HHR goes to the Movies and comes home with the Pianiste

Clive Probyn

We think of Henry Handel Richardson as a writer, creating life by writing words.  When she was not writing (and therefore not in total control of her medium), what sort of a listener and a viewer was she?

She was 36 when Australia produced the first ever feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, in 1906. I don’t believe she ever saw it, but she saw many others, for she lived in the formative years of the cinema.  Some of her own writing would be translated posthumously into movie scripts and visual images. Her first novel, Maurice Guest (1908) provided Metro Goldwyn Mayer with a film subject in 1954; her second, The Getting of Wisdom, appeared in a screen version in 1977; her last, The Young Cosima (1939), had on its paperback reprint cover an image of Vanessa Redgrave as Cosima in a four DVD epic called Wagner (1981-84) that ran for nine hours. I don’t have that much time at my disposal today, and in any case my focus is on aspects of Richardson and film in a context broader than film adaptations of her work. Before I do this, we should note that Richardson also lived through the early stages of broadcast public radio. Britain’s first advertised live public radio broadcast took place on 15 June 1920 (two years before the BBC’s first programme), when Dame Nellie Melba, sponsored by the Daily Mail, sang into a microphone in Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company located at Chelmsford, Essex.  In the same year Richardson and her husband George took a three-year lease on ‘Westfield’ as their  home in Lyme Regis (5 May 1913).  By the end of the 1930s there were maybe fifteen million radio sets in a population of 46 million. Richardson was by then in her 60s and she owned one of them. In January 1940 she was negotiating terms for a 104-part radio-drama version of the trilogy. It never transpired, but Beverley Dunn wrote a successful ten-episode version of Maurice Guest for the ABC in 1978.  The radio and the cinema were part of her life: in the first year of the second world war, she wrote, ‘Petrol is just enough to take us to Hastings & back twice a week¾once for household shopping, once to a Cinema’ (Letters, 1240). The BBC kept Australia and England in touch. Richardson’s Australian contemporary at the Presbyterian Ladies College and her correspondent, Mary Kernot, wrote to her on 1 September 1939 (two days before the UK and France declared war on Germany) that she and her husband Percy had ‘hired a wireless so have all the news as it comes through & have quite clear re-broadcasts from the B.B.C. & talks. . . There is little to be done but wait.’ (III, 1226). Australians (but not Mary Kernot) would eventually hear Richardson’s recorded voice reading an extract from the Proem to The Way Home in the BBC’s Propaganda Service on  Good Friday, 7 April 1944.  It had been written during the Great War. The recording in London and the broadcast had been arranged by George Ivan Smith, who established, headed and operated BBC Radio Australia during the Second World War. HHR described him as ‘a wildly enthusiastic admirer of the Trilogy. Said the reading of it was “an event in my life” (Letters, 1359 and 1406). The reading was Richardson’s contribution to England’s war effort.

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