‘On Proud Irish, Clumsy Saxons, and Provincial Englishmen: Henry Handel Richardson’s Cultural Knowledge and Tolerance’

Stefan Welz

Henry Handel Richardson was a writer who could claim a broad range of personal experience and intellectual contact with important cultures of her time. She had both English and Irish roots, a certain Latin element was present, too; she was well read and demonstrated a cultural open-mindedness while growing up in Australia; she studied and lived in Germany for a decade, translated Danish and Norwegian books and visited Scandinavia; she learned French and Italian.

All that was a good precondition for shaping a cosmopolitan mindset. However, Henry Handel Richardson added particular characteristics to this disposition such as curiosity, self-criticism, tolerance, the gift of sharp observation, and the capacity of critical evaluation. In her novels – from Maurice Guest, The Getting of Wisdom, even more so in her trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, and still in her final book The Young Cosima –, Richardson as a writer makes ample use of all that, although in different degrees and ways. It is undeniable that Richardson’s relation to German culture had a somewhat privileged place among her other cultural interests. Nevertheless, these relations are far from being unbalanced or partial, neither are they uncritical. She had spent formative years in Germany, living in Leipzig, Straßburg , and Munich – “the ten most impressionable years of my life”, as she put it.

She was fluent in speaking and reading the language – an advantage and a capacity not many other writers and intellectuals from the English-speaking world of the time possessed . HHR was a keen observer of manifestations of culture and mentality – but she was not blind to other phenomena she knew from her everyday life in Germany. Even political events mattered to her although they rarely surface in her literary writings.

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