The Getting of Wisdom (1910)

by Henry Handel Richardson

A coming-of-age novel by Henry Handel Richardson (the pseudonym of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson), The Getting of Wisdom is set in a remote Australian village and in Richardson’s hometown of Melbourne around the 1890s.

Laura Rambotham, the imaginative, hard-to-handle oldest child of a widowed mother, at age 12 is sent to a girls boarding school. The real wisdom she gets there is mostly not from books — it’s about is how to accommodate herself to a society that doesn’t value individuality. In the catty, judgmental environment, the spirited girl learns that her poverty, her opinions, and her feelings are obstacles to fitting in.

This might seem bleak, except the incidents are often funny; in one of the most amusing, Laura, prodded on by classmates, pretends that the curate has a crush on her. The book ends on an upbeat note, too; Laura revels in her freedom as she leaves the school for good, and a brief reference to her future hints that Laura, a “square peg,” found a hole to fit her.

The Getting of Wisdom is semi-autobiographical. Richardson was born in 1870 in Melbourne, her well-to-do family fell on hard times, and she attended a “ladies college” between ages of 13 and 17. She is considered one of Australia’s greatest novelists but lived in England for much of her adult life.

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