Leanne Hall Examines Her Problematic Childhood Fave
On Forming Intense Friendships with Fictional Characters
Dear Laura Tweedle Rambotham,
You don’t know me, but I know you.
The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson was required reading in Year Seven English. This dusty, old novel records every excruciating detail of your imagined experiences as a school boarder in 1890s Melbourne, insalubrious years that also live on in a movie adaptation featuring a who’s who of Australian actors.
One of the greatest claims to fame of my high school—always mentioned in the glossy school prospectus—was that this classic Australian story was set at our august institution; fictionalized simply as the Ladies’ College in East Melbourne. As you, Laura, experienced your first dramatic school year, moving from your home town of Warrenega to the city, so too were we having that same experience—except in reality and one hundred years later. I expect the teachers wanted us to marvel at both the similarities and differences between our parallel lives. Certainly, they expected us to write enthusiastic meta essays on the topic.
The Getting of Wisdom is a fantastic book, full of the type of anachronistic language that was catnip to my adolescent vocabulary-hoarding brain. Richardson takes girls seriously at what is sometimes seen as their silliest age. She tails you for the entirety of your secondary school years, diving deep into your psyche, treating you as worthy of the sustained consideration a novel entails. As a true teen narcissist, you must have found that gratifying, and a little mortifying too. Because she doesn’t insult you or your schoolmates by only showing your admirable sides.
If my school wanted others to view the College in a positive light, then perhaps they should have pushed The Getting of Wisdom further into the dim recesses of the library. It is the very antithesis of the jolly schoolgirl novel; instead of personal growth, there’s withering personal torment. It’s a brutal, biting satire, wrapped up tenderly in velvet ribbons and girlish manners.
You College girls are obsessed with social position, family origins, your figures and landing a husband. Romantic feelings are projected onto any living man within range. Richardson describes your young female brains as “vague and slippery,” and it’s very unclear whether or not she agrees with this. You swing wildly between devout prayers and looking up dirty bits in the bible. A character called Chinky steals money from another student, because she wants to buy you a ring, Laura, to win your affections. Far from being paragons of your genteel education, you and your classmates are dishonest, selfish, social climbing and shallow—in short, quite wonderful.The Getting of Wisdom is the very antithesis of the jolly schoolgirl novel; instead of personal growth, there’s withering personal torment.
Your author herself attended the College for six years from 1883, and excelled there, by all accounts. You know the sort—good at tennis and piano. But she couldn’t let you excel, could she, Laura? I don’t mean to be rude, but by the end of the book, you haven’t learned anything of substance, and you definitely haven’t gotten any wiser.
The reader watches as you slowly self-combust, bouncing from girl to girl, looking for friendship, adoration and admiration. When that isn’t forthcoming, you decide you’ll settle for acceptance, or even tolerance. At one of your many low points—after you’ve been caught lying about a torrid and completely implausible love affair with the parish priest—you’d welcome simply not being hated so openly.
The main reason I love your story so much Laura, is that I know how you feel. Your mother works for a living and has had to scrape the money together so that you can attend the school. Your clothes are homemade or secondhand; all your tastes are considered vulgar and common. Not only are you striving for excellent marks, but you also have to educate yourself about the right opinions, manners, behaviors and dress, just so you can survive the vicious social battleground.
Like you, I should not have really been at my College. I went there on a full academic scholarship, a fact that was dragged out in public during my first week. There’s no way my parents could have afforded the tuition fees, which ran to five figures. And no one warned us about all the extras: how much the uniform would cost, the textbooks, the excursions. I felt guilty about it all. I never had the coveted Country Road jumpers, the Esprit t-shirts, the Levi’s 501s. I lived in the wrong suburb, two buses away, in the wrong kind of house. I didn’t ski, we didn’t own a beach house, no one would ever send me to the orthodontist to acquire perfect teeth. I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to readjust my perspective to understand that my upbringing was actually comfortably middle class—my family just weren’t that kind of rich.
I developed a special watchfulness that you would recognize well. I kept quiet in conversations until the pieces slid into place—our fathers should work from this list of professions, our mothers should have careers as well as being philanthropic on the side, house cleaners were a thing—and I could trust myself to speak, act or have an opinion. That was the difficult thing for you, I think Laura, holding it all back. Your fantasies, your whimsy, the passions, the big feelings. It’s a difficult equation to balance. Should you be yourself, or should you belong? You can’t have both.
It was never more obvious for you than with Evelyn Souttar. I know you wanted a true friend for a long time. You tried—bawdy, boy-mad Maria, killjoy M.P.—but no one stuck. Ever since I read Anne of Green Gables and developed my own desire for a “bosom friend,” a soul mate like Anne’s Diana, I understood. As a teen—who am I kidding, my whole life—I pursued my own string of obsessive best friendships and, a lot of the time, loved more eagerly than I was loved, the perpetual sucker fish attached to the big shark. I was the one who wanted to be totally subsumed. That’s a hungry place to be.
When Evelyn graduated, the knowledge that your friendship was just a receding blip on her sure-footed path to marriage caused a destructive inferno in your heart. You couldn’t study for your final exams; you came close to wasting six years of schooling. It was only cheating during an exam that saved you, and even though you got away with it, it cracked your nerves wide open. Beyond the final pages of the book, I’m sure this risky action haunted you for a long time.
But oh Laura, I hate to bring it up, we do need to talk about your fellow student Chinky—that girl who stole in a desperate attempt to befriend you. Chinky loved you in the way you loved Evelyn but, because you considered her below you in the pecking order, you never stopped to consider her desperate attentions at all.
We never find out her real name, but “Chinky” is a white girl who has “a very long plait of hair and small, narrow eyes.” That’s right, she has a plait that looks like a Chinaman’s queue, and squinty little eyes. I can’t remember if our English teacher drew attention to this racist nickname, especially as she was faced with a classroom with more than a few Asian faces in it, mine included. But I suspect she didn’t, because it was the ’90s, and we had already cured racism in Australia. The White Australia policy was over, we had spent the previous decade throwing around the concept of “multiculturalism” as much as possible, so it was better not to mention the R word at all.
Chinky is quite enough to make a modern reader cringe, but unfortunately it isn’t the only thing. In your precise words: “Chinky did not count,” and let’s face it, this is how you feel about anyone who isn’t white. We know that Jewish girls are not permitted to attend the College. Your teacher Madame Zielinski has a father who was “once a German,” and she only barely scrapes in as socially acceptable. You have plenty of offensive things to say about Aboriginal Australians, and you throw those statements around so casually, too.
You mention the Chinese, several times in fact, which isn’t surprising, as your home town of Warrenega is based on Maldon, right in the heart of the Victorian goldfields. In Warrenega the Chinese live, quite literally, on the margins of the town. After the last trickle of houses and stores, there they are, leprous and living in huts. Grubbing around in spent dirt for dregs of gold. Trotting about quaintly with poles and baskets across their shoulders.
You know, there’s no sting when I read these depictions, even though you’re talking about my ancestors, who were typical sojourning Chinese in the mid-19th century. It’s not just that the era has faded, that the years have cushioned the impact. I think I don’t mind it as much when the racial superiority is so matter-of-fact, placed out in the open and easily identified. Subtler things bother me: veiled racism, racism denied—but not this sort. I would rather read a racist 20th century classic, than a contemporary book by a white person writing shoddily from a person of color’s perspective, and patting themself on the back while they do it.But oh Laura, I hate to bring it up, we do need to talk about your fellow student Chinky—that girl who stole in a desperate attempt to befriend you.
But I do have to tell you Laura, and Richardson too, that you are missing out. The Chinese had stories too, great stories, if only someone had stopped to record them. Many Chinese prospectors disembarked in Robe, near the border of South Australia and Victoria, and walked almost 500km through hot and dusty country to the Victorian goldfields, all to avoid the prejudicial £10 poll tax on their arrival. If that journey isn’t asking for an epic narrative, a sweeping Western of its own, then I don’t know what is.
I can ruminate on the similarities between us, Laura, but the fact is I wouldn’t have been at the College in the 1890s. As a girl with a Chinese-Australian mother and an Anglo-Australian father, I wouldn’t have been welcome. You talk briefly of “those dreadful white women who lived, by choice, in Chinese Camps” on the outskirts of town, and in your mind, these women are there only because of alcoholism and loose morals. Love, or family, never crosses your mind. You don’t stop to consider that Australia’s immigration laws were specifically designed to keep Chinese men apart from their Chinese wives, or other prospective partners in their homeland. You don’t stop to consider the bravery it took to jump across racial boundaries, to make the family you weren’t supposed to have.
For a long time I thought my parents invented the interracial marriage, along with John and Yoko that is, but of course they did not. At that stage my own family had been dabbling in it for generations, all the way back to the Gold Rush. I realized this when my uncle delved into our family tree and unearthed a number of startling photos.
One shows my maternal grandfather Norman with his family, which consists of his Chinese grandfather Henry, Henry’s wife Selena, and their adopted children. Selena and the children are notably Eurasian in appearance. Going back further, to a photo of a slightly younger Selena and her family, which was taken around Federation (that is, not long after The Getting of Wisdom time) you can see Selena’s Chinese father, Huey Sang Anguey, her Anglo-Australian mother, Elizabeth Sharp, and her six siblings. The men are dressed to the nines, in three-piece suits and fob chains, hair greased and waved neatly. The women wear cartwheel hats on top of their pompadours, and frothy dresses cinched tightly at the waist. The youngest daughter, beautiful Ethel, is a vision in flowing white. She’s still a teen, so her wavy hair is down, cascading over her right shoulder. Her oversized hat is borderline ridiculous, but she employs the right amount of attitude to pull the look off. Her gaze is sulky, knowing and direct.
If you’re confused by the precise details of my family tree, don’t worry, it is confusing. Our history is complicated, not just racially, but in its very structure. Convoluted patterns of immigration and bigamy, strange transcriptions of Chinese names into English, multiple names with multiple spellings, actually, make it impossible to trace a straight line. Kinship came from clan and community, but not always from direct bloodlines. My mother’s maiden name is a fiction of its own; it was simply what a customs official scrawled down phonetically when my grandfather got off the boat, and just like that, our clan name disappeared from official record.
Laura, there’s a scene that Richardson left out of your story, quite by mistake. I’ve written it out for you here, so you can slip it easily into the pages—there’s no need to thank me. You’ll probably swear you don’t remember it, but I’m sure it happened. It involves Ah Chow, the market gardener from your hometown. He’s mentioned briefly a few times in the book, but he doesn’t do anything of consequence.Kinship came from clan and community, but not always from direct bloodlines.
The missing scene occurs during the winter school holidays, just before your final exams, when you returned home to Warrenega. Nothing went right on that holiday—you fought tooth and nail with your sister Pin, you were supposed to be cramming, but instead you pined for Evelyn and wrote her endless tearful letters. Worst of all, you realized that you had begun to peel off from your family; you were hurtling towards an unknown adulthood, and your eye-opening education had done nothing but put distance between you, and your less-worldly mother and siblings.
One evening, at dusk, you walked for more than an hour on undulating dirt roads, even though the air smelled like a coming storm. You thought of Evelyn as you walked, and your history exam, which you were already anxious about. The towering brick chimney near the Beehive Mine made an ominous silhouette against darkening skies, but you didn’t notice it.
On the edges of town you passed the log fence of Ah Chow’s market garden, the fields divided into neat rectangles of potatoes and cabbages. A solitary eucalypt sheltered the house at the rear of the plot, the chimney exhaled puffs of smoke, beyond that, lay the creek. It was late and at first you thought the fields were empty. Then you noticed a smudge of white in the gloom.
Ah Chow’s daughter, Ada, dressed in a lacy white dress and looking like something out of a dream, hovered in the twilight, trailing her hand along the bushes as she walked towards you. All the townsfolk had assumed that Ah Chow was unmarried before Ada showed up, five years ago, and confused everyone with her pale skin, long black hair and strong nose. No one had pictured Ah Chow with any woman at all, let alone a white one.
As Ada drew closer you realized she was picking flowers and bunching them together in one hand. You thought you should move on, your feet shifted in the red dust, but you stayed.
Ada’s enviable hair flew in the breeze, kicked up by the same wind causing her dress to wrap around her legs. Her attire was more threadbare than anything you owned, but she could wear one of her father’s potato sacks and still look stylish.
Finally she looked up, realized that you were there. You were holding your breath, even though you weren’t sure why. Ada looked at you with her strange hazel eyes like you were nothing more than a kangaroo taking advantage of the dusk. She should have lowered her gaze, known her place, but she did not. She stared. Eventually you backed away and her eyes followed you, Laura, long after you turned away.
Do you remember? I do.
Your most enthusiastic admirer,
This work is part of a series produced in collaboration with the Melbourne UNESCO City of Literature Office, where Australian authors explore and dissect a book that has had an impact on their life.