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Sexuality and roles of dominance and submission pervade the novel. Laura's transition from her country home, where she dominates her sister, to the Presbyterian Ladies' College, where she must submit to domination, is the fundamental shift that sets the story in motion. Dorothy Green has written:

The book is permeated with curiosity about sex, much of it unwholesome; the goal of most of the girls and women is matrimony, which sums up all they can conceive about relations between the sexes. Laura's tentative suggestions that friendship might be a possible one is contemptuously dismissed, half-understood, by the school flirt, and only Laura casts doubt, privately, on marriage as a goal, "an event, which though it saved you from derision, would put an end for ever, to all possible, exciting contingencies". Laura gets on best with women teachers, "to whom red lips and a full bust meant nothing"; does not want Bob to be "gone on her" nor to have to "fish for him", if he is; has less talent for capturing a boy's attention than an eight-year-old child; and her most intense emtional experience is her obsessional passion for an older fellow-student. Both Laura's admirer, Chinky, for whom boys are "dirty, horrid, conceited creatures" and the flirt Maria are well aware of male egotism, but Maria has already decided to exploit it for her own ends, Chinky to reject the sex.

Henry Handel Richardson at the Presbyterian Ladies' College
Henry Handel Richardson (back right) at the Presbyterian Ladies' College, 1885.

As for the intellectual side, Laura accepts the geography mistress's definition of a "real woman's brain" as one without any intelligent curiosity, but in the effort to live up to Miss Hick's requirements, she exposes their weakness: too much masculine reverence for inert facts is no better than too much "feminine" concentration on the sense of the facts. History is at present vindicating Laura.16

Richardson was attacked by some critics for her dependence on her husband, her reliance on his income and patronage, as well as, some charged, her emotional dependence. Yet she supported her sister, who was concidered a "militant suffragette," and she participated in rallies and protests (over her husband's objections), even on one occasion dropping an ink bomb in a letter box. She urged Nettie Palmer, "Do write on George Eliot. She needs to be lit up by a woman. We have taken men's opinions on persons and things for so long — far too long.17 Richardson's marriage was childless, and she often remarked that gifted women had better things to do than make babies. Her married life was marked by frequent depressions, and she commented disparagingly on the institution of marriage. The suggestion has been made that her marriage was never consummated,18 but Karen McLeod, whose Henry Handel Richardson: A Critical Study is remarkable for its discrimination, balance, and good sense, maintains that Richardson was "devastated" by the death of her husband: "She had been married for 38 years to a man who cherished her emotionally and intellectually, and for whom, as she wrote in her diary, all her books were written."19 Richardson herself wrote that "In him I lost husband, father, brother rolled in one. He was everything to me."20

But, like Laura, Richardon was attracted to women. Her friend Morchard Bishop once hinted that The Getting of Wisdom is "a more personal book than the others, and tells us a good deal about its author if we care to take the trouble to read between the lines."21 McLeod notes that "she did share with Laura and intense passion for an older girl, which left her feeling bleak and deserted when the girl left school, although she admits that she was the one who turned away: 'I wanted her to myself, by herself, and if I couldn't, then I didn't want her at all'."22 But she did not "turn away" completely. As Nettie Palmer relates, the relationship "filled her later school-years with an underground excitement. It seems that this infatuation with 'Evelyn' was something more than one of the ordinary affairs of adolescence; she confesses that the attraction the girl had for her was so strong that few others surpassed it. The two were to keep in touch for many years, in fact until the death of 'Evelyn'."23 Throughout her life Richardson had female secretaries and companions, and would travel with them on her frequent holidays and voyages, rather than with her husband. Her final companion, Olga Roncoroni, was a young agoraphobe for whom Richardson arranged psychiatric help. They were friends for nearly thirty years; Roncoroni was her secretary for more than a decade before Richardson's death, and a consolation to her after the death of Professor Robertson.

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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

16 Dorothy Green, "Power-Games in the Novels of Henry Handel Richardson" in Shirley Walker, ed., Who Is She? (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983), 94-95..
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17 Palmer, 193.
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18 Green, "Power-Games," 96.
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19 McLeod, 13.
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20 Purdie and Roncoroni, 103.
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21 Purdie and Roncoroni, 56.
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22 McLeod, 6.
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23 Palmer, 22.
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