Skip to main content

Some Notes on My Books

ISSUE:  Summer 1940

I have often been asked how I came to write my first book, “Maurice Guest.” Here are a few of the circumstances and influences that led to it.

When, on reading “Maurice Guest,” William Heinemann inquired if I had “burnt much,” my answer was “from eight to eighteen.” But I was considerably younger when I began “making up” to myself viva voce while at play, and in “verse” as well as prose. In the wilds of Australia, it was this faculty to string rhymes that seemed the miracle, and various ruses were adopted to get me to write mine down. I remember a grown-up cousin suggesting that we should each take a slate and “compose a poem.” Cocksure, I set to work and produced four strophes which I read aloud amid general applause. But my cousin’s magnificent effort put them to shame. It ran: “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll! Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain”—and even at seven I saw the difference between these lines and my own.

However, a talent for music, being showier, was more easily appreciated by a totally unmusical mother; and to music it was decided that I should devote myself. It was not for me to object. I had hummed tunes before I could speak, learned my notes along with my letters, had a good ear, absolute pitch, and so on; and I cannot recall a time when I was unable to play easy pieces at sight, transpose them, or write simple themes from dictation. The gift, such as it was, no doubt came to me through my father—he died when I was too young to know much about him—from my Irish grandmother, who is said to have been one of Dublin’s best amateur singers in her day. Also a devotee of Handel. I mention this because, when I came to choose my pen name, I remembered the “Handel” which she had tacked on to her son Henry’s name, and, liking the sound of it, took it for my own. At that time, the combination having been handed down, there might have been other Henry Handel Richard-sons still alive. Anyhow, it was characteristic enough to set several hitherto unknown relatives on my track.

As soon as my schooldays were over I was taken to Leipzig, and there spent three and a half very happy years. To my mother’s chagrin, I shone but palely among the stars who were my contemporaries at the Conservatorium. But Leipzig meant a great deal more to me than the five or six hours a day I toiled at the piano: concerts of the best, and free to the student; an opera-house in which, for less than a shilling, one could hear all the musical masterpieces of Europe; a theater where, on backless benches, but at the modest price of threepence-halfpenny, one saw the world’s classics performed. For the first time, too, I had books in abundance: Russian, French, Danish, Norwegian, in those admirable translations for which the Germany of that time was famous. And how I read! The hour-long grind of scales and exercises passed in a flash with, say, a play of Ibsen’s or a volume of Tolstoi propped open on the rack.

Much, however, as I enjoyed my work at the Conservatorium, I was being steadily weaned from any desire to make music my profession. Neither my executive power nor my health was up to standard; and for teaching I had no bent. Removed at the end of my course to England by a disgruntled mother, I there fought through a couple of miserably unhappy years, quite unable to decide what I was good for, or to what use I could put my life. To pass the time I began to experiment with translation; and this work, together with my husband’s encouragement, for in the meantime I had married, soon made clear to me where my real inclination lay.

I began to write “Maurice Guest” a few months after my marriage.

Now whatever I may think today of this early book, I can still feel a mild surprise at the ease with which, once fairly started, it flowed. The marks of the tyro are, of course, abundant. For example, I have recently been told that all my books have “tough beginnings”; and this is certainly so in “Maurice Guest,” where I was still groping my way. When it was reprinted a few years back in America, I offered to curtail at least the first twenty pages. But the suggestion was not agreed to; and the opening stands unchanged.

My first plan had been hardly more than that of pinning the happy Leipzig days to paper. But other forces were at work; and very soon the characters involved in the tragic love story had it their own way.

The book was written partly in Strasbourg, where we then lived, and partly in England. It took a long time, for interruptions were endless. My health had never recovered from the strain of the Leipzig years; I was perpetually ailing, and after a severe attack of bronchitis, trouble with my lungs caused me to be sent to the south of France, work of any kind forbidden me.

Finished at last, the manuscript was packed up and sent to William Heinemann. (“Why to me?” Mr. Heinemann once asked me some years later. And at my incredibly naive reply, which I hesitate to repeat, his face was a study.) For three months after its dispatch I heard not a word. Then my husband wrote, on behalf of his “friend,” was invited to call, did so, and was flatteringly received. But when I learned that the book had to be reduced by some 20,000 words, I resolved to see Mr. Heinemann myself. So one day I made my way to 21, Bedford Street, and climbed the steep stone stairs to his sanctum. On giving my name in the business department below, I thought I noticed a slight stir; but Mr. Heinemann’s surprise was open and unadulterated. At that time I looked younger than I actually was; and this, and my sex, brought his natural stutter to a high pitch.— Perhaps also my unfashionable attire. I can still feel his eyes traveling me up and down, from my quaint hat to my stub-toed shoes, visible beneath a skirt some inches off the ground, at a time when most women swept about in trains.

At this interview the question of my pen name was discussed. I was bent on keeping my identity a secret. There had been much talk in the press of that day about the ease with which a woman’s work could be distinguished from a man’s; and I wanted to try out the truth of the assertion. Well, the laugh was with me. And not only over “Maurice Guest.” When “The Getting of Wisdom” followed, I was congratulated, as a man, on my extraordinary insight into a little girl’s mind.

Home I went then and hacked at the book—my present regret is that I did not do the job still more thoroughly— and it came out in August, 1908.

The first notice to appear in print I have never forgotten. This was from Sheffield, and said: “A long, intolerably long book about people not in the least worth writing about. When the person who gives the title to the tale commits suicide the reader feels relieved.” Mr. Heinemann’s enthusiasm had ill prepared me for anything of this kind, and I felt as if I had been clubbed. However, I had to get used to blows, for the majority of the reviews that followed were in the same tone. Morbid, depressing, dull, verbose, degraded, coarse, erotic, and neurotic were some of the adjectives applied to this book, built on European lines, with which, in my ignorance, I had invaded pre-War England. There was a slight change for the better after a full-page notice by Frank Harris in Vanity Fair, headed “The Best Novel of the Last Five Years,” a large part of which, however, was devoted to “improving the plot.” But a magnificent column-length review by John Masefield in The Daily News made up for everything. In this, Mr. Masefield said all that a budding author best likes to hear, and more.

It was no doubt thanks to his championship that the book struggled into a second impression; but, as far as England went, that was temporarily the end of it. In America, where it was issued, and very handsomely, by Duffield, it was greeted with ribaldry, or held up as a warning to parents not to send their sons and daughters abroad to study. In 1912 Fischer of Berlin brought it out, at a prohibitive price and in a particularly wooden translation, and there, too, it was a failure. After that I gave it up for lost, a remark of Mr. Heinemann’s to me about this time seeming to add to the general finality. “Remember,” said he, “whatever happens, I shall never regret having published ‘Maurice Guest.’ “

Yet it must have gone on leading a life of its own below the surface. For the passionate shades of Maurice and Louise rose again in many a novel of that time: and I had to see A and B and C win the laurels denied to me. Again when, in 1917, “Australia Felix” appeared, I was surprised to hear the new book compared unfavorably with the “subtle characterization” of its two predecessors. Since then I have grown used to the form of criticism which consists in disparaging the new in favor of the old. My books, it seems, have not the power to gain immediate sympathy: once only in my writing-life has this happened. As a rule, a considerable time has to elapse before they get anything of a hold.— But to go back to 1917. From now on, single American voices were raised in “Maurice Guest’s” defense: Carl Van Vechten wrote of it, Edna Kenton, J. G. Huneker. And in 1918 letters began to come to me from the trenches, from young men to whom the book had found its way, in old and tattered copies, it was said, some besprinkled with obscenities. This was the book’s real awakening; and in 1922 those at the head of Heinemann’s—William Heinemann had died in 1921—felt justified in issuing a third impression, for which Hugh Walpole as he then was wrote a preface. And ever since, the old book has kept up a small but steady sale.

Re-issued in the United States by W. W. Norton in 1930, it was termed “vindictively modern,” and the boldness praised with which, in 1908, its author had “attacked themes then almost unknown in the English novel.” In 1937 it was included in the Modern Library, and, except for “Ultima Thule,” remains the best known of my books in America. It has been translated into Danish, but not, like the trilogy, into Swedish. It has gained me friends and lost me friends; and some of my readers have gone no further with me.

Once in print, my books lose interest for me. I have never voluntarily gone back to “Maurice Guest,” and nowadays should not care to reread it. But I am not blind to the old book’s merits. The Leipzig milieu is well if too lavishly painted, the character-drawing is clear; and the handling of the theme shows a certain natural aptitude for story-telling that carried the young writer over many a hedge.

In spite of the critics’ severity, “Maurice Guest” straightway made a few warm friends. The lack of understanding, the coolness, hostility even, which has greeted my other books on their appearance, began with “The Getting of Wisdom.” From this time forward, with a single exception, each in turn was pronounced a “pity,” a “mistake.”

Various reviewers were of the opinion that, in “Maurice Guest,” I had said all I had to say: the book was a “purely personal narration,” and life was “unlikely to give Mr. Richardson more than one such absorbing experience.” I hoped not—and knew better. But I had said all I wanted to say in the meantime about love and lovers, and had had my fill of tragedy. There was another and lighter side to me, which had so far not been given a chance. This I now indulged: and the admirers of “Maurice Guest” were disappointed and disgruntled. They would have had me limit my field: go on writing in the youthfully romantic strain of the earlier book, or rewriting myself after the manner of Laura’s “thrifty orange-merchant.” And from the little school story now offered them in “The Getting of Wisdom,” they turned with a sniff of contempt.

The first three chapters were written while I was still at work on “Maurice,” partly as a relief from that book’s growing gloom, partly to fill the hours of a wet summer in the Bavarian mountains. As before, my original plan was merely to paint a milieu. But again the chief character took command: almost insensibly the book grew to what it is: a more or less subtle story of a young girl’s inner growth.

But a girl with a difference. For this particular one was a writer in the making; and, even thus early, the taint of her calling was in her, marking her off from the rest of her schoolmates. She lived among them, but was not of them; and, strive as she might, for she longed to be one with them, she never succeeded in bringing her thoughts and feelings into line with theirs. She suffered where they laughed; enjoyed where they wept or condemned; took a lively interest in things from which they turned decorously away: meanwhile all unconsciously laying up, squirrel-wise, a store of her own peculiar brand of wisdom.

Of book-learning she got little; and that little hardly mattered: it was not what she was there for. In the light of her future, the mental and emotional crises she here went through were more important than any headwork. And in her small way the child came up against some of life’s knottiest problems: crime and punishment; the workings of sex; passionate love. She was driven to ask herself Pilate’s hoary question about truth; to put her faith to the test and find it wanting. Also, by dint of sad experience she discovered, unaided, the art and craft of realistic fiction. Did one set out to tell a tale, though nothing in it need be true, everything must sound as if it were. Or, in her own words: “Provided you kept one foot planted on probability you might lie as hard as you liked: indeed the more vigorously you lied, the louder would be your hearers’ applause.”—

I consider “The Getting of Wisdom” one of the most firmly-knit of my books. In its greater compactness of form and expression, it also shows a marked improvement on the longueurs, the youthful desire to leave nothing unsaid, that characterized “Maurice Guest.” Unfortunately, however, its tone was ironic throughout; and this proved its undoing. I had believed that the subversively provocative quotations from Nietzsche, which head some of the chapters, would light the way. But it was not so: the irony passed unnoticed. Schoolmistresses rose up in fury: “This coarse and sordid libel on girlhood”; the educational press took it seriously and reviewed it ponderously; my old school outlawed me. And by way of contrast, “Maurice Guest” now became “that strong but wholesome book.”

Of the people who counted I can recall only three who laughed as they were meant to: William Heinemann, Edmund Gosse, and H. G. Wells. For the rest the book was born and died, both here and in America, in the autumn of 1910; and it lay like a corpse within its grave until, in 1924,I rubbed my eyes to see Gerald Gould refer to it as “the best of all contemporary school stories.” But the success of the trilogy was necessary to help it to a reprint—in 1931, twenty odd years after its first appearance. And though Laura was then dubbed “one of the most original little girls in fiction,” her story has never had anything of a sale.

“Australia Felix,” my third book, was originally published under the title afterwards used for the whole trilogy. It differed in one respect from its predecessors: I knew beforehand just what I meant to do.

So far, all the novels about Australia that had come my way had been tales of adventure; and successful adventure: monster finds and fortunes made in the gold fields, the hair-raising exploits of bushrangers, and so on. But there was another and very different side to the picture, and one on which, to my knowledge, no writer had yet dwelt. What of the failures, to whose lot neither fortunes nor stirring adventures fell? The misfits, who were physically and mentally incapable of adapting themselves to this strange hard new world? I knew of many such; and my plan was to tell the life story of one of them, with the changing face of the country for background, the rise of towns on what had been mudflats; while faithfully observing Laura’s injunction to keep a foot planted on reality.—Into the question of how far I drew on the “real” for this book and its companion volumes, I do not propose to go. The woof of fact and fiction is so intricately spun that, even for their author, the unraveling would now prove a difficult and lengthy task.

Of Australia in the early days I had no personal knowledge: it had all to be built up. As a child I had once spent a fortnight in Ballarat, but that was more than thirty years after the period at which the trilogy opens, and by then Ballarat was a flourishing city. Except for this vague memory, the only material I had to draw on was about a dozen old family letters. Thanks, however, to my husband, who was an accomplished book collector, I soon had all the data I needed: histories, volumes of travel, pictures, maps. Over these I pored, and I think to some purpose, for when I went to Australia, to try out my detail in point of landscape and locality, I found nothing to alter. Nor did any of those who afterwards put my knowledge to the test.

As soon as “The Getting of Wisdom” was off my hands I set to work, and by 1912 “Australia Felix” was finished, in its first form.

No other of my books has given me the pleasure this one did to write. I was at home in it from the first page: back in a land where the air was crisp and clear, and the sun knew how to shine: an uncramped, hedgeless land of wide horizons; among people of a type well known to me from my childhood, whose warm hearts, quaint standards, oddities of speech, big and little tragedies, it was a delight to depict, j The consequence was, the book almost wrote itself, poured forth so effortlessly and at such a speed that, as with “Maurice,” I have never been able to reread it.

In 1912, laying the manuscript aside, I spent some time in I Australia. On my return, I gave it as thorough a revision as | I was then capable of, and by 1915 it was ready for press.

Had there been no war, “Australia Felix” would have appeared in the autumn of that year, “The Way Home” probably some three years later, and the trilogy have been complete early in the ‘twenties.

But the war did come: and who then had any thought to spare for Australia and its beginnings? Not the most inveterate bookworm. Mr. Heinemann wisely counseled postponement; though whether he was as wise in his eventual choice of 1917 for publication—his reasons for it have escaped me—I doubt. Certainly, by then people had adjusted their minds to a state of war: “business as usual” was the slogan: and so no doubt he thought he might risk it. His own opinion of the book was high—after his death I learned that he had said to a member of the firm who chanced to come on him while he was reading the manuscript: “This book will still be here when we are all of us under the sod.”—and in America he heralded it with one of those puffs, those rather unfortunate generalizations, that are only too apt to recoil on the author’s innocent head. However, his personal influence was great; he knew everybody and went everywhere; and so “Australia Felix” had a better press than I expected. There was of course the usual sigh of “Why not another ‘Maurice Guest’?” and also a new and odd one. The reviewer in a certain weekly which today would blush to father such a lapse, grieved that, in reading it, he was never “moved.” This characteristically British criterion, and from another quarter a blunt “quite unworthy of Mr. Richardson’s fine brain” are the two comments I remember.

For all Mr. Heinemann’s praises, however, Duflield, who had twice burned his fingers over me, would have none of it. It was brought out by Holt, and got considerable notice, for by now “Maurice” was beginning to stir in his sleep. But it did not sell; and both here and in America was soon forgotten.

In Australia my work was still virtually unknown, and this straightforward account of my country’s youth was regarded very dubiously. Opinions ranged from “a dull but honest volume” to “might have been written by a retired grocer.”

Its title has been found fault with. But, apart from any more obvious inference, for those born on the other side of the world it has a historic significance. Australia Felix was the ancient name for that southern portion of New South Wales which extended from the Murray in the north to Bass’s Straits in the south, with South Australia for a western boundary: in other words, stood for what is known today as the state of Victoria.

The length of time that elapsed between the completion of “Australia Felix” in 1915 and the appearance of “The Way Home” in 1925 calls for a word of explanation, if only to dispel the idea that I spent ten years laboring at the latter book.

Setting aside a state of almost chronic ill-health—illness cost me at least three months out of every twelve—the war turned my well-ordered life upside down. And I am not one of those lucky people who can write amid confusion or under discomfort. Or in strange surroundings. I need not only my own room, with its perfect quiet, but also to know that, beyond it, the machinery of the house is running smoothly. Now, all was changed. I lost my trusted and experienced secretary, servants became unprocurable, the house was invaded by relatives from the continent; and in addition came my own intense emotional revulsion against a country that I had meant so much to my development and with which I still had numerous ties. Under this strain it went beyond me to begin a new book, and one on so remote a subject. Instead, I took up two long short stories, for which I had some notes, | and wrote, scrappily and at intervals, on the “Life and Death of Peterle Luthy” and “The Professor’s Experiment.”

The incessant air raids of the winter of 1917-18 finally got me down—I have a dread of being struck on the head that I amounts to a phobia. And when I was ordered to the country, where I had only to suffer acute anxiety for those left behind, work was impossible for many months, owing to a severe infection of the right hand.

It was not till 1919 that I was able to begin “The Way Home.” And I had hardly done so when I became caught up and entangled in a private matter of such urgency that, for three out of the four years the writing took me, the book was a secondary consideration. On looking back, I sometimes wonder how it ever got itself written at all.

At that date I was still reckoning to tell Mahony’s story in two volumes. One morning in 1923, however, I wakened to the knowledge that the third part was going to need a book to itself. The middle section would have to stand alone, raw-edged though it was. And so I made the break, trimmed the edges as best I could, and sent the manuscript in. Messrs. Heinemann were not enthusiastic; and the terms under which it was published were the poorest I had yet had.

With the death of William Heinemann in 1921 I had lost my best friend. Now, there was no one to put in a word for the new book; or to link it up with the earlier volume. And “The Way Home” was received so coolly and indifferently that I despaired; and for a time questioned both the use and the sense of going on with Mahony’s story. “Australia Felix” might never have been written; a new generation had sprung up, few of whom had ever heard of a book alleged to have been written “twenty years ago”; and among those who had read it none seemed to care a whit what became of Richard and Mary. “The Way Home” was pronounced “intelligent, but dull,” “a thick crumby slice of life, but no story.” As for Mahony himself: “Mr. Richardson has lost all control of his hero . . . as a character. The situation has become so stupidly hopeless that it ceases to interest the most sympathetic reader . . . it is difficult to believe he has taken any trouble to arrange his thoughts or construct his characters.” However, a scrap or two of comfort came my way, in the shape of “admirable prose,” a “bold, keen style.” And though Australia could find no more than a “rather faded kind of charm” in the book, and thought it on the whole “flat and lacking in atmosphere,” it was favorably-reviewed in Germany and Sweden. But it sold barely a thousand copies, and no American publisher could be found to take it up.

It has always been my favorite of the three.—And the title, with its ironic undermeaning, seems to me apter than most.

William Heinemann once remarked that, if a writer still failed of success with his third book, his case might be considered hopeless, And here was I, with four books to my name, and as far from making good as ever. There was nothing for it, I saw, but to resign myself to the idea of failure in perpetuum.

And my fit of despair over, back I went to work. Only by completing the trilogy could I hope to rid myself of the subject. Also (like Maurice) I have a horror of loose ends. Life was running smoothly for me again; the book ran smoothly, too; and by the summer of 1928 my long task was done.

And now for one of the ironies of fate. On returning from abroad I was met by the news that Messrs. Heinemann were unwilling to publish “Ultima Thule.” They could see no prospect of sale for it, and were already out of pocket over “The Way Home.” At first I was more surprised than hurt. It had never occurred to me that a firm with which I had been so long and intimately connected would fail me over the final volume. During my absence my husband, who believed in the book, had himself offered to bear the cost of production. And I could not but agree with him about the awkwardnesses that might arise from the splitting up of a series j designed as a whole. Besides, would any other publisher be j likely to consider taking the odd volume? And so eventu- ally “Ultima Thule” was brought out, in a tiny edition of one thousand copies and at my husband’s expense, under the old sign.

It appeared on January 9, 1929, unheralded, unpuffed. The following Sunday in The Observer, Gerald Gould gave it a review that made me open my eyes: of no book of mine had like things been said since John Masefield first wrote of “Maurice Guest.” Gould continued his eulogy in The Daily News, other critics followed his lead: with the result that “Ultima Thule” was a success, and an immediate success, such as I had never yet had and never expect to have again. A few days later it was reprinting; new impressions were issued in February, March, May, and June; and “Australia Felix” and “The Way Home” had hurriedly to be got back into print.

In the early weeks of the year Mr. C. S. Evans, managing director of Messrs. Heinemann’s, was out of England. On his return, he sent for me, expressed his sincere regret for what had happened, and asked to be allowed to take over the responsibility for “Ultima Thule.” I saw the reason in what he said—we ourselves had no experience of the business side of publishing—terms were agreed on, and the costs of production refunded. But to my husband these had been the least of it; and he found it hard to forgive the firm its blunder.

In America where, as the choice of one of the book clubs, “Ultima Thule” had a very large sale, it was brought out by W. W. Norton; and one by one the same house re-issued the older books. By now Australia had also adopted me, coming in gallantly at the finish.

It was Mr. St. John Ervine who prevailed on Mr. Evans to publish the three books of the trilogy in one volume. This was done in 1930. Since then it has passed through five impressions, and maintains the usual small sale. It has been translated into Swedish and Danish, and a portion of it into Czechish; but contrary to rumor it has appeared in neither French nor German.

Such is the story of twenty-odd years of my life as a writer, and of my books as far as the trilogy. Beyond this I do not for the moment propose to go.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading