The Getting of Wisdom

The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson (one of the pantheon of female authors who took a male name to publish during that period of literary enlightenment known as the olden days) is one of those novels that I have heard mentioned here and there, but given my general allergy to Australian classics, I have not pursued it before now. But more recently, as I’ve been looking with greater interest at the history of women writers (or as I say on Pinterest, Lady Novelists) I became intrigued by Richardson.

I then realised that the movie I thought I had watched as a kid based on this book was actually My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin. Whoops! I am WAY better on the history of feminist science fiction novelists, I promise.

Anyway, in my research I saw reference to the fact that The Getting of Wisdom, as well as having that dreadful Australian Classic label, was a boarding school story. And I LOVE boarding school stories with a fiery passion. Apparently there were queer themes too, and there I was, ordering the book from the library like a boss.

Possibly it’s time to start reassessing what the ‘Australian Classic’ title means to me, or maybe it’s the benefit of reading as an adult rather than a child, but where has this book been all my life? Why was it not given to me with a ‘you’ve read Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, What Katy Did and the Little House on the Prairie books, plus all the Enid Blyton boarding school stories, and this is basically a cranky bitch version of all those books, set in Melbourne.’

Why do people not point twelve year olds towards the cranky bitch at boarding school books?

Laura is a great character, largely because she is flawed and opinionated and struggling, but there isn’t especially a moral message in the story – the wisdom she gains is more about how to figure life out and not make an arse of yourself in public, rather than becoming humble and prudent and KatyDidlike after Learning a Great Lesson. More than anything it reminds me of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, certainly in the portrayal of Laura as a cross, unsettled young girl. I was also reminded of Colleen McCullough’s portrayal of the young Servilia – it’s so rare to find young female characters in fiction who are angry, and selfish, as still allowed to be the protagonist.

Laura’s trials and tribulations make an interesting counter-narrative to the jolly hockeysticks type of boarding school story I am more used to. It’s the social details that made the story so compelling to me, and the various lively characters, detailed with such humour and sharpness. For the most part, the story is full of women, such a wide variety of women and young girls, with only a few rather hapless males trailing in and out when necessary. I found Laura’s attempts at friendship, romance and academic success quite fascinating in that the raw awkwardness of simply not knowing how the world works is so familiar from when I was young – so many heroines of YA fiction these days are dazzlingly confident in themselves, which makes them cool role models and great fun to read, but The Getting of Wisdom does a great job of conveying the angst and terror of saying the wrong thing or looking stupid in public, which I think is something that has largely fallen out of fashion in contemporary teen fiction.

I will be interested to read more of Henry Handel Richardson’s work, as her humour and social detail makes even an uneventful dinner party race along entertainingly, and her tone reminds me a lot of John Galsworthy, one of my favourite writers of all time. Like Soames Forsyte, Laura is an unpleasant creature, but so wittily told that I can’t help but want things to turn out well for her.

Reviewed as part of the Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge

Tansy’s Australian Women Writer’s 2012 Reading Challenge.
1. Eona by Alison Goodman (fantasy)
2. Cooking the Books by Kerry Greenwood (contemporary crime)

3. Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti (spec fic, superhero, short story collection)

4. The Opposite of Life, by Narrelle Harris (horror, vampire, comedy)
5. Madigan Mine, by Kirstyn McDermott (horror, contemporary)
Opposite of Life & Madigan Mine reviewed at Galactic Suburbia podcast episode 55
6. Angel Arias, by Marianne De Pierres (YA fantasy, vampire, slightly science fictional)
7. The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardon (AUSTRALIAN CLASSIC, literature, boarding school story)

7 replies on “The Getting of Wisdom”

  1. Kate C says:

    I really need to read this again. Especially since the school is question is my alma mater!

  2. Grant Watson says:

    The “cranky Australian bitch at boarding school” is something of a niche genre.

  3. tansyrr says:

    Kate: That’s so cool! No one has written any novels about schools I’ve been to… I think

    Grant: I am ALL ABOUT niche genre! I want the cranky Australian bitch at boarding school anthology.

  4. For those that are getting interested, like me, it’s available in Project Gutenburg over here:

  5. Penni says:

    Oh yeah, I love this book, I think I will read it again too. Cranky Australian bitch at boarding school…what’s not to love?

  6. tansyrr says:

    That’s excellent, Björn! I hadn’t thought about it being out of print – good news for overseas readers, as Australians will find it in any library but I don’t know how well Richardson is known overseas.

    Penni: have you read any of her other books?

  7. Margaret Lynette Sharp says:

    An engaging review of a very significant volume that brings to life the issues confronting girls and young women of that era.

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