, that she learns the importance of lying in order to be genteel. She can conceal the embarrassing truth about her social position, that her mother makes her clothes and earns her living working in a post office…

Melbourne, said Professor Probyn, is in HHR’s novel a 2D panorama. Leipzig, in Maurice Guest, is strongly evoked, but no more strongly than the relationship around the central characters. HHR was indifferent to more than the surface of her settings; she wasn’t interested in Leipzig’s military history or its commercial heart, and she wasn’t interested in the mining history of Maldon either. It’s how her cities and towns impact on her characters that matters.

Professor Probyn says that it’s important not to underestimate HHR because she’s very complex. Her autobiography, Myself When Young is not as close to the truth of her life as the novel The Getting of Wisdom is. He pointed out that HHR idealised her childhood in Maldon in this biography as a sort of paradise, and the garden at the post office as a bountiful Garden of Eden, but this biography was written at the height of the Blitz in London, when hunger, privation and fear were everyday realities. It is to HHR’s fiction that we should look to find out more about the real Ettie.

Maldon is the genesis of The Getting of Wisdom. HHR wrote that her time there was ‘the happiest days of my childhood, free of childish anxieties… in carefree sunlit surroundings.‘ In Myself When Young she writes eloquently of the trees, of Mt Tarrengower in the background, of fruit trees in blossom and the abundance of the garden which – she understood 60 years later – had made her healthy and physically free. There is little of this in The Getting of Wisdom but there is enough to show her exile from it at PLC and how this expulsion from the Garden of Eden contributed to her becoming‘ someone else’.

For in this novel Laura makes the discovery that identity is not given but made. It is fabricated, and a product of our own choices. In her settler society in Maldon everything is possible: she can – like any other settler in a colonial society – create a new self. Getting the choices wrong means the difference between being ‘in’ and being ‘out’, between success and failure, and the getting of wisdom means accepting hypocrisy as the way of the world. For her, it’s not talent or intellect, it’s money that makes the difference: it can cloak shortcomings, though some of the wealthiest can’t cover their own past and a shady or embarrassing background can’t withstand scrutiny. A connection with trade, for example, is a taint that nothing can remove. Her own mother working for a living, in the days when ladies did not work is fatal. This seems preposterous to us now, and HHR’s fiction is a reminder of how far we have come since the days when such constraints could blemish an entire life.

Laura’s other discovery has to do with the power of fiction. Her most painful truth is when she is witness to the Annie’s expulsion for theft. She recognises the temptation for a poor student but it’s the drama, the melodramatic power of the event that jolts her writing career into gear. Laura has read Dickens’ Bleak House, and from her experience in literature she can predict Annie’s fate. She has learned that you do not need to travel to Venice to write about it, and a narrative need not be true as long as it might have been true. HHR’s fiction becomes free to represent an ideal truth, not the actual truth, and it’s false to expect literature to be a transcription from life.

Professor Probyn talked at some length about Ettie’s curious relationship with the Reverend Jack Stretch. It was entirely one-sided. He was fifteen years older than her, but she felt an intense passion for him, and never felt anything like this longing again. It is this experience, it seems to me, that is recreated in Maurice Guest, where both Laura and Maurice are obsessed by unrequited love. Laura says that she knows she will never experience such passion again, and surely HHR wrote those words from her own heart?

This has been an enriching weekend. I have met so many interesting people, and learned such a lot about one of my favourite writers. Here on my blog I want to say a public thank you to the organisers, Sally Morris, Marg Taylor and Janey Runci, and also to the army of volunteers who have made us all so welcome and ensured that the weekend has been a resounding success.

I welcome any corrections to any errors I have made in summarising Professor Probyn’s lecture.  Please contact me or comment below.


  1. Oh, how I love hearing this: “Her autobiography, Myself When Young is not as close to the truth of her life as the novel The Getting of Wisdom is.” Truth in fiction!! Sounds like a great weekend all up Lisa.


  2. A nice report. Thanks for that.


  3. […] 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 […]


  4. Thanks for the information, for further info on Maldon’s history:


  5. […] Ethel Richardson who spent some of her childhood in Maldon, a wealth of information can be found here.  Lisa Hill writes about the first Henry Handel Richardson (HHR) festival held in Maldon ~ even […]


  6. Can anyone tell me who the Louise is to whom HHR dedicated Maurice Guest?


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