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Richardson, Ethel Florence (Henry Handel) (1870–1946)

by Dorothy Green

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Ethel Richardson, by Rupert Bunny, 1920s

Ethel Richardson, by Rupert Bunny, 1920s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an8136809

Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson (Henry Handel) (1870-1946), novelist and short story writer, was born on 3 January 1870 at 139 (later renumbered 179) Victoria Parade, Fitzroy, Melbourne, elder daughter of Walter Lindesay Richardson (c.1826-1879), M.D., and his wife Mary, née Bailey. They had migrated to the goldfields in the early 1850s. Ethel was born fifteen years after their marriage, her sister Ada Lilian Sydney in April 1871. Their father was the youngest child of the second marriage of Colonel Alexander Richardson, of Dublin, who claimed descent from the earls of Lindsay. Ethel laid great stress on her Irish origins and often said she was Australian by accident.

Both sides of her family were wanderers. Of the eleven Bailey children, five migrated to Australia before or during the gold rushes. So did a number of Walter's relatives. Family letters are full of references to names known in Australian history: (Sir) Henry Cuthbert, Walter's friend and solicitor; Alexander Cheyne of Hobart; Alexander Brooke Smith, Walter's close friend, who played a comic part in the demise of the Kelly gang. Mary's uncle Joshua Turnham was assistant-superintendent at Pentridge Gaol. Her elder brother, John Bailey, was well-known in journalism, radical politics and commercial life in Ballarat and Melbourne.

Walter Richardson became a respected obstetrician at Ballarat, helped to found its hospital and was a prominent Freemason. In Melbourne he and his wife were active members of the new Spiritualist movement sweeping America, Europe and Australia and in 1869 Walter became first president of the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists, a body noted for its innovative ideas on politics, health and social progress. He was also a member of the Senate of the University of Melbourne and a prominent campaigner for a clean water-supply for the city. Walter took a keen interest in mining and the share market, as did his wife. He visited England in 1868, tried practice in Yorkshire, returned to Melbourne to find himself rich and led the life of a gentleman for three or four years. He took his family abroad in 1873-74; lost money during a slump in shares; set up practice again in Melbourne, then Chiltern, where a mining boom was expected; and, in failing health, finally became a quarantine health officer at Queenscliff. Here he broke down, entered a private asylum, then was committed to the Yarra Bend asylum, where he was diagnosed as suffering from general paralysis of the insane (incipient), eventually recognized as a late manifestation of syphilis. His wife had been appointed postmistress at Koroit, and, released into her care in February 1879, he died on 1 August and was buried at Koroit. Recent medical research into degenerative diseases suggests that the Yarra Bend diagnosis of Walter Richardson's dementia, always incapable of proof, is now even more an open question. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Ethel described 'Richard Mahony' as suffering from what she believed to be G.P.I., and that she knew it to be a tertiary stage of syphilis.

Walter Richardson had actively participated in the life of the colony: his daughter's masterpiece, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, has been too often taken to be a faithful account of the life of her father as a victim of personality defects, instead of a brain infection. We also need to remember that Ethel Richardson spent more than fifty-eight years of her life as an expatriate, about fifteen in Germany where she was happy, the rest in England where she never felt 'at home'. As her husband remarked, in drawing Richard Mahony's portrait she was really drawing her own.

She declared once that a writer usually had all his material by the age of 10. The horrifying circumstances of Walter's illness and death, the permanent sense of insecurity inflicted on Ethel, marked her personality and her work. She had other problems: an uneasy relationship with her mother, and above all a large port-wine birth-mark stretching from her right shoulder to her hand, which embarrassed her painfully, even when a handsome young woman. Her childhood was spent moving from one home to another; after marriage, she spent thirty years in one house. Her happiest home, she said, was at Maldon, where her mother worked as postmistress after leaving Koroit. In 1883 Ethel was sent to Presbyterian Ladies' College, Melbourne, where she was an excellent student, played first-rate tennis, and was outstanding in music, including composition. The lady superintendent advised Ethel's mother to allow her to take up a musical career instead of proceeding to university. During her last year at school, 1887, her mother was postmistress at Richmond, and Ethel became a day-girl, joined for a year by her sister. During her adolescence she had two disturbing emotional experiences: an infatuation for the Maldon curate John Stretch, and for an older school friend. Ethel made good use of both experiences in her school story The Getting of Wisdom (1910); but the 'factual' version in her autobiography Myself when Young (1948) is not reliable. Neither is her claim that she was refused entry to P.L.C. when she returned to Australia for the only time, in 1912, to check her memories of the settings for The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.

After leaving school Ethel spent a few months teaching music at a small suburban private school, a job she hated; reading romantic novels; writing gloomy entries in a diary; and reading (surreptitiously) her parents' love-letters, which frankly expressed their feelings for one another. In August 1888 Mrs Richardson took her girls to Europe, travelling first-class; Ethel could not, obviously, have abandoned Australia, as recent feminist writers have claimed, because of its philistinism. She was hardly equipped to do so, financially or intellectually. After visiting relations in England, the family moved to Leipzig, Germany, where Ethel enrolled at the Royal Conservatorium in April 1889 to study the piano, and her sister the violin. They were soon immersed in the musical and social life of the town, and Ethel in her growing romance with John George Robertson, a young Glasgow science graduate turned philologist studying at Leipzig University. Though her relationship with her sister was always close, Ethel resented her mother's preference for Lilian, and sibling rivalry occurs as a theme in her novels. Surviving accounts of the moves towards her engagement to Robertson suggest an unusual degree of anxiety about the outcome.

Between the engagement and the marriage in Dublin on 30 December 1895 Ethel graduated from the conservatorium with honours in all branches of her subject and at her Hauptprüfung on 25 March 1892 she received 'great and well-deserved applause' for her performance of the first movement of Beethoven's piano concerto in C major. Yet in her autobiography she says she did not complete the course. Leaving Robertson to finish his degree, the Richardsons briefly visited England, where a disgruntled Ethel dabbled in writing magazine articles and undertook a translation, using a German version, of Jens Peter Jacobsen's influential novel, Niels Lyhne, lent to her by her fiancé. This novel, she said, changed her life. Her translation, Siren Voices, was published in 1896, under her married name. She also published a translation of Björnson's The Fisher Lass and an article on Jacobsen, 'A Danish poet'—not entirely her own work. In 1896 the Robertsons lived for several months in Munich (where her mother died), then moved to Strasburg where her husband had been appointed a university lecturer; he was made professor in 1902. With the appearance of his History of German Literature, his long career as a famous scholar began; in 1903 he accepted a chair at the University of London, in German and later Scandinavian studies, and set the subjects on a firm foundation in Britain for the first time. The honours bestowed on him by the German, Swedish and Norwegian governments were deserved, and may have inspired his wife's unsuccessful hankering after the Nobel Prize. The Australian Literature Society gold medal for the best novel of 1929 was not much consolation.

The move to London suited Robertson better than his wife, though until World War I they spent much time in Germany. Lilian had married Otto Neustatter, a German eye-specialist, and had become an active suffragette during visits to England. Her son Walter Lindesay, who became a distinguished London forensic psychiatrist, lived with his aunt and uncle while a student; his mother, when she and her husband were separated during World War I, espoused 'new' education, met A. S. Neill and after the war helped him, with her husband, to set up a progressive school in Austria, then in England. An amicable divorce was arranged: Lilian married Neill and devoted the rest of her life to Summerhill School.

Walter's presence must have enlivened the Robertsons' scholarly household at 90 Regent's Park Road. Robertson's teaching and his intensive research, the extra work he undertook to keep up a large household and satisfy his wife's expensive tastes, especially for travel, left him little free time. The decision not to have children was probably hers; the possible explanation an unfounded fear of passing on whatever was the cause of her father's illness. It followed that she needed a 'saving occupation', and writing was the one, after music, for which she was most fitted, though she continued to compose songs. No man could have done more than Robertson to ensure that she was free to devote herself to her writing, not only in a material, but in every other sense. It is not too much to suggest that he began her real education. His knowledge of literature, music and the arts was immense; traces of his literary criticism and of his lectures on Wagner can be seen in Richardson's novels, especially on the central imagery of the trilogy. From him she also learned habits of work, though the routine described with solemn reverence by some of her admirers and the 'monastic' dedication need qualification. The daily hours spent at the writing-table were in fact few; she walked, played tennis and swam and took frequent holidays well into her sixties. She was a member of the London Society for Psychical Research, the London Spiritualist Alliance and the International Society for Psychical Research, and attended regular meetings at the National Laboratory for Psychical Research at London University.

She loved the cinema, belonged to a private film-club which enabled her to see films proscribed in England and had contacts which supplied her with banned books. Her curiosity about the variety of human experience was one of her most marked characteristics and her knowledge of Freud's writings dated back to early days in Germany. Her diaries from 1887 to 1946 suggest an immensely depressive temperament, tormented by ennui. As she said herself: 'a death/weariness of things in general … sometimes takes possession of me', but 'it goes hand in hand with a vigorous hold on existence and with the unyielding toughness of the born fighter'. This is largely true, and a sense of humour helped her to keep a sense of proportion, but it is also true that throughout her life she was never independent. She had first her mother to lean on, then her husband, and after his death Olga Roncoroni, whom the Robertsons befriended in 1919, when Olga was 26 and Ethel 49.

Olga, in need of treatment for a psychosomatic illness which she fought bravely through her long life, came to live with the Robertsons in 1921. Until Robertson's death in 1933, Olga taught Dalcroze Eurhythmics at a London school. She was pretty, vivacious, highly intelligent, wrote manuals about her work and was above all a competent musician. Her sense of fun appealed to Ethel's lighter side, and although life in the novelist's household was not easy, she agreed to a death-bed request by Robertson 'to look after Henry' when he had gone. Speculation has marred discussion of this friendship, founded on the premiss that Ethel's literary interest in homosexual relationships indicated 'deviant' sexuality. There is no evidence to support this view; even less to support the view that Olga was 'deviant'. But if 'deviance' could be demonstrated, one would have to explain why Ethel's two masterpieces Maurice Guest and The Fortunes deal centrally with two staunch heterosexual relationships. There is no doubt of her early happiness with her husband, documented to more than twenty years of marriage; no doubt that she was 'devastated' after his death; no doubt that they were intellectually compatible for the whole of their marriage. After Robertson's death (of cancer) she continued obsessively at the ouija-board or seances to attempt to get in touch with him and re-establish what she insisted was permanent contact. She discussed her writing with him and told him her problems or played to him, and thereby continued the dependence of nearly forty years. She read to him her unfinished novel 'Nick and Sanny' which helped to arouse the 'deviance' speculation. It was thought to have a 'deviant' friendship as its theme, an assumed reason for its destruction after her death. However, her notes indicate that the theme was the breaking up of her sister's marriage to Otto, the initial happiness, the separation by war, the gradual growing apart.

In 1934 Ethel, with Olga, had moved to Fairlight, near Hastings, and remained there all through the bombing raids of the Hitler war. Olga's own health was bad, and her care of her friend was heroic. After years of physical and financial trials, Ethel died on 20 March 1946 of cancer. She was cremated at a dismal funeral service in London and her ashes were scattered out to sea off Hastings with her husband's. In 1957 her house in London acquired a blue memorial plaque, but the building was later demolished. The Victorian Fellowship of Australian Writers saved her birthplace from demolition and the Victorian National Trust restored Lake View, Chiltern. Among its relics is the ouija-board! Two portraits by Rupert Bunny are in the National Library of Australia.

Ethel's use of a pen-name, adopted for mixed motives, probably militated against recognition especially when feminist literary history began. Maurice Guest was highly praised in Germany when it first appeared in translation in 1912, but received a bad press in England, though it influenced other novelists. The publishers bowdlerized the language for the second imprint. The trilogy suffered from the long intervals between its three volumes: Australia Felix (1917); The Way Home (1925) and Ultima Thule (1929). The last brought overnight fame and the three volumes were published as one in 1930. Her fame in England was short-lived; as late as 1977, when Virago Press republished The Getting of Wisdom, some London critics referred to the author as 'Mr Richardson'. Her short stories, The End of a Childhood (1934), and the novel, The Young Cosima (1939), had lukewarm receptions.

Henry Handel Richardson's place in Australian literature is important and secure. The Fortunes is an archetypal novel of the country, written about the great upsurge of nineteenth-century Western capitalism fuelled by the gold discoveries. With relentless objectivity it surveys all the main issues which were to define the direction of white Australian society from the 1850s onwards, within the domestic framework of a marriage. Powerfully symbolic in a realistic mode it is, as an English critic said in 1973, 'one of the great inexorable books of the world'.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Green, Henry Handel Richardson and Her Fiction (Syd, 1986), and for bibliography.

Citation details

Dorothy Green, 'Richardson, Ethel Florence (Henry Handel) (1870–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/richardson-ethel-florence-henry-handel-8202/text14349, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Ethel Richardson, by Rupert Bunny, 1920s

Ethel Richardson, by Rupert Bunny, 1920s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an8136809

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Richardson, Henry Handel
  • Robertson, Ethel
Birth

3 January 1870
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Death

20 March 1946
Hastings, East Sussex, England

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation