Henry Handel Richardson

Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson (1870-1946), better known as 'Henry Handel Richardson' (a family name), novelist, short story writer and musician, was born in Fitzroy, Melbourne, on 3 January, 1870, fifteen years after the marriage of her parents, Mary (born Bailey), from Leicester, and Walter Lindesay Richardson, of Dublin. They settled in Ballarat in 1855, where her father (an Edinburgh MD) practised medicine. He later made a modest fortune in mining shares, lost most of it in a slump, and died of a distressing brain infection in 1879 - a tragedy which cast a shadow over his elder daughter's life.

HHR was educated first at home, then at Presbyterian Ladies' College, Melbourne. She distinguished herself at school, especially in music, which she taught for a while after matriculating. Her mother, who had been working as a postmistress, sold some property, took the girls to Europe and enrolled them in 1889 at the Royal Conservatorium at Leipzig, HHR to study piano, Lilian the violin. HHR graduated in 1892 with honours. At Leipzig she met her future husband, John George Robertson, a Glasgow science graduate turned philologist, destined to become one of the most distinguished scholars of the day. Though he played no instrument, he had a vast knowledge of music as well as of European literatures, and it was he who began HHR's real education.

They married in 1895, lived for a while in Munich, and then in Strassburg, where Robertson lectured at the university. In 1903 he was appointed Professor of German at Bedford College, University of London. His wife had already begun, first to translate then to write novels and, immersed in teaching and research, he encouraged her.

During her childhood she had had seven homes before she was ten; after 1903 she lived in the same house until Robertson's death in 1933. The quiet, scholarly routine of the house was enlivened by the presence of her sister's son, first as schoolboy, then as university student, and later by Olga Roncoroni, a remarkable woman and a fine pianist, whom the Robertsons had befriended in 1919. She fulfilled a deathbed promise to Robertson to 'look after Henry' - at some cost to herself. In 1934 the two women moved to Fairlight, near Hastings. There during the war ignoring the bombs, HHR worked on her not always reliable autobiography. She died of cancer on 20 March 1946.

HHR was a complex, enigmatic character, and an unassimilated migrant for most of her life, well equipped to write a novel on the subject. The first world war cut her off from Germany, which she had enjoyed; she hated the English climate, disliked the people and the commercial atmosphere; she was ambivalent about Australia, insisting that she was really Irish. She seems to have missed the Australian landscape, if not the people. Her diaries reveal a difficult, depressive temperament, but she had a strong sense of humour and hated pretentiousness. She tired of people easily, was shy and made few intimate friends. She had a close relationship with her sister, though at times she was jealous. Lilian was a militant suffragette and HHR an active sympathiser. At the age of 56 Lilian divorced, amicably, her first husband, Otto Neustatter, and married the progressive educationist A. S. Neill, whose school, Summerhill, she had helped set up. Neill shared HHR's interest in the occult. HHR belonged to three psychical research societies and claimed she was in constant touch with her husband after his death. Her other passions were for cats and dogs, tennis and swimming, the cinema and long walks. She was embarrassed most of her life by a disfiguring birthmark, a portwine stain stretching down her right arm to the wrist. Hence the long sleeves and drooping cuffs in photographs.

She wrote two masterpieces: Maurice Guest (1908), a story of erotic obsessions set in Leipzig musical circles, and her trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, published in three parts, Australia Felix (1917), The Way Home (1925), and Ultima Thule (1929) which made her famous overnight. The books were published in one volume in 1930 and the novel was referred to in 1973 as still 'one of the great inexorable books of the world'. Against the background of the Victorian gold rushes, it dramatises the central moral conflict of burgeoning capitalism in a domestic setting: the story of a marriage becomes a great human parable.

The Getting of Wisdom (1910), an ironic portrait of a girls' school, her short stories The End of a Childhood (1934) and her last novel The Young Cosima (1939) all show immense psychological penetration. An unfinished novel Nick and Sanny, about London life in her own day, was destroyed after her death. Recently discovered notes reveal that it was concerned with the drifting apart of her sister and her first husband and not, as has been surmised, with a lesbian relationship. That HHR was interested as an observer in homosexuality is obvious from Maurice Guest, the short stories and The Young Cosima, but there is no evidence to suggest that she felt a deep and lasting emotion for anyone but her husband.

Dorothy Green

Dorothy Green Henry Handel Richardson and her Fiction 1986, rev. ed of Ulysses Bound 1973.