I’ve finished my recording of The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson. I decided to record a second version of it for Librivox to take advantage of the fact that it was also one of my book club’s reads for this year. I think we were supposed to read it last year as part of our AWW 2012 list, but it got pushed aside because it seemed to be by a male author. So, for the uninitiated, let me begin by clearing up that misunderstanding: Henry Handel Richardson is the pen name of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson.
The Getting of Wisdom follows Laura Tweedle Rambotham from the eve of her departure to boarding school at the age of twelve to the moment of her leaving that school at sixteen. When we first encounter Laura at home in country Victoria, she seems precocious, bossing her younger siblings and causing her mother no end of frustration with her antics. After she travels to Melbourne to attend school, however, Laura becomes far less assured, both socially and academically, as she struggles to be accepted by her peers and teachers. The Getting of Wisdom is effectively a coming of age story in which Laura’s trials and tribulations are many.
I first encountered The Getting of Wisdom in my final year of secondary school as an elective book for English. My teacher recommended it to me and I wrote an essay about it. I have two memories of The Getting of Wisdom from that time. The first is the striking final image of the book, and the other is the comment made by my English teacher on reading my essay: ‘Did you read it?’
I recall have quite a lot of difficulty concentrating on The Getting of Wisdom. I’m not sure why, but looking back now, I credit my teacher with a great deal of insight in her recommendation. Reading it again, I felt a lot of empathy with Laura as she struggled to gain her mother’s approval, as she tripped over unfamiliar mores and distinctions in an elevated social environment, as she failed to meet her own expectations of academic success, and as she longed to connect with her peers. Perhaps Laura’s awkwardness is familiar to many, and, to that end, may explain the endurance of Handel Richardson’s story.
From the perspective of having recorded a few books by Australian women writers for Librivox now, The Getting of Wisdom is the most approachable for a contemporary audience. No doubt this is due to Handel Richardson’s clear admiration for Henrik Ibsen‘s realism, evident in Laura’s encounter with A Doll’s House as part of her covert reading in the principal’s drawing room during her piano practice. While Laura isn’t that enamoured of Ibsen’s work, only choosing it because its title promised an altogether different kind of story, her comments provide some insight into Handel Richardson’s philosophy of writing:
… it was all about the oddest, yet the most commonplace people. It seemed to her amazingly unreal—how these people spoke and behaved—she had never known anyone like them; and yet again so true, in the way it dragged in everyday happenings, so petty in its rendering of petty things, that it bewildered and repelled her: why, some one might just as well write a book about Mother or Sarah! Her young, romantic soul rose in arms against this, its first bluff contact with realism, against such a dispiriting sobriety of outlook. Something within her wanted to cry out in protest as she read—for read she did, on three successive days, with an interest she could not explain. And that was not all. It was worse that the people in this book—the extraordinary person who was married, and had children, and yet ate biscuits out of a bag and said she didn’t; the man who called her his lark and his squirrel—as if any man ever did call his wife such names!—all these people seemed eternally to be meaning something different from what they said; something that was for ever eluding her. It was most irritating.
Writing amidst a lingering tradition of nineteenth century romanticism then, Handel Richardson offers a portrait of a girl on the cusp of womanhood. The Getting of Wisdom does not offer the ‘miracle’ of Laura’s preferred choice of literature, but squarely faces the ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ of growing up–in a way that continues to resonate.