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Henry Handel Richardson's Years in Wilhelmine Germany: The "most cultured land in Europe"? Michael Ackland Monash University HENRY HANDEL RICHARDSON'S moment of literary fame was as brief as it was unexpected. It came in 1929 with the publication of Ultima Thule, the final volume in her trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. The reception of the earlier parts, Australia Felix (1917) and The Way Home (1925), had been lukewarm, whereas Ultima Thule was immediately acclaimed. It became an international bestseller and encouraged her supporters to propose the expatriate Australian as a candidate for the Noble Prize for Literature. The failure of her next novel, The Young Cosima (1939), together with declining health and wartime hostilities, saw her disappear from public attention. Richardson was chagrined to see her works gradually drop out of print, though hardly surprised. Before Ultima Thule her novels had enjoyed renown primarily among the cognoscenti, and she knew that they accorded ill with prevailing tastes. The England she had moved to permanently in 1903 was in the thrall of literary lions such as Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett—writers who explored and commented on the social dilemmas of the day. Richardson focused instead on timeless issues; her novels were hard and unrelenting, their models disconcertingly Continental. "I am of the opinion," she remarked, "that no people reads or knows less of what is being done in other literatures than the English. Water divides them in this as well."1 Similarly, she felt the psychological makeup of her protagonists was alienating, even when an eponymous hero, such as Maurice Guest, had been born and bred in Glasgow: "Maurice, with his Russian leanings & behaviour, is the kind of man the inhabitants of this country, given over as they are to boxing-exhibitions , football, horse-racing & betting, long merely to 'kick down147 ELT 48 : 2 2005 stairs.'"2 But she was understandably reluctant to disclose that this same commitment to Continental, and specifically German, culture, which galvanised her writing, also constituted a problematic legacy, and at times a personal burden, with which she grappled throughout her adult life. Richardson's exposure to Germany was long and formative, but it ended in loathing for the country and its people. Her first recorded encounter with its literature was a book for young readers, Max and Theckla, based presumably on Schiller's Wallenstein, and at the Presbyterian Ladies' College (PLC) in Melbourne she was introduced to the intellectual inheritance of Goethe and his most famous English acolyte, Thomas Carlyle. Then followed more than a decade on the Continent, punctuated by three bleak years in England, as she sought a focus for her life and creative aspirations. Prior to resettling in England in 1903, her immersion in German language and letters had been so thorough that she had to write admonishing notes to herself to read books in English . Moreover, with her sister married in Munich and her own husband a noted Germanist, or specialist in German language and literature, contact continued with Germany. And Goethe, whether in the resonant lines οι Faust or the ripe wisdom of his Conversations with Eckermann, remained a firm favourite and bedside companion. Yet late in 1939 Richardson signalled unambiguously her disenchantment with the land which had once meant so much to her: I can't help wishing you knew the Germans better than you do. I think you would alter your opinion of them quite a bit. And I can speak from knowledge, for I lived among them for over eleven years, in the North, the South & the West. The result is a somewhat cynical smile on my part when I read or hear said that they, of all foreign nations, are likest ourselves. There's no truth in it. Of British ideas of honour & honesty, even of plain everyday decency, they haven't an inkling; & there is a streak of brutality in even the best of them__ It was Goethe who said of his own people that, while valuable as individuals, as a nation they were hopeless.3 Her shifting attitudes, however, have never been charted in detail, presumably because German militarism and the rise of National Socialism seemed to afford a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 147-163
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Will Be Archived 2021
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