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Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson was born in Melbourne on January 3, 1870. Her family and friends called her Ettie or Etta. She hated the name her parents had given her, but this was just one reason for her adopted pen name. Those who knew her agree that she was reclusive and retiring, and her pen name kept her from the public eye. (Most of her central characters are also solitaries.) Her longtime secretary-companion, Olga Roncoroni, said that Richardson's "chief characteristic ... was her shyness. She found it very difficult to make personal contact with people."4 Once, when the press sought to interview her on a holiday voyage, she locked herself in the ocean liner's lavatory until the reporters got tired and went away. According to Nettie Palmer, her biographer and tireless advocate (and a fellow graduate of the Presbyterian Ladies' College in Melbourne, as well as a fine writer in her own right):

For Henry Handel Richardson, solitude was a s necessary as food and music. She had few friends; she did not enjoy social gatherings; she was not spiritually at home in London [where she spent her later years] and looked out at it from her high windows with alien and incurious eyes. English life could never be a background for her work. All the experiences that mattered to her, and from which she was to select her themes, had been accumulated long before, when she was a child in Australia or a student in Germany; and it was her firm belief that any novelist should have seen and felt enough in his early years to set him pondering for a lifetime.5

Richardson must also have cherished the resonance of "Handel," since her life was strongly associated with music. But, she explained, there was a more important reason to hide mehind her male mask, for "there had been much talk in the press about the ease with which a woman's work could be distinguished from a man's; and I wanted to try out the truth of the assertion" in Maurice Guest.6 Germaine Greer elaborates:

Henry Handel Richardson meant not only to write in a manner which displayed the masculine virtues of power and authority, she wished also to write the story of a degrading sexual obsession from the point of view of its masculine victim. There was to be no hypocrisy in the telling, for the object of his passion was both in love with and had been abandoned by another man. She would accept him as a substitute and lead him into a maze of depravity while Henry Handel Richardson would keep pace with him all the way, to morgues where female suicides lay destroyed by homosexual lovers, to drunken debauches and the seamy bed of a prostitute, until his suicide, when she would look through his eyes at his last glimpse of this world. To attempt all this as Mrs Robertson would be even now to court disaster in the shape of ridicule. . . .7

Whatever her reasons, Richardson was adamant in insisting on her pen name, and resented the use of her married name, Mrs. Robertson (from 1895 until his death in 1933, she was married to scholar J. G. Robertson, who wrote the first English history of Germanic literature). After all, Richardson was her name, and her career, she took pains to point out, was distinct from her husband's. And "Henry Handel" had been in her family. "I've worked more than twenty years to establish my own name," she once said. "Why shouldn't I have it?"8 Olga Roncoroni recalled an incident that demonstrated the strength of Richardson's feelings about her adopted name:

In 1935 H. H. was awarded the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal. The medal reached her through Australia House, and the accompanying document, headed "Buckingham Palace", announced that the award was made to "Mrs. J. G. Robertson — for her work as an author". H. H. immediately returned the document to Australia House, saying that since her work had not been written under her married name she could not accept the medal under that name. Within a short time a new document arrived — made out to Henry Handel Richardson. On this point she was adamant; nothing infuriated her more than a refusal to accept the name under which she had always written.9

Henry Handel Richardson, date unknown
Henry Handel Richardson, date unknown

Many of the outlines of Richardson's life are reflected her novels. Like Laura Rambotham in The Getting of Wisdom, she moved from a rural suburb of Melbourne to attend the Presbyterian Ladies' College there. Like Maurice Guest, she was a music student in Leipzig, following her graduation from the PLC. Her father, like Richard Mahony in her postwar trilogy, became mentally ill at the end of his life, causing him to be institutionalized. (Richardson, like Laura, was left in the care of her mother.)

But to relate Richardson's life story is beyond my scope here. Laura is not Ethel. Laura is careless, bad at mathematics, not athletic; Ethel Richardson was first in Latin, English, History, and Music, and the school tennis champion besides. Nonetheless, she said that she could not "remeber every being really happy at school," though at the end of her life she wrote approvingly of the discipline. "I came in for a very bad time," she write. "Some of my faculties may have been blunted during the process, but it was certainly to the good in the long run. For the boy or girl who goes out into the world without knowing how to conform to its rules is surely to be pitied. The inevitable trimming and shaping are best got over early."10

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This essay was the introduction to the 1993 Mercury House reissue of The Getting of Wisdom.

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Notes

4 Edna Purdie and Olga M. Roncoroni, eds., Henry Handel Richardson: Some Personal Impressions (London: Angus and Robertson, 1957), 78.
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5 Palmer, 2.
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6 Cited in Germaine Greer, "Introduction," in the Virago/Dell edition of The Getting of Wisdom (New York, 1981) (The introduction is unpaginated).
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7 Greer.
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8 Purdie and Roncoroni, 48.
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9 Purdie and Roncoroni, 112.
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10 Henry Handel Richardson, Myself When Young (London: Heinemann, 1948), 64.
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