Henry Handel Richardson was the pen name of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson (1870-1946), an expatriate Australian novelist. She based a series of novels on characters and incidents taken mainly from her life.
Born in Melbourne on Jan. 3, 1870, Ethel Richardson was the daughter of an Irish doctor who emigrated in the 1850s, living at first on the Victorian goldfields and later practicing in Melbourne. During a generally unhappy childhood she attended the Presbyterian Ladies' College, and after her father's death she taught briefly as a governess. At 17, she went abroad with her mother and sister; she studied music at Leipzig and in 1895 married a Scottish student, John G. Robertson, meanwhile studying the masters of the European novel.
Henry Handel Richardson began her literary career as a translator of Niels Lyhne by Danish novelist Jens Jacobsen; this was published as Siren Voices (1896). Jacobsen's style—"romanticism imbued with the scientific spirit, and essentially based on realism," in her view—profoundly influenced all her writing; imagery in character construction and meticulous realism in the detail of settings became her guideposts. Her first novel, Maurice Guest (1908), was autobiographical to the extent that the central character is an Australian girl studying music in Germany. The novel, somber and naturalistic, was coolly received, being stigmatized variously as dull, verbose, morbid, and erotic. However, because of its revealing attention to detail, it had a considerable influence among writers and was a forerunner of novels presenting amoral behavior dispassionately.
The Getting of Wisdom (1910) was an engaging study of school life; it won only limited praise. Nevertheless, proceeds from it made it possible for Henry Handel Richardson to visit Australia briefly in 1912 "to test memories" and to gather material for the first volume of the Fortunes of Richard Mahony trilogy.
Marking a major expansion in Henry Handel Richardson's creative range, Australia Felix (1917) re-creates the mental climate as well as the sights and sounds of the goldfields life. Richard Mahony is portrayed as an intellectual groping for the unknown through spiritualism (just as the author's father had done) but unable to find contentment. Irony supplies much of the tension. Mahony voices his displeasure with life in the colony, which seems to have brought curses rather than blessings; the end of the novel marks his departure for England full of expectations.
In The Way Home (1925) Mahony's temporary pleasure at being able to relive the familiar within a richly civilized society turns quickly to disillusionment when he and his colonial-born wife experience its provincial narrowness. In Europe he learns of financial losses, which make it necessary for him to return to Australia. Back in Melbourne, he finds his fortune restored; now he can build the mansion he has dreamed of so long—to be named Ultima Thule— but here his mental and physical deterioration begins.
In the final volume, Ultima Thule (1929), the author overlays her own psychological interpretations on the facts of her father's life and suggests that the emptiness and barrenness of the setting in which the fictional Mahony finds himself are powerful causes of his final mental disintegration. The trilogy has been described as an unusually thorough analysis of the "geographic disorientation" that sensitive immigrants suffered.
With the success of the Richard Mahony trilogy, the author's identity, previously concealed, was revealed. Her earlier novels were reprinted and reassessed. Her final work, The Young Cosima (1939), reconstructs the life of Franz Liszt's illegitimate daughter, Cosima. Fictionalizing the turbulent and massive influence of the life of Richard Wagner (whom Cosima married in 1870, after having left Hans von Bülow in 1865), this documentary novel is richly redolent with fact in its re-creation of the atmosphere of the period and its portraits of the great musicians.
In 1939 Henry Handel Richardson began writing her autobiography to 1903; she died before completing it, and it ends in 1895. It was published in 1948 as Myself when Young. She died at Hastings, Sussex, on March 20, 1946.
A comprehensive exposition, accompanied by some personal recollections and correspondence, is given in Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson: A Study (1950). An interesting review of Henry Handel Richardson's method is contained in Leonie J. Gibson, Henry Handel Richardson and Some of Her Sources (1954). Her writing style, as well as literary influences, is discussed in H. M. Green, A History of Australian Literature (2 vols., 1961). A telling analysis of the novels, with special attention to her aim of "scientific realism" in writing, is given by Leonie Kramer in Geoffrey Dutton, ed., The Literature of Australia (1964).
Buckley, Vincent, Henry Handel Richardson, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.
Clark, Axel, Henry Handel Richardson: fiction in the making, Brookvale, NSW: Simon & Schuster Australia: St. Peters, NSW: New Endeavour Press, 1990.
Green, Dorothy, Henry Handel Richardson and her fiction, Sydney; Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1986.