Fri. Nov 18th, 2022

Henry Handel Richardson spent most of her life in Europe, yet in the small Australian towns she briefly called home, she remains an icon.
Key points:

  • Henry Handel Richardson wrote The Getting of Wisdom (1910) and The Fortunes of Richard Mahony trilogy (1917-1929)
  • As a child, she moved between Melbourne, the UK, and the Victorian towns of Chiltern, Queenscliff, Koroit and Maldon
  • She spent most of her life in Europe, but her connection to Victoria is a drawcard for tourism

Considered one of Australia’s first celebrated female authors, Richardson left Australia soon after she graduated from the boarding school she later portrayed in The Getting of Wisdom.
She only came back once to visit her homeland, but on the 75th anniversary of her death, she continues to draw a following in the Victorian towns where she once lived.
Uprooted town to town
Born Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson in Melbourne in 1870, her childhood was a scattered tour of regional Victoria.
Her father, Walter Richardson, was a doctor who at times struggled financially, and the family moved frequently.
They lived for 18 months in Chiltern, north-east Victoria, when Ettie (as she was known) was six years old.
Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson had an unsettled childhood, moving from town to town.(Supplied
As her father’s mental and physical health failed, they moved to Queenscliff on the coast, before he was placed for a time in a mental institution.
Her mother then cared for him in Koroit in Victoria’s south-west, where she began working as a postmistress to support the family.
Walter Richardson died in 1879 and was buried in the Koroit cemetery.
Ettie moved with her mother and sister to Maldon, outside Bendigo, and later wrote that she spent the “happiest days” of her childhood there.
Maldon, under the fictional name Warrenega, is the home of Laura Tweedle Rambotham, protagonist of The Getting of Wisdom.
Like Ettie, Laura boarded at Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne.
Henry Handel Richardson initially pursued a career in music, before turning her hand to writing.(Supplied
The birth of HHR
Ettie’s classmates would probably not have imagined she would become a celebrated author.
She set out for a career in music, moving with her family to Germany to study in Leipzig.
She took up writing after getting married, and adopted a male pen name.
“Her books were reviewed by other writers some of them actually believed that that particular person had done terribly well in understanding, for example, how a girls’ school worked in The Getting of Wisdom, assuming the writer was a male,” said Clive Probyn, Richardson’s literary executor and emeritus professor of literary studies at Monash University.
Richardson was a very disciplined writer, working every day.
“She put everything into it she was a completely serious writer,” Mr Probyn said.
“She was very, very highly educated. She was multilingual she could read in most European languages and that’s unusual.”
The third book of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony trilogy earned her an Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 1929.
Later winners include Patrick White, Elizabeth Jolley, Alexis Wright, and David Malouf.
Richardson died in England in 1946.
Henry Handel Richardson’s mother worked at the Maldon Post Office.(Supplied
Maldon: The town she loved best
Richardson’s best-known work is probably The Getting of Wisdom, which has featured on school reading lists.
Helen McBurney studied the coming-of-age novel at school, and when she moved to Maldon in 2002, she noticed a plaque in the writer’s honour on the local post office.
“That intrigued me, and the more I found out about people in the town and buildings in the town, the more obvious it became that a lot of her writing was semi-autobiographical.”
Ms McBurney co-authored a history and tourism book, Henry Handel Richardson in Maldon, identifying local sites connected to the author.
Many of the places described in Laura Rambotham’s coach ride to boarding school in The Getting of Wisdom are still standing.
“The post office is very much as it was in the Richardson era, so you still enter by the same door, and the same counter is in use,” Ms McBurney said.
Lake View House, the Richardson family home in the 1870s, is open to the public.(Supplied
Chiltern: Home of Richardson fandom
In Chiltern, you can visit one of the former Richardson homes, Lake View House, where the family briefly lived in the 1870s.
Almost a century later it was taken over by the National Trust.
Heather Payne has been volunteering there for three years, giving tours to visitors.
“I think as you get a little bit older, you tend to realise that somebody has to look after the history in the town,” she said.
Chiltern is featured in the third book of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, under the fictional name Barambogie.
An HHR fanclub, the Henry Handel Richardson society, was founded in Chiltern and has well-known Australian director Bruce Beresford (The Getting of Wisdom, 1977) as patron.
It is in Chiltern that HHR’s birthday is celebrated every year, and Ms Payne said “there would be an uproar” in the town if Lake View were to close.
“I think most people care about keeping up what we already have so in this respect the history is part of who we are.”