The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson

A few months ago The Land of Spices by the Irish novelist Kate O'Brien was featured in this blog. This month our subject is an Australian novel which has some similarities to the Irish one. The Getting of Wisdom, published in 1910 by Henry Handel Richardson (1870-1946, real name Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson) is like the somewhat later Irish novel set in a private girls' school whose pupils largely come from privileged backgrounds. Both novels are set in a period not long before the First World War, and the main student character in both comes from a home where there are financial problems not experienced by many of the other students. (It might also be mentioned that Richardson was rather proud of her Irish descent!)

The differences are nevertheless considerable. The Irish novel has two central figures, whereas The Getting of Wisdom is very much the story of Laura, whose experiences in the novel are to a considerable extent based on Richardson's own as a pupil at Presbyterian Ladies' College Melbourne. For much of the novel Laura is the only school character who is developed to any extent , and throughout the novel, apart from a few cameos, the teachers are all minor figures, or caricatures, like the preposterously formidable 'dragon', Mrs Gurley. Both novels were unpopular with the schools that their authors had attended, but it is far easier to understand the unhappiness of PLC Melbourne. Teachers and pupils at the school almost all seem obsessively snobbish and mean-minded. Until the later chapters it would be difficult to name a sympathetic character.

Much of the book is the story of the bruising encounters between Laura's unsophisticated impulsive, high spirits, and desire to fit in, and her companions' relentless determination to exclude or ostracise here, often on the basis of evidence that her family in not well-to-do that she inadvertently provides. It is comic, because Laura's is often her own worst enemy, but it also fills the reader with a contempt for those around her who are so eager to take offence. In the later chapters of the book, following a summer in the company of her sister when she comes to feel that little though she may fit in at school, she has grown apart from her family at home, Laura does make some friends and win a measure of acceptance. She gains the friendship of the priggish 'M.P.' and her offsider 'Cupid' by cleverly exploiting M.P.'s wish to be a moral arbiter, and later becomes the chosen companion of the school's most beautiful and most privileged student, an older girl called Evelyn. Richardson makes very clear that Laura's infatuation with the older girl has a strong element of the sexual in it, but the reader may perhaps wonder at Evelyn's choosing Laura as her companion.

The title of the book is clearly ironic. The wisdom Laura learns is that of outwardly conforming, and saying what her companions expect of her. One of Richardson's achievements is that despite the autobigraphical element Laura never becomes a heroine whose inner strength and genuine moral superiority set her apart. It is quite clear that Laura objects to snobbery and bullying because she is the victim, not because she dislikes snobbery and bullying per se. The final scene, when Laura, having just walked out the school gates for the last time as a pupil, runs joyfully through a park, is somewhat ambivalent. We must wonder how free she really is.

 H.G. Wells is said to have described this book as the best school story he knew. It has been in print almost continuously since 1910, and a new edition, with an introduction by Germaine Greer, is about to appear. It is a splendidly narrated book, vivid, entertaining, and convincing, and impressive in the honesty of its presentation of the flawed but ultimately rather attractive central figure.