Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

'Composing the Self': Metaphors of Creativity in Henry Handel Richardson's Myself When Young

Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

'Composing the Self': Metaphors of Creativity in Henry Handel Richardson's Myself When Young

Article excerpt

No, I do not write poetry. My efforts in that direction ceased long ago; & long ago were all burned. Of recent years, when I have felt "lyrically" inclined, I have turned to music, which has always contested the literary interest in my mind--or at least has never died. And so I have numerous little songs in my drawer; but no poems.' (Richardson to Mary Frances McHugh, 6 February 1936 qtd in Probyn and Steele 150)

Writing here to the novelist Mary McHugh and in her autobiography Myself When Young (1948), Henry Handel Richardson associates poetry with music, differentiating both artistic forms from her 'literary interest' in prose. Rather than designating reading and writing prose as her only pursuits and talents in her early life, she includes a parallel narrative about musical ability and performance, and an associated interest in poetry. Music and poetry are presented not only as having a long-term attraction for her, but also as coming 'naturally', both in feeling and execution. Furthermore, the sociality inherent in these arts is heightened in the autobiography. (1) Music, poetry, and Richardson's juvenile practice of 'making up' are customarily presented as public or oral acts, and therefore as social activities. This essay interrogates Richardson's representation of her choice of a literary over a musical career, arguing that this choice was a matter not only of ability and opportunity, but signals a shift from public and social performance to private literary production. These representations are evident not only in her autobiography but also in her fiction, and necessarily mean a reconsideration of critical approaches to Richardson and her work.

In Myself When Young Richardson often privileges the oral over the literary, which provides a supplement to the teleology of the work as a Kunstlerroman--a narrative about the development of the artist--of a writer. The extent of this kind of description suggests that it is more than mere imagery, and that Myself When Young is just as much a musical as a literary autobiography. Contributing to this narrative is the manner in which the author describes her childhood acquaintances, who are characterised largely in terms of their speech, or lack of it. The 'fat little doctor' trumpets the news of his new child (45-46); Thomas Calder is characterised by his 'deafness and profanity' (42-43); his wife, Annie Calder, is remembered for 'screaming orders at the servant' and her 'marked Scots speech' (43). Richardson reports visiting 'the old man' whose father fought in the Napoleonic wars, where she would 'listen to his--or rather his father's--stories of those stirring times' (44-45). Similarly, she recalls the tales of another of her neighbours:

   She told me a lot about herself: how she had come out to the colony
   with her brother as a very young girl, and the straits and
   difficulties she had been in since his death.

   But it was of London she liked best to talk, London that she still
   thought and spoke of as "home". Beside a tall Grandfather's clock,
   with a coloured picture of Westminster on its front, I sat and drank
   in her descriptions of life in the great city. These were
   highly-coloured and extremely romantic, and, in looking back on
   them, I should say owed much to Dickens. At the time of course I
   believed every word. (45)

Stories of European wars and descriptions of 'home' provide Richardson with a human, personal connection with the Old World, despite (or due to) growing up in Victorian country towns half a world away.

Richardson 'drank in' these narratives, and the metaphor of drinking is crucial: this is the dominant trope of oral narratives in the autobiography, making the tale itself the liquid consumed; it is fluid and amorphous, a characteristic reinforced by the disparate sources of the tales. These accounts are in turn absorbed into her own life story, thereby situating it within oral testimony and endowing it with the immediacy and flexibility of that kind of account. …

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