Monday, April 25, 2011

Bad Novels: The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson

I read this once a few years ago, and it immediately shot to the top of my Worst Books Ever List. It has been pushed down a few notches since then—by Isabel Allende's Zorro: ~*A Novel*~, Not One Of Those Awful Swashbuckling-Type Books That People Love Reading Because They Are Exciting And Refreshing With Likeable And Virtuous Characters, Which Are All Very Well For The Plebs, But Hardly Deserve To Be Called, Like This One, ~*A Novel*~; by Christa Wolf's Cassandra, and most of all by the awful Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor, a review of which will appear in due course.

The Getting of Wisdom is a very long, tiresome book about some very long, tiresome people. It was written by an Australian, and despite appearances to the contrary, by a woman named Ethel Richardson. Because of these two things, it is usually inflicted upon hapless schoolchildren.

I never went to school. I escaped many of the indignities inflicted upon the inmates of those institutions. No, The Getting of Wisdom was entirely self-inflicted.

It starts promisingly enough, with our heroine (ahem...our “heroine”) telling a story to her younger siblings. There is a knight and a lady, and it's the most interesting paragraph in the whole book. But then one of the siblings interrupts, and in a fit of the sulks the storyteller refuses to speak another word.

This is what the book is like all the way through: everything nice or even halfway interesting is nipped in the bud by selfishness or pride. But let me continue.

The storyteller is a young girl named Laura, who is soon sent away to boarding school in Melbourne. The transition to school life is traumatic to Laura: the girls are nasty and look down their noses at her, the teachers aren't much better, and soon Laura learns to be ashamed of her humble origins. Yearning to fit in, she learns to behave as badly as the girls who mock and belittle her. Before long, she has become entirely a creature of the school and things go from bad to worse when she tries to gain status among the other students by inventing a romance between herself and a local curate.

This is really a story about corruption, though in a distinctly schoolgirlish manner, where the evil manifests as petty jealousy and lies. It may even be that the book, though written in such a terribly depressing manner, is worth reading. It probably does tell the truth about schools and the horridness of school life, and it's possible that CS Lewis, for example, would have liked it for that reason. But you, dear reader, if you weren't sent to school, can have no reason to wish to undergo this literary equivalent of a cold cup of tea.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

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