It has never been my way to say much about my private life.
Autobiographies are by their nature completely different beasts to biographies. In a biography, the researcher is keen to unearth the ‘real’ person, to dig deep into archives, letters, journals and other people’s memories. Mostly this is done respectfully to honour the subject’s life and work, but honesty is also the hallmark of a good biography. This often means addressing, or confronting, the version of the subject’s life that the subject preferred to put abroad.
Which brings me to autobiographies, or the stories about oneself that the subject wants to share. We all have a right to tell our own stories in whichever way we so chose. Most of us try to honour the facts and what really happened, but memories are subjective. We also naturally look for patterns and signs to ‘prove’ our version of what we like to believe about ourselves or to make sense of the way things ended up. The stories we tell tend to reflect our best idea of ourselves and they evolve over time.
Henry Handel Richardson in her (unfinished) autobiography, Myself When Young was a perfect example of someone carefully curating her life story into one she was happy to share publicly.
She led a very private life behind her pseudonym, resisting attempts by journalists to find out about her childhood in Australia. She was also determined that Nettie Palmer wouldn’t have a free reign on her biography after she died, if Nettie ever chose to write one. (Nettie was the obvious choice according to Brenda Niall in her Introduction of my edition, because of her standing as a leading Australian literary critic). HHR, however, did not want to be defined by her Australian-ness. She also thought that Nettie was humourless ‘Nettie Palmer! What on earth could she know of my younger self?‘
Sadly Henry was unable to complete her autobiography, dying on the 20th March 1946 of advanced colon cancer. The final chapter was written by her friend and confidante, Olga M. Roncoroni.
From her opening lines, HHR indicates her reluctance to share her private life with the wider world.
The tales told about her young life in Australia are light and breezy. She says things like ‘first to touch, very briefly, on my parents‘ and a few pages is all she then needs to fill us in, the only insight offered up to us being ‘when young we have small interest to spare for our parents’ lives.‘ Which is very true, of course, but she was writing this in her 70’s when she could have inserted some of the knowledge accrued throughout her lifetime.
She shares a few vague impressions and memories of her very early years, with the main reveal being her strong dislike of her birth name from the start. ‘Ethel was bad enough, but the Florence I sheerly detested…At home I answered to Et or Ettie.‘
She talks about her younger self as being ‘spoilt and querulous, and given to fits of temper.‘
Curiously, as I was rereading these chapters for this post, I found many early references to how she was ‘not in the least shy‘ and ‘had no aversion to “showing-off”.‘ I say curious, because later on, when she is in Germany studying music, it is the thought of all those eyes watching her that puts her off and is the reason given for abandoning her studies. I wonder if her time in Germany was one of those watershed moments when she realised that all the time, money and effort poured into her musical ability was not going to pay off. She was not as good as she (and her family) thought. It then may have become more convenient to blame it on shyness and anxiety?
Her time at school is described in all the humiliation we read about in The Getting of Wisdom, from the dowdy clothes, country manners and her ‘conceit‘.
As for all my pertness, I was acutely sensitive to snubs and sneers, I came in for a very bad time….I cannot remember ever being really happy at school.
The one consolation was ‘Evelyn’. In her novel she says she ‘deliberately weakened‘ this episode, but in real life her passion for Evelyn ‘stirred me to my depths, rousing feelings I hadn’t known I possessed‘.
Another curiosity appears near the halfway point in her story, when she, her mother and sister, Lil are preparing to go to England for a year. There was talk of it being a ‘year’s “finishing abroad”‘, about getting in with “right” people and being grateful that ‘we bore a double-barrelled name, with a carefully preserved hyphen.’ What? A double barrelled name? And a hyphen? Really? What on earth is she referring to here? I couldn’t make sense of this at all.
But then suddenly they are in Leipzig, Germany so she could study music at the Conservatorium for three years. I suspected there was a lot left out of her story at this point. She begins this chapter by telling us her time in Leipzig was some of the happiest years she had known. But also ‘the truth was I felt as much of a misfit here as I had ever done – even in Australia‘.
It was in Leipzig that she met her husband-to-be, John George Robertson. There was also a friendship with someone she referred to as Mat, ‘with the faithful Mat for companion I ran from one performance to another‘. And just as we reach her marriage to JGR, Henry dies.
Roncoroni tells us that Henry had planned to write about the next seven years of her life for this volume. This seven years included Henry & JGR’s life together in Germany, and then England, up to 1903. She uses lengthy quotes from JGR’s journals to flesh out this time.
In 1896, Henry’s mother dies at the age of 57. Mat is given a name (Miss Main) and we learn they travel to the Riveria together so that HHR can recover from acute bronchitis, while JGR stays behind in Germany to work. This time in Germany was obviously a happy one for them. In JGR’s journal he says,
We left Germany unwillingly, missing bitterly the Black Forest and Vosgnes and our circle of intimate friends in Strassburg. And indeed Henry never reconciled herself to life in England.
The only good thing about the move to England appeared to be that ‘in Harrow Henry buried herself as never before in her book.’
Myself When Young was fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. So much was left unsaid, so many inconsistencies dotted the narrative and the frustration in knowing that so many documents were destroyed, by her express wishes, when she died, so that we may never know.
I would dearly love to know more. Her life is crying out for a sympathetic but determined biographer to fill in the gaps. Perhaps it is time to pull out my copy of Brenda Niall’s Friends & Rivals (2020), a group biography which includes both HHR and Nettie Palmer.
- The Getting of Wisdom
- The Fortunes of Richard Mahony – Australia Felix
- The Fortunes of Richard Mahony – The Way Home
- The Fortunes of Richard Mahony – Ultima Thule
Title: Myself When Young Author: Henry Handel Richardson ISBN: 9781925773958 Imprint: Text Publishing Published: 6 August 2019 (originally published 1948) Format: Paperback Pages: 163
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.