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Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson

August 18, 2013

Maurice Guest , by Henry Handel Richardson,  (Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson.) Heinemann, 1908.

AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS

An exceptional novel by an Australian woman, writing under a pseudonym, about the self-absorbed passions of men and women in the music community in Leipzig, Germany before World War I.

Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson was born and raised in Australia. After college, she went with her mother and sister to study music in Leipzig and used that experience for her first novel, Maurice Guest. She later married a German man and lived most of her life quietly in London devoting herself to her writing.  This novel placed her among other European and American writers of the time who were intent on exploring psychology and sexual passion.

Maurice Guest was a young Englishman, not particularly talented but dreaming of becoming famous as a pianist.  Like others, he came to Leipzig to study and found the city alive with music.  He made friends with Dove, a practical and pompous Englishman, with Efie, a childlike beauty, and with Magdalene, a forceful, independent young woman unwilling to follow the dictates of womanly charm.  But shortly after he arrived Maurice fell obsessively in love with Louise, a dark beauty from Australia who was in love with another man.  Eventually he won her attention, but innocent love became obsession.  Neither he nor she could stop their descent into depression and pain.

I was amazed and impressed by this novel and by the skill and perception of its author.  With a light hand, she describes a community swirling with the lives of the young people who had collected to study music while engaging in rounds of flirtations and love.  Music surges through the book as characters practiced their instruments, talked about composers and performers, or simple heard it being played in the streets.  Like the weather and the scenes of Leipzig, music provides a context for the characters’ actions.

But this was not romance where couples pair off and live happily ever after. The novel shifts into a deeper exploration of emotions carried to their extremes. I quickly was caught up in the suspense of wondering what would happen next.  Although Richardson avoided writing explicitly about sexuality, the characters in the book were obviously involved in behavior that many of their contemporaries would have considered immoral. Yet the author is never judgmental about their actions or about the unconventionality of their lives.  Maurice and Louis share the blame for the situation they create, but they are not portrayed as immoral.

I was initially somewhat put off by the demeaning remarks that some of Richardson’s male characters made about women.  I disliked the way in which they claimed that their artistic genesis justified their abuse of women.  Then I began to realize that Richardson was not condoning their words or actions.  I slowly realized that, at one level, the novel was about problems of gender definitions that demanded that women be submissive and dependent on men who were tyrannical.  Time after time women were described as childlike.  Given the unrealistic illusions about what men and women were expected to be, there was little hope that the relationship between Maurice and Louise could develop a mature love.  The isolation and helplessness that Louise experienced were not just her particular problem, but remain a chilling reality for too many women.  And the frustration that Maurice endured can still infect men who have unrealistic expectations of themselves.

This book deserves a much wider readership than it seems to have.  I cannot recommend it more highly to any readers who like beautifully written literature that probes the human condition.

I read this ebook courtesy of Gutenberg, and I look forward to reading the three books that make up Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.  Would anyone like to read them along with me?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 18, 2013 3:57 pm

    I agree with you, it is a great novel, which seems to have been largely overlooked. Text Classics have a cheap paperback edition of it, which I bought and reviewed last year: http://memoryandyou.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/obsessive-love/
    I have their edition of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, which I read last year too; I’ll happily read it again and perhaps we can exchange reviews of it! Would you like to be a guest reviewer of it on my blog?

    • August 20, 2013 11:57 am

      I’d love to do this!!! Thanks for being willing to read it again with me. Our local library even has a copy of Richard Mahony, so I won’t have to read it as an ebook which makes writing and thinking about it harder. I have seen blogs where people reading the same book compare their response, posting the exchange on both blogs. Does that seem like a good idea for us? I do want to break up the reviewing by book, or even sections of the books rather than write about the whole thing at once.
      Thanks for being interested.

      • August 20, 2013 4:26 pm

        Wonderful! I love literary conversations with intelligent readers. I think posting on both blogs is a great idea. I also think book by book is a good idea; of smaller sections if you prefer, but I don’t think it would break easily into sections. Let me know what you think once you start reading it, and when you’ll be ready to review. I’ll start re-reading as soon as I’ve finished my present book, the Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson (won the Booker ?last year— I’m struggling with it a bit!)

  2. August 20, 2013 4:27 pm

    PS YOu can email me; farthestnorth[numeral one][at]westnet.com.au.

    • August 23, 2013 11:01 am

      I sent you an answer to your email but it was rejected. I hope this finds you.

      Christina,

      That sounds great. I need to do a bit of catching up on books read but
      not reviewed before I start. I should be ready in a week or ten days.

      You know better than I do about possibilities for breaking up the
      reading. Book by books is fine. I simply want to find a way to
      converse about different aspects of the readings rather than simply have
      both reviews.

      Looking forward to this.

      Marilyn

      • August 23, 2013 3:37 pm

        Yes, that sounds fun. Let me know when you’re ready. Not sure why the email didn’t work. Another way of reaching me would be through my website, http://www.perfectwordsediting.com, where there is a contact page. If you send a message through that, I will reply and then we’ll be switched on.

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