Ethel Richardson

In 1932, Ethel Richardson was the first Australian woman to be nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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Ethel was born on 3 January 1870 in Fitzroy, Melbourne to a doctor and his wife who had migrated from Ireland to the goldfields in the early 1850s. Her father became a respected obstetrician in Ballarat and made a small fortune. He took the family abroad in 1873-74, lost money on the share market, set up practice again in Melbourne and then Chiltern and finally became a quarantine officer in Queenscliff before succumbing to mental illness. He died in 1879, possibly from the degenerative effects of syphilis, but not before he had passed on his love of literature to his young daughter.

Ethel's mother was fortunate to find employment as the postmistress in Koroit in the Western districts of Victoria. Ettie, as she preferred to be called, withdrew into herself to deal with the social stigma of her father's illness, making up and writing stories. In 1883, Ethel was sent to the Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne where she excelled in all fields. Years later she would write about her adolescent experiences in The Getting of Wisdom (1910).

She taught music until her mother took her daughters to Europe, where Ethel graduated with honours and met John Robertson and married. She moved around Europe until John was made professor in 1902. His career as a famous scholar took off. Ethel wrote articles for English magazines and was encouraged by her husband.

She became disciplined about her writing and in 1908 her first novel Maurice Guest was published under the pen name Henry Handel Richardson. She wrote under this pseudonym because she wanted to be taken seriously and also because her dark subject matter was not the stuff of ladies. It was a very modern novel which dealt with homosexuality, but was not well received. Derided as immoral, many bookshops refused to stock it. Ettie was deeply hurt by the criticism.

'Henry' was homesick for Australia. They returned in 1912 so she could research a fictionalised account of her father's life during the gold rush. It turned into a trilogy of books called Australia Felix. The first novel, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (1917), provided a fascinating glimpse into life on the diggings. As the period covered was a turning point in Australia's history the books are as much about Australia as they are about her father. The other two novels were The Way Home (1925) and Ultima Thule (1929).

The first two were unsuccessful so Professor Robertson had to intervene to ensure that the third was published. One influential critic gave it a rave review, and Henry Handel Richardson finally achieved success. Along with this fame came a desire for the novelist to reveal his face, and it was soon discovered that 'he' was a 'she'.

Nonetheless Ettie preferred not to be in the limelight. She received the Australian Literature Society's gold medal for Ultima Thule in 1929. During the war she wrote her memoirs Myself When Young before she died of cancer on 20 March 1946. Although she spent much of her life away from Australia it definitely did have a formative influence on her and her major works were set there. The high point of her career was her nomination for the Nobel Prize for Literature, ensuring her place as one of Australia's great female novelists.