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.


Peter Clayton said...

It's years since I last read _The Getting of Wisdom;_ I was probably still an undergraduate or perhaps at school.

Since then there's been the 1978 Bruce Beresford film, which is excellent (and strongly recommended). In fact we recently bought it on DVD and saw it again only a year or so ago. It'll be interesting to see how closely it adhered to the novel.

John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Peter. I saw the film when it was a new release, but that as you indicate is now thirty-five years ago. (Gulp.) Some scenes in it - the public denunciation of the girl who steals, the final scene in which the newly liberated Laura casts off her hat and runs through the park - still remain in my mind. I suspect it is quite faithful to the book, but I would need to see it again to respond more confidently.


Peter Clayton said...

I’ve now finished re-reading The Getting of Wisdom, for the first time in many years. I think it still stands up well as an insightful picture of the troubles of adolescence.

As you’ll have noticed from my previous post, I was particularly interested to see how that Bruce Beresford movie version differed from the original. Of course, much detail had to be omitted. However, two changes stand out: first, in the movie the compelling scene of expulsion from the school involves Chinky whereas in the book it takes place earlier and involves another girl. Chinky’s subsequent expulsion is dismissed in less than a page, in the context of Laura’s misery following her elaborate lies concerning Mr Shepherd. This concision of these two events into one works well in the film.

Secondly, and more importantly, the two endings differ substantially. In the book Laura completes her final exams – how well, we are never told – and simply leaves the College. Perhaps a mild let down, this does at least mirror likely reality.

In the film, Laura triumphs with her pianism. This provides an uplifting end to the story, perhaps appropriate for a film, but violates Richardson’s schema. In particular, it undercuts the irony of the title, as Laura has learnt ‘the longer she was at school, the more insistently the truth was driven home to her, that the majority is always in the right.’ As John Kennedy rightly noted in his introduction, in the book Laura never becomes a heroine. In Beresford’s film she does.

John Kennedy said...

Many thanks for your posting, Peter. I have been trying to get hold of the film, so far without success. I was very interested in the differences between it and the book you noted.

I did think it was Chinky who was expelled in the film, in one of its most powerful scenes. I had forgotten about the piano triumph, though I do now recall a scene in which Laura, heading to Europe, departs in triumph form the school, farewelled by the teachers. I'd have to agree with you tnat while at one level this provides an 'uplifting' ending for the film, it is false to Richardson's intentions and the tenor of the novel.

John Kennedy said...

I have now had an opportunity to view the Beresford film of 'The Getting of Wisdom' on DVD. It is a fine film and beautifully evokes much of what Richardson describes. But I think Peter Clayton is indeed right in suggesting that Laura's triumphs towards the end of the film, which see her winning a prestigious scholarship for overseas piano study and leaving the school amidst the well-wishes of staff and students, make it ultimately a very different work from Richardson's novel. It is far less ironic, more 'feel good', and perhaps even sentimental, something Richardson's book never is. (One notes that Beresford felt the need to introduce a kindly if ineffectual deputy headmistress to soften the harshness of the school environment. The scene near the end in which the snobbish and normally unbending Mrs Gurley takes tea with Laura's mother and confides in her as clearly 'one of us' jars for someone who has encourntered Richardson's more bracing and convincing portrayal.)

Faye said...

Dear John,
Thank you for this post - I have just finished re-reading 'Wisdom" and had some surprises throughout. I hadnt remembered just how "black" it was at times. As mentioned the film probably served to blur that feeling somewhat.
I found it a strong story of an adolescent ; very well imagined with brilliant and lively scenes all through. Laura is not a particularly sympathetic character as you and Peter show however I had some soft spots for her re her headlong way of trying to solve her problems - sometimes comically , sometimes tragically. Laura's embellishing story- telling had some amazing consequences for her. I remember my heart was in my mouth re the outcome of the lies she wove and wove around the Clergyman and his family .

Terrific scenes also abounded re Laura's outfits and her wish to be accepted vs her mothers desire to have her dressed "differently" - I think that was particularly true to life and a perfect adolescent girls lament. In fact the more I think about it - the book was full of remarkable scenes and sub characters who served the purpose of highlighting Lauras difficulties for the most part . I had better go and have another look at Beresford's film too to see what he has captured of this spirited character .

Thanks for a terrific intro and a great incentive to read.


John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Faye. I think you are right that we as readers feel empathy with Laura, though she is far from an entirely loveable character. Perhaps it is partly that her foibles are very human and very understandable, partly that she is so much 'on her own', and partly that those who criticism and condemn her are a good deal less attractive than she.

If you do manage to see the film I would be interest in your response to it vis-a-vis the book.