When Sinclair Lewis said in 1941 that The Fortunes of Richard Mahony was “a truly major work of fiction of the twentieth century,” he was giving belated recognition to one of the most neglected novelists of modern times. Henry Handel Richardson was the pseudonym of Ethel Florence Lindesay Robertson (also known as Henrietta Richardson), born in Melbourne, Australia, on January 3, 1870. When Richardson was four, her father, a successful doctor and investor, lost most of his money and fell gravely ill; he died five years later. These events, which traumatized the young Richardson, would later supply material for her novels.
After her education in Melbourne, she went to Germany, where she studied to become a concert pianist. In 1895 she married J. G. Robertson, who in 1903 became professor of German literature at the University of London; Robertson’s intellectual and moral support helped Richardson to overcome the difficulties inevitably besetting a female novelist in the late nineteenth century. Turning from music to literature, she published at widely separated intervals the novels that have caused her to be hailed since her death as among the most distinguished of Australian novelists.
An uncompromising realist, she made the facts of her family the facts of her fiction. Her first novel, Maurice Guest, is the story of a musician who suffers ostracism for living like a genius when he was not one; this is probably the most imaginative of her books. The Getting of Wisdom partly reflects the writer’s schooldays and the experiences that may cause a sensitive young girl to become a writer. Then came the novels that make up The Fortunes of Richard Mahony: Australia Felix, The Way Home, and Ultima Thule. The trilogy traces the career of a man who goes to Australia to find success, fails, and returns home to renew his former position. Rejected in his earlier associations and surroundings, he disintegrates spiritually and dies; the work is based on the life of the writer’s father. Critical recognition and some measure of popular success came with the last novel of the series.
In 1934 Richardson published The End of a Childhood, a sequel to her second novel. Her final work of fiction was The Young Cosima, a biographical novel dealing with twelve years in the life of the daughter of Franz Liszt. She died at her home in Sussex on March 20, 1946. Her unfinished autobiography, Myself When Young, appeared posthumously. Her novels are notable for their combination of the nineteenth century emphasis on realism and individual development with the new subject matter of female emancipation; her works have also been praised for their depictions of Australia, which–despite the author’s admiration for European (especially German) culture–remained at the heart of Richardson’s thematic concerns.