Also writes as: Ethel F. L. Robertson
Born: Established: 3 Jan 1870 Melbourne ; Died: 20 Mar 1946 Sussex
'Henry Handel Richardson' was the pseudonym for Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson. She was born in Melbourne in 1870, the daughter of Walter and Mary Richardson who had migrated from England in the early 1850s. Her father's career as a doctor on the goldfields and her parents' interest in mining and the share market exposed her to the major social and economic developments of nineteenth century Australia, an experience that would inform her writing in later life. Richardson attended the Presbyterian Ladies' College, Melbourne, where she was an excellent student, particularly in music and composition.
Richardson's father died in 1879 and the family was supported by Mary Richardson's position as a postmistress. In 1888 they moved to Germany where Richardson enrolled at the Royal Conservatorium to study the piano. Here she met John George Robertson, a young Scottish philologist who was studying at Leipzig University. Richardson graduated from the conservatorium with honours in 1892. The couple were married in Dublin three years later before moving to Strasburg where Robertson had been appointed a university lecturer. This began his long distinguished career in German and Scandinavian studies, enhanced by his appointment in 1903 as Chair of German literature at the University of London. The couple's intellectual compatibility and Richardson's freedom from family and professional responsibilities greatly assisted her career as a writer.
Richardson's first publications were translations of Scandinavian works from the German, both published in the first years of her marriage. Her first novel Maurice Guest (1908), set in turn-of-the-century Leipzig, was published by Heinemann in London and Duffield in New York. These firms also supported her next novel, The Getting of Wisdom (1910) which drew on her experience at the Presbyterian Ladies' College, initiating a testy relationship with the institution that was never resolved.
By this time Richardson had begun work on a project that would eventually become the Richard Mahony trilogy, a series that drew on her family's experience of nineteenth century Australia. The first volume, Australia Felix (1917), was published in London and New York, but she failed to attract American attention with the second volume The Way Home which was published by Heinemann in 1925. The failure of the series influenced Heinemann's rejection of Ultima Thule, the final volume, but John Robertson's willingness to cover the costs of publication enabled a small one thousand copy edition to appear in January 1929. Positive reviews and rapid sales saw the novel reprinted several times in subsequent months, attracting the attention of Elling Aanestäd, a representative of the New York publisher, W. W. Norton. Norton's subsequent involvement secured the acceptance of the novel by the Book-of-the-Month Club as a featured book, guaranteeing the sale of at least eighty thousand copies. Norton reprinted the earlier volumes of the trilogy and also brought both Maurice Guest and the Getting of Wisdom back into print for Richardson's enthusiastic American audience. On the suggestion of a critic, Heinemann encouraged Richardson to revise the novel for publication in one volume. In doing so, she removed 12,000 words from Australia Felix and made thousands of changes to the other volumes. These new versions would provide the texts for the literary criticism that followed as Richardson was situated as a major figure in the history of Australian literature.
After the Mahony trilogy Richardson published The Young Cosima (on Richard Wagner and his circle) and The End of a Childhood (1934), a collection of stories and a brief addition to the Mahony story. Neither of these attracted the critical acclaim of the trilogy which was reprinted a number of times in subsequent decades. After her husband's death in 1933, she moved to Sussex with her secretary and companion Olga Roncoroni. She died in 1946 and her unfinished autobiography Myself When Young (1948) was published posthumously.
Nettie Palmer's article in The Australian Woman's Mirror, written after the publication of Ultima Thule in 1929, describes the novel as a 'work of genius'. Commenting on an article in a London paper entitled 'Melbourne Woman's Leap to Fame', Palmer points out the leap took twenty years.
Palmer notes that the first two novels in the trilogy are now hard to obtain, especially the first, Australia Felix, as it was published during the war, and expresses the hope that Heinemann will produce an omnibus of the trilogy.
The article contains a portrait photograph of Richardson.
Source: Palmer, Nettie, 'Henry Handel Richardson', The Australian Woman's Mirror, v. 5, no. 15, 5 March, 1929, pp. 11, 30