Ellan Read

sometimes witty book reviews

The Getting of Wisdom

the getting of wisdom

Year of publication: 1910
Found: Bookstore on uni campus
Pages/read time: 233, on bedside table for ten days


Comments:

Laura Tweedle Rambotham is a precocious twelve year old with a head full of stories and a comfortable position as ‘eldest child’ in a family residing in country Victoria (Australia). It’s the turn of the twentieth century and women’s education is starting to take off in a big way. Laura’s mother scrimps and saves to send her to a Melbourne boarding school. Laura, none too grateful, soon finds herself to be at the bottom of the vicious social hierarchy such institutions are predisposed to form. Already an outsider by dent of coming from a single-parent household, Laura tries desperately to impress her friends and understand the strange obsession they have with those most vile of creatures – ‘boys.’ Desperate to please, Laura routinely oversteps the mark with governesses, tutors and elderly relatives. Trying hard to become queen bee, she even fabricates a story about an affair with the Reverend. Time and again, everything comes crashing down on our heroine. That is, until the older, prettier and socially-higher Evelyn becomes her room mate. Throw is a disastrous piano recital, an incident with an indigo dress and a small existential crisis and you have a novel worthy of praise from H. G . Wells.

At first I wondered how a male writer could so utterly understand the politics of an early twentieth century girls’ boarding house. A quick google revealed ‘Henry’ to be Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson; a Melbourne-born writer who in later life had a penchant for communicating with her dead husband. Australians.
Disappointingly, Wikipedia describes this piece as ‘childrens literature.’ In my opinion, it is anything but. Richardson cleverly conveys the sentiments and underlying gender issues of the era through the eyes of an innocent. An ideal portrayal of 1900s Melbourne where observation and not opinion create a fascinating time capsule for the contemporary reader.

However, there are cringe-worthy descriptions of Australia as a wholly blonde-haired, white-muslin-dressed society and painfully archaic references to Indigenous Australians. It would be good to see these references taken out of school-reader editions as they are by no means central to the plot. Richardson’s descriptions of the Australian landscape are mercifully unassuming; no supersaturation of bush imagery or descriptions of swags, billabongs and numbats. Though a Melbournite will thoroughly appreciate the description of the Fitzroy Gardens and a Victorian will pine for the coastline of the Bellarine Peninsula, the text is equally accessible to a non-Australians – and just as funny.

Reading suggestion:
Google ‘swag (Australia),’ ‘billabong,’ and ‘numbat.’

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