Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 9, 2016

Henry Handel Richardson, a study (1950), by Nettie Palmer

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Source: Wikipedia Commons (This photo is also in the book, along with more flattering ones).

I love Henry Handel Richardson’s novels, and because with the exception of The Young Cosimo (1939) they are so strongly autobiographical, I was delighted to find this ex-library copy of Henry Handel Richardson, a study (1950) by Nettie Palmer, (1885-1964) who was Australia’s leading critic of her day.  Originally sourced from Ell’s Book Centre in Newcastle (probably long gone now), my copy belonged to the Lake Macquarie Shire Public Library, and its last borrower took it home in 1979.  I bought it for $8.00 in a second-hand bookshop somewhere between home and the Hunter Valley.  It has a boring tan hardback cover but it’s nicely protected in Mylar, and I consider myself very lucky to have found it.

I was somewhat startled to discover that there is a bit of an academic stoush over the representation of Nettie Palmer in contemporary times. I Googled ‘Nettie Palmer’ to find her dates for writing this post, and discovered Deborah Jordan in Overland taking Brenda Niall to task over an article in The Australian Book Review (which I haven’t read because I no longer subscribe since the ABR lost its exclusive focus on books and doesn’t review enough Australian lit anyway).  I can’t pretend to be interested in any of the argument, but will quote part of Jordan’s first paragraph because it encapsulates the reasons why I took such pleasure in Nettie Palmer’s style:

Once the ‘twin deities’of Australian literature, receiving accolade after accolade from most of  the major critics of the interwar period, and inspiring several generations of Australian writers, they have been diminished by decades of critical material, some positive, but mostly negative.  The New Left criticisms of scholars in the late 1970s were especially harsh as they formulated their own critical principles in opposition to the supposed failures of previous non-Marxist generations, and their wholesale dismissal has held sway over the longer view of mature scholars such as Jack Lindsay, Vivian Smith, Geoffrey Serle and Harry Heseltine. More recently, with the emergence of ecocriticism, with a richer dialectical materially orientated theory of literature and neo-colonialism, and with the field of Australian literature in such fragile state, we should be able to begin to recognise how significant Vance and Nettie Palmer were in inscribing the very legitimacy of Australian literature.


This is what I had written in my journal:

Reams have been written about HHR, I wrote one myself when I was at university.  But I doubt if anything has been written that is so clear-sighted and free of jargon as Nettie Palmer’s study.

She begins with a straightforward account of HHR’s life, concluding that it was the years in HHR’s youth in Australia and Vienna that preoccupied her imagination.  She was a private, reclusive woman who wrote not for money or fame, but because it was her gift.  And then she moves on to an analysis of the books.

Today, no one could write an essay about a work by HHR without the isms: feminism, post-colonialism, and racism.  Nettie Palmer, incredibly knowledgeable about Australian literature was free of all that despite her university education, and so she focusses the space she has available on HHR’s themes and characters.

It is so refreshing to read!

Each book is discussed in chronological order of writing, so Palmer begins with The Getting of Wisdom even though it was published second in 1910.  Palmer doesn’t say so directly, but (as you’d expect) she implies that it’s a slighter work than the later novels: it’s a coming-of-age story that concludes with Laura breaking free of her troubles, but as Palmer puts it, beginning with an image of Everygirl, it took on her own nature, with its special gifts and preoccupations. (p. 39).  IMO it’s an important book for teenage girls to read, but by the time we reach adulthood we have ceased to care about the pettiness of their preoccupations with appearance and status and so TGOW as a study of a young girl’s inner growth becomes interesting more for me as a pointer towards a question it doesn’t tackle.  If clever girls, in HHR’s case one who was destined to become a great writer, can rise above the pettiness because of their consoling gifts, what becomes of those less gifted, those who suffer the barbs of their peers without ever being welcome in the peer group but have nowhere else to go?

Maurice Guest (1908), Palmer says, transitioned over the eleven years it took to write, from a study of milieu (Vienna) to a study of love in all its overwhelming intensities and erotic vagaries.  Not the love that leads finally to happiness and a domestic hearth. (p.57) There is in the novel little about an idyll:

Love is represented as a destructive flame from which the strong man tears himself away while there is still time, or saves himself in an engrossing pursuit. Those whose life is in their music, like Schilsky or Kraft, are immune, to them love is a diversion, one that may have abnormal twists and excitements but can never operate as a controlling force in their lives. It is people with inadequate gifts who suffer… (p.57)

That is why Maurice, not talented enough to make it in the musical hothouse that is Vienna, and not really sure that a musical career is what he wanted, falls victim to an obsession with Louise (as I put it in my review).   Palmer says that Maurice Guest is a ‘great’ novel because it has classical qualities:

  • a powerful theme, never lost sight of, and with a climax like a Greek tragedy
  • a superb narrative flow with countless small but significant and brilliant episodes and characters.

Fascinating to me was the discovery that HHR wrote this novel when the brilliantly bilingual author was thinking in German.  Her punctuation is like German punctuation, where commas are part of syntax marking out relative clauses or an adverbial phrase, and not as in English, marking pauses when reading aloud.  Who knew? (I know several European languages, but not German).

Palmer goes on to analyse the character of Laura in more depth, suggesting that HHR has created her as Bovarian:

Like Emma Bovary, Louise not merely wishes to be happy on her own terms, she takes it as her right, and at anyone’s expense.

I hadn’t read Emma Bovary (see my review) when I read Maurice Guest, so I missed this association entirely.

The analysis of the trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney is a delight to read, not just because Palmer has such interesting things to say about the book but because it’s one of my all-time favourite books.  I was fascinated to read that it was not until the publication of the last volume Ultima Thume that HHR began to receive critical recognition and success in the marketplace.  She was nearly sixty when the book was chosen as a ‘Book of the Month’ in the American Readers Club.  That seems a bizarre choice to me because although it’s my favourite of the three books, I can’t see how it would make much sense without reading the first two, a point that Nettie Palmer also makes when discussing the characterisation of Richard Mahoney, who by Volume III is a fragile and pitiful man and an embarrassment to his young children.

In addition to an analysis of The Young Cosima (an imagined life of the daughter of Liszt and her relationship with Wagner which I haven’t read yet, so I skipped it) there is a chapter on Methods of Work, a Retrospect, and an Appendix of correspondence with the Palmers.  (There’s a good index too, well done to whoever did it).

Because this is a ‘study’ rather than a life biography, I suspect that this book will bring most pleasure to those who have read the novels of HHR, but it’s also interesting as an example of an earlier style of literary criticism.  I think I have a couple of readers who would be interested in having a look at it, and I am quite willing to lend it for passing on, as long as I get it back in the end.

Author: Nettie Palmer
Title: Henry Handel Richardson, a study
Publisher: Angus and Robertson, 1950
Source: Personal library

Long out of print.



  1. Lucky you! I have Nettie Palmer on HHR in Twentieth Century Australian Literary Criticism, Clemment Semmler ed. (1967). It appears HHR had a higher reputation in the US than in England (perhaps because the poms were inclined to look down on Australian culture). NP writes, “.. the first volume, which appeared in 1917; little noticed in England; better in USA where Maurice Guest was well remembered.”
    Young Cosima doesn’t seem to me to be as well written as the others, certainly nowhere near as intense as Maurice Guest. I might slot it in for a review later in the year.
    We’ll have to have a critical argument another day about whether The Getting of Wisdom is also a book for adults.


    • Would you like me to send it to you? (On condition that you send it on afterwards to a fellow WA blogger if he’s interested, or else back to me eventually).
      *chuckle* I’ve been in trouble before over coming-of-age stories…


      • Thanks, that’d be great. I’ll email you later tonight.


  2. I checked the online availability of books by Nettie Palmer in the Minneapolis Public Library system and found they do have ‘Henry Handel Richardson – A Study’ in the stacks. I requested it, but it may take some time for them to retrieve it from the stacks.
    As you know, I have read the entire ‘Fortunes of Richard Mahoney’ trilogy and consider it one of the very best.
    I also like some of the old critics who aren’t obsessed with the -isms.


    • What a wonderful find in the library! I assume it is because HHR was more successful in the US than anywhere else – maybe the pioneering aspects of The Fortunes appealed? It is just such a great story, with such marvellous characters…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson: A Study, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1950. Kindly lent to me by Lisa Hill of ANZ LitLovers (her review here). […]


  4. […] of the Goldfields trilogy) and Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson which Lisa of ANZLL reviewed (here) and which I am currently borrowing – I used it in my review of The Young Cosima above. And if […]


  5. […] But excellent as the Molloy biography is, my favourite kind of bio is literary biography.  I’ve reviewed 18 of them on this blog and I have another half dozen on the TBR.  My favourite is Jill Roe’s award-winning biography Stella Miles Franklin which is a must-read for anyone wanting to know more about the woman whose name graces our most prestigious literary award, but I also recently enjoyed Nettie Palmer’s study of Henry Handel Richardson. […]


  6. […] my opinion of HHR is coloured by having first read Nettie Palmer’s Henry Handel Richardson, a study, and perhaps my doubts about Niall’s representation of both HHR and Nettie Palmer has been […]


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