Reprint: A Genius: Henry Handel Richardson by "I. L."

| 1 Comment | No TrackBacks

London cables of this week seem to indicate that a great Australian writer, long neglected in her own country, may at length come to be regarded here at her true value. In no Australian authors' week has her praise been sung; only a handful of us have read her books; it is safe to say that nine out of ten reading Australians have not till now even heard her name. But, just an a comparatively neglected English writer has leapt into the ranks of the best sellers as the result of recent praise by Mr. Baldwin, so, let us hope, our fellow countrywoman may be made an Australian best seller by the cabled praise of the English critics. Not that English critics now praise her for the first time, but that this is the first occasion on which reverberations have reached this side of the world, through so popular a medium as the daily Press. The cables repeat tributes to her last book, "Ultima Thule," which must gladden those who have read and recommended and urged the recognition of her earlier work.

The "Observer" critic, Gerald Gould, says, "If our age has produced a masterpiece at all this is a masterpiece. It is a work of genius, strong and triumphant." Sylvia Lynd, herself a writer of great merit, says: "I have come on nothing like this in years of book reviewing." The cabled news, as published in a daily paper, continues. "Ultima Thule" is the last volume of a trilogy, of which the first two volumes were "Maurice Guest," and "The Ordeal of Richardson Compton." This last is quite erroneous. "Ultima Thule" does complete a trilogy, of which the general title is "The Fortunes of Richard Mahony." The first volume was published in 1917, and bears the subtitle, "Australia Felix." The second appeared in 1925, and is called "The Way Home." The first volume is concerned with life on the Ballarat gold diggings in the eighteen-fifties, the second with life in Melbourne and in England during the 'sixties and 'seventies. "Ultima Thule" she had hoped to publish early last year - - it has been delayed till the beginning of this. "Maurice Guest" is the title of one of her books -- the other title cabled must be due to mutilation of messages.


Her first book, "The Getting of Wisdom," also referred to in the cables, is a story of school life in Melbourne, and was published in London in 1908. Of this book, Gerald Gould, the critic of the "Observer" says in his book, "The English Novel of To-day": "The best of all contemporary school stories, is, I think, "The Getting of Wisdom," by Henry Handel Richardson, a woman."

In 1912 she published "Maurice Guest," a story of musical students in Leipzig. Gould says of it in the same volume that it is "a book unique in kind and yet of great influence. Nobody ever has succeeded, and nobody ever will succeed, in writing another book at all like it, and I do not know that it ever attained much general fame, but it has been widely read among writers, and the patient thoroughness of its technique has cer-tainly served for an example and a standard. The most striking thing about it is its combination of traditional objectivity in treatment -- what one may call its old masterlines, with modernity of theme." And there have been other writers and critics who have given similar testimony. In 1925 "Maurice Guest" was re-issued, with a preface by Hugh Wal-pole, who says of it: "This memorable novel is one of those few whose influence has been persistently important and fruitful. With the certain exception of the works of Mr. E. M. Forster and the possible exception of Miss Dorothy Richardson's 'Miriam,' there has been no work by a modern English novelist that has so deeply and persistently influenced the writing of the younger generation. It is one of the most truthful novels that has ever [...] who are so alive that once you have met them they never leave you again."  

Continental reviewers have added their praise, and several years ago Carl Van Vechten, the American writer, declared: "Henry Handel Richardson is the one indubitable literary genius that Australia has produced."

To return to the trilogy, which to Australians is probably the most important, it may suffer temporarily from the fact that the first volume has long been out of print. Probably the only place where it can be read in Sydney is the Mitchell Library, where copies of all her books may be found. But, if Australians have any pride at all in the achievement of a fellow-Australian, surely there will go forth such a demand from Australia that Messrs Heinemann will be compelled to reprint that first volume, or better still, perhaps, to publish all three in one of those omnibus volumes that are becoming so popular. Australians have bought freely John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga. Can we not hope that they would also buy this Australian saga?


The writer of this article, who had long been interested in these books, determined, when visiting England in 1927, to find out, if possible the name and something of the history of Henry Handel Richardson, for, strange as it may seem, nothing was known beyond the fact that that name was a pen-name, that the writer was a woman, and that, from the evidence of her books, she must have lived in Victoria.

An introduction to Mr. C. S. Evans, the manager of Heinemann's, resulted in a pro-mise to forward a letter to her. He could not tell her name, he said -- she had asked her publishers not to disclose it. All that was learned was that she is the wife of a very well-known man. The letter was duly written and forwarded, and a very courteous reply was received, which led to a second letter and second reply. But still she did not tell her name, although she told sufficient about it and her early life in Victoria to make it possible, perhaps, to identify her if one had cared to pursue the matter. But the only thing to do then seemed to be to respect her wish. She said that she was born in Melbourne, went to school there, and left at about the age of eighteen to study music at the Leipzig Conservatorium, as at that time it was a matter of uncertainty whether she would not take up music as a profession.  

She has been back to Australia only on occasional visits, but adds that she still looks upon herself as an Australian, and that it is consequently very gratifying to her to read that the writer had said to her of the two volumes of the Fortunes of Richard Mahony and to know that they are appreciated in her native country. She says further: "But I should like to ask you and other Australian readers to remember that the tone of these works, and the moods they reflect, are not my own personal views and feelings, but those of the early settlors and colonists who still lived, as it were, with a foot in each country, the old and the new." I said earlier that she did not tell her name-this is hardly correct, as she did say that Richardson is her maiden name-it is her present name and identity, only that she evidently wishes to withhold. She also said that she hoped her publishers would reissue the first volume of Richard Mahony when the third one appeared, and this hope we in Australia may, if we will, help to make fruitful.

We have neglected her work in the past. Whether booksellers or public are to blame, or both, it is unprofitable now to discuss, but each must help the other if the reproach is to be removed. A writer in the "Bulletin" several months ago, in a fine notice of Maurice Guest, said that it would probably depend on the reception here of her forthcoming book whether she continued to write of her native land. Happily that is not so -- the fact that she steadfastly refuses to reveal her identity shows that she writes not for recogniton, but because she must. To her and to her ultimate reputation our present appreciation or indifference may matter little - it is we who are on trial, not she. But the attitude of Australians to this gifted child of Australia may mean a great deal in the encouragement or discouragement of young Australian writers here for whose future she expressed great hope. 

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 February 1929

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

Note: one line in this article was duplicated in the version that appeared in the original paper.  I have removed it and replaced it with "[...]".

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL:

1 Comment

Hi Perry

The Governor-General of Australia has donated an inscribed copy of The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney for The Great Celebrity Book Auction, a unique project where well-known people have donated books that are important to them to raise money for literacy at Kyilla Primary School in North Perth, WA.

Her inscription reads -

"I loved every paragraph of this book which I read when I was 14 at my boarding school of country girls in Queensland in the 50’s. It opened up to me the great Australian literature of the 19th century teaching me about my country, our history and perhaps a little of myself. These papers are filled with unforgettable characters and simply marvelous writing.” Quentin Bryce, Yarralumla 15.12.2010.

You can bid on her book at - auction closes on 20 March 2011.

Many thanks!
Cherie Hardingham-Braid
Coordinator, The Great Celebrity Book Auction

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on March 4, 2011 7:14 AM.

Australian Books to Film #56 - The Tree was the previous entry in this blog.

Poem: Bury the Bard by Henry Halloran is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Monthly Archives

Powered by Movable Type 4.23-en