Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Reading Journal: "The Getting of Wisdom"

Henry Handel Richardson [Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson], The Getting of Wisdom. First published in 1910. Reprinted by Virago Modern Classics in 1981. Note: the cover of the Virago edition features a still from the 1978 film version of the novel, directed by Bruce Beresford.

Twelve-year old Australian schoolgirl Laura Tweedle Rambotham is, in many ways, typical of a generation of fictional girls who came of age in the years between the end of the American Civil War and the beginning of World War I. She is spirited, independent, passionate, rebellious, sensitive, and smart. A girl from the wild provinces, she moves uncertainly, often with disastrous missteps, among the tight-laced conventions of her girls' school in Melbourne. Her true sisters are Jo March (1868), Rebecca Randall (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, 1903), Anne Shirley (1908), and Judy Abbott (Daddy Long-Legs, 1912). In a brief episode that perhaps echoes a famous scene in Little Women, Laura cuts off a long lock of her beautiful hair in a gesture that she hopes will please her overworked mother. But things never go well for Laura. Unlike her fictional sisters, Laura is moody, obsessive, relentlessly mean to her younger sister, and ungracious to her mother. She's ashamed of her poor family. She clings to her friends with the precarious egotism of a child who lacks self-assurance. She is often highly unpleasant. She is, in other words, real.

Laura's problem—the perennial problem—is that the Victorian conventions of school repress and warp her best qualities—her imagination, her energy, her independence—as she attempts to fit in. Her glorious imagination, given no outlet in the dull traditional curriculum of the school, is misdirected into lying about her relationship with the local curate in a rash attempt to make herself interesting and popular. Her starved need for real affection, when cultivated by an attractive older girl, becomes a weedy obsession. We begin to dislike Laura, but we understand her and sympathize with her. We can perhaps remember what it was like when school was the entire world, and fitting in there meant everything. Perhaps we know what it's like to feel different from others, what it's like to deform our real natures in an attempt to be like everyone else. Laura doesn't realize that what she has inside, her true self, is valuable.

It's hard to read about an often sullen girl who's going through a prolonged "phase," but Richardson's novel is a wonderfully sensitive reminder of the complexities of early adolescent behavior. Laura is not willfully bad. Her intention is always to be a part of the community around her while somehow holding onto herself. Unfortunately, she doesn't fully understand herself. Her sullenness, her occasional meanness, her "acting out," are the signs of a bruised and sensitive ego attempting to assert itself, and not knowing quite how.
You might regulate your outward habit to the last button of what you were expected to wear; you might conceal the tiny flaws and shuffle over the big improprieties in your home life, which were likely to damage your value in the eyes of your companions; you might, in brief, march in the strictest order along the narrow road laid down for you by these young lawgivers, keeping perfect step and time with them: yet of what use were all your pains, if you could not marshal your thoughts and feelings—the very realest part of you—in rank and file as well?...if these persisted in escaping control?
That's the essence of Laura's struggle: she tries to make her inside—her "realest part"—conform with the conventions and expectations of the world around her. One of the most important things she has to learn is how to use her imagination, how to negotiate between the social world around her and the world of creativity and imagination welling up inside of her. She hasn't yet discovered what it means to be an artist, and so only succeeds at being a liar and a misfit.

In one episode in the novel, Laura, a voracious reader, surreptitiously borrows books from the headmaster's parlor and reads them while practicing the piano. She choses the books at random, and on one occasion, she takes Ibsen's A Doll's House from the shelf. She finds the realism odd and dull, and can't understand the tension in the play between keeping up appearances and expressing oneself, between being a plaything for others and being a real person for oneself. This is something Laura still has to learn.

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