Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Henry Handel Richardson, literary fiction, pre-20th Century classic, Project Gutenberg, Publisher, Setting

‘The Getting of Wisdom’ by Henry Handel Richardson


Fiction – Kindle edition; Project Gutenberg; 209 pages; 1910.

Henry Handel Richardson was the pen name of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, an Australian author who was born in 1870. The Getting of Wisdom, her second novel, is probably her most famous book, and a century later it remains in print.

Its enduring popularity is probably due to the universal story it recounts: an unworldly young girl from the country goes to boarding school in the city and tries desperately to fit in — with mixed results.

The story is supposedly semi-autobiographical — aren’t they all? — and is based on Richardson’s own experiences at the prestigious Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Melbourne, where The Getting of Wisdom is set.

The protagonist, Laura Tweedle Rambotham, is a likable character but she is completely hapless and, at times, annoyingly unable to learn from her mistakes. She is 12 years old when she is sent to school from her rural backwater home.

She’s an outsider as soon as she arrives, because most of her fellow students come from well-off backgrounds. Laura, by comparison, comes from a one-parent family (her father, a barrister, has died) and her mother makes ends meet by taking in embroidery and other sewing-related jobs.

Much of the story revolves around Laura’s painful attempts to fit in. Although she is accepted socially by her peers, it is a constant balancing act to keep it going without anyone detecting the flaws in her background.

When, in “a moment of weakness, she gratuitously gave away the secret that Mother supported her family by the work of her hands”, her standing within the school community begins to slide.

Work in itself was bad enough — how greatly to be envied were those whose fathers did nothing more active than live on their money! But the additional circumstance of Mother being a woman made things ten times worse: ladies did not work; someone always left them enough to live on, and if he didn’t, well, then he, too, shared the ignominy. So Laura went in fear and trembling lest the truth should come to light.

As much as I enjoyed this novel, I did begin to wonder what the point of it was. In most coming of age stories the protagonist goes through some kind of “test” and emerges all the stronger for it, but in The Getting of Wisdom Laura merely gets sucked into the cruel games of her peers. Instead of standing up to them — defying them — she lowers herself to their standards and offers them what they want, even if that means she has to lie or carry on a charade to do so.

And by the end of the story, as Laura gets ready to leave school for good, she feels that she still doesn’t fit in:

She went out from school with the uncomfortable sense of being a square peg, which fitted into none of the round holes of her world; the wisdom she had got, the experience she was richer by, had, in the process of equipping her for life, merely seemed to disclose her unfitness.

Despite this failing, the book is an evocative read, particularly of another time and place. It has a distinctive Australian feel — I loved the descriptions of Laura’s holidays on the beach and her excursions into the city — which ensures its place in the Australian literary canon.

And I rather suspect girls in their early teens would enjoy it, seeing as it is filled with callous, often bitchy, characters with which every girl has to contend when she is growing up. There’s also plenty about what it is like to negotiate the unfamiliar world of boys when you don’t quite know what is expected of you…

8 thoughts on “‘The Getting of Wisdom’ by Henry Handel Richardson”

  1. It’s been a while since I read Wisdom, but I had the impression that “she lowers herself to their standards and offers them what they want, even if that means she has to lie or carry on a charade to do so” was HHR’s point. She’s showing you how someone can be ground down by an environment ostensibly good for them — this is how you learn to fit in, and adapt to society — you lower yourself, you are miserable, you are trapped by your situation, but you believe that you have no way out, and so you capitulate. Circumstances can warp you in ways you never anticipated. This was one of George Eliot’s themes as well, and Richardson goes into it again in her other books. The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is one long epic of man tangling with a social world that won’t accommodate him, and one of the characters in Maurice Guest is unusual and dazzling precisely because he seems not to care about society. But in Richardson’s book that makes him a super-willpowered imp-creature, barely human.


  2. Here is a quote I like from Henry Handel Richardson.
    “How I do hate the ordinary sleek biography. I’d have every wart and every pimple emphasized, every murky trait or petty meanness brought out. The great writers are great enough to bear it.”
    She certainly followed her own advice in “The Fortunes of Richard Mahony” which is a novel based on her childhood with much about her doctor father who went mad with syphilis.


  3. You’re right, of course. I guess the book is also about a loss of innocence, of how one young girl learns that life doesn’t just revolve around her and that she must adapt to survive. But coming off the back of reading Jane Eyre, where the heroine has the exact opposite take on the world — ie she refuses to change to fit in at all, because difference is important to her — it came as a bit of a let down. That’s not the fault of Richardson though, because an author is not to know the expectations with which a reader brings to bear. But as much as I appreciated The Getting of Wisdom and enjoyed reading it, I did find it a little dull in places, because Laura’s “lessons” in adaptability are quite repetitive. Or perhaps I’m just too demanding as a reader… ?


  4. It’s been so long since I read it that I don’t remember the boring parts, only the overall arc of the thing (which, thinking about it, reminds me of 1984 — she struggles and twists and feels bewildered, but by the end she’s Learnt To Love Big Brother, or at least act as if she does). Loss of innocence, yus, yus, this squashing-down, this education in subterfuge, the flattening and strangling of a child.
    I wondered if Richardson felt that she was reacting against those books about girls’ schools, written for preteens, in which Peppy Annabelle Jane stands up to Bullying Belinda and wins the admiration of All through pure Niceness and Honour. (The Bully learns that bullying Never Pays, relents, sorrows, and is Penitent. Annabelle Jane wins the hockey match and is carried off shoulder-high.) The product of an intelligent gut pushing back against those things in rage, and the author (via weak central character) castigating herself for being so “hapless,” “dull” and thick. But I’m speculating.


  5. LOL!! I’ve been living in England too long, cos that’s exactly what I was expecting: “Peppy Annabelle Jane stands up to Bullying Belinda and wins the admiration of All through pure Niceness and Honour.” I bet Richardson wanted to prove that life at boarding school wasn’t soo “jolly hocky sticks” and her version was the real “truth”.
    I’m interested in reading more of her stuff now, if only to see if this take on the world comes through in her other novels.


  6. Last year I hunted out a rather tattered hardcover edition of Richard Mahony, on the strength of your recommendation, Tony. I reckon 2011 might be the year I get around to reading it.


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