‘Truth? – it is one of the many miserable conventions the human brain has tortured itself with’: Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest

m4qcR5xsiWyqSZjYDyGowCwMaurice Guest is my favourite of Henry Handel Richardson’s novels, with its extravagant passions, music and Leipzig setting. And I now realise that it does actually connect with the Overland essay that prompted last Monday’s blog: Christopher Scanlon‘s ‘HappinessTM‘. In particular, I’m thinking of what Scanlon writes about the fact that in extreme cases ‘the constant requirement to be “up” at work left some employees estranged and alienated from their true feelings’. This, he says, is consistent with research that shows that ‘When faking emotions becomes a habit, rather than a temporary coping strategy, people can become estranged from their authentic emotions.’

I’m interested in fake and authentic emotions, the very idea that we might tell the difference, and have been thinking a lot about the extent to which we all fake emotions – or put them on hold, suppress them, manage them – to a greater or lesser extent to get through our days, live our lives. Emotional states are of course the stuff of literature – and Maurice Guest is about emotions let loose in the extreme. Which is, I think, one of the main reasons I love it so much.



Maurice Guest, Richardson’s first novel, is the story of a young music student – Maurice Guest – who travels from his ‘cheerless’ middle-class home in provincial England to Leipzig to study the piano and is soon caught up in a dissolute love triangle. The novel opens with Maurice filled with the ecstasy of music, wandering into the woods beyond the town after a public concert rehearsal:

‘He was under the sway of a twofold intoxication: great music and a day rich in promise. From the flood of melody that had broken over him, the frenzied storm of applause, he had come out, not into a lamplit darkness that would have crushed his elation back on him and hemmed him in, but into the spacious lightness of a fair blue day, where all that he felt could expand, as a flower does in the sun.’

Maurice arrives in Leipzig filled with hopes for a brilliant career as a concert pianist: ‘He felt so ready for work, so fresh and unworn; the fervour of a deep enthusiasm was rampant in him …’ But Leipzig was one of the most sophisticated centres of music and culture in 1890s Europe, and Maurice is a decent provincial boy – and the mix proves fatal for him. As the novel unfolds, Maurice drifts further and further from the spacious lightness of the fair blue days into the recesses of a lamplit darkness, for his enthusiasm and ‘anxiousness to oblige’ cloak a ‘deathly indifference’.

Eleonora Duse

Eleonora Duse

The agent of Maurice’s undoing is a fiery, provocative, gifted Australian music student, Louise Dufrayer. Richardson based Louise on a celebrated actress of the day with whom she was obsessed, Eleonora Duse, whose tempestuous ten-year affair with Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio was the talk of Europe. Louise Dufrayer, that ‘scentless tropical flower, with stiff, waxen petals’, is to shape Maurice’s life. And tragically so, for Louise is in love with another man, the insolent opportunist and genius violinist Shilsky, whose great symphonic poem he names ‘Zarathustra’. One portentous day, Louise’s beauty enchants Maurice as powerfully and irreversibly as any Wagnerian love philtre: ‘The beauty, whose spell thus bound him, was of that subtle kind which leaves many a one cold, but as if just for this reason, is almost always fateful for those who feels its charm.’

Maurice Guest, with its portraits of student life and passionate debates about love and art and music, unerringly charts Maurice’s corruption as he succumbs to the allure of Louise and abandons music for the dictates of sexual desire.

Henry Handel Richardson

Henry Handel Richardson

Henry Handel Richardson, born Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson in Melbourne in 1870, was herself a gifted musician. Her father, Walter Richardson, was an Irish medical graduate from Edinburgh University and her English mother, Mary, had followed her brothers to the Victorian goldfields, where she met her future husband. Richardson’s musical distinction brought some much-needed recognition to her otherwise unhappy boarding-school years at Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Melbourne (the subject of her second novel, The Getting of Wisdom (1910)), but her life was forever marked by the slow, traumatic deterioration of her father’s health from the tertiary syphilis and associated dementia that led to his death in 1879.

In 1888, Richardson sailed with her mother and sister to England. The following year she began a three-year course to train as a concert pianist at the famed Conservatory of Music in Leipzig, founded by Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Leipzig, in the new nation of Germany (founded in 1871, just 18 years before Richardson’s arrival), was one of the great cultural centres of Europe. It was renowned for its age-old choir, St Thomas’s Boys Choir, where JS Bach had once been choirmaster, and as the birthplace of Richard Wagner. Here Richardson immersed herself completely in music.

In 1890 she met JG Robertson, a shy, brilliant, Wagner-loving 23-year-old science graduate from Glasgow who was writing his PhD in philology at Leipzig University. Robertson invited Richardson to a series of Wagner operas, which she later said was the beginning of her real musical education. They quickly discovered their shared love of music and books, and in 1891 they were engaged.

Henry Handel Richardson by Rupert Bunny

Henry Handel Richardson by Rupert Bunny

The following year Richardson graduated and abandoned her plans to become a concert pianist, deciding to become a writer instead. Perhaps she discovered in Germany that her talent, so prodigious in isolated Australia, was not great enough for the world stage. And she began to suffer agonies when exposed on the concert stage, like Krafft in Maurice Guest, who speaks ‘with a morbid horror – yet as if the idea of it fascinated him – of the publicity of the concert-platform.’

In December 1895 Richardson and Robertson were married, and the following year Richardson began work on Maurice Guest, based on her student life in Leipzig. In 1903 the couple moved to London when Robertson was appointed to a German chair at the University of London. Here, with Robertson’s unfailing moral support, Richardson threw herself into her manuscript and finally finished it in 1907.

Maurice Guest was published in 1908 under the pen name ‘Henry Handel Richardson’. The novel’s European sensibility was influence by Richardson’s reading of Scandinavian literature, particularly Ibsen and Jacobsen (whose Niels Lynne she had translated from the German, published in 1896), Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, and the music of Wagner. Nietzsche’s influence can be felt in her portrait of the genius artist Shilsky, and in the views of the eccentric, sexually fluid music student Krafft:

‘No, there is no such thing as absolute truth. If there were, the finest subtleties of existence would be lost … Truth? – it is one of the many miserable conventions the human brain has tortured itself with, and its first principle is an utter lack of imaginative faculties.’

Richardson was a passionate, driven, unconventional woman, and perhaps formed a love triangle of her own when the musically gifted Olga Roncoroni (whom she met in Lyme Regis, Dorset, in 1919) moved in with her and Robertson, remaining with Richardson as her secretary and constant companion until her death in 1946. Richardson returned only once to Australia, in 1912, to research her trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, based on her father. The third volume, Ultima Thule, published at Robertson’s expense because Richardson’s publisher rejected it, finally brought her the fame and commercial success she had longed for all her life. A review in the Daily News (14 January 1929) gave Ultima Thule high praise: ‘if our age has produced a masterpiece at all, this is a masterpiece’.

Henry Handel Richardson by Rupert Bunny

Henry Handel Richardson by Rupert Bunny




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2 Responses to ‘Truth? – it is one of the many miserable conventions the human brain has tortured itself with’: Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest

  1. I think I have you to thank for recommending this a year or two back, Jane. To think it was a debut too -incredible. BTW I am reading The Getting of Wisdom at the moment. Always a pleasure to read your posts. John

  2. Thanks for letting me know that, John, good to hear. Did I recommend it via the discussion I had with Geordie W at the State Library about Oz classics a couple of years ago? I love The Getting of Wisdom too, although such a different book. As is Richard Mahony. She is an extraordinary writer, truly great. Hope you’re planning to blog about The Getting of Wisdom.

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