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…