Aileen Palmer’s “Getting of Wisdom”

Sylvia Martin

This talk will be partly about Henry Handel Richardson but will also concentrate on her intersection with three other women, two of them writers. Richardson’s correspondence with Mary Kernot, her contemporary at Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Melbourne, will feature and the two writers are women who attended PLC in the years after Richardson left there. One of these was Nettie Palmer, the Australian writer and critic who first brought Richardson’s name to Australian literary attention; the other was Nettie’s elder daughter, Aileen Palmer, for whom Henry Handel Richardson provided inspiration in several ways and who is the subject of a biography I recently completed and which was published last month.

HHR once wrote something that has become quite a famous quotation of hers: ‘How I do hate the ordinary sleek biography! I’d have every wart & pimple emphasised, every tricky trait or petty meanness brought out. The great writers are great enough to bear it.’ She wrote this in a letter to Nettie Palmer in 1932, not about herself as is often assumed, but when asking if Nettie was going to write about George Eliot. As it happened, Nettie Palmer did become Richardson’s her first biographer, in 1950. And Nettie was perhaps kinder to Richardson than I am going to be in this paper.

For Aileen Palmer, Nettie’s daughter, the fascination with Henry Handel Richardson all started with her novel, The Getting of Wisdom.

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