The subject of this book is a young woman: an awkward, insecure, restless and ‘knowing’ child who learns that self-realisation depends on rebellion and escape, but that the latter will first demand at least the semblance of conformity. In telling lies, Laura learns both the astonishing allure of fiction and the social costs of stepping beyond the bounds of propriety, gender, class, and family ties. The novel is only in part a fictionalised account of Richardson’s school years at the Presbyterian Ladies College, Melbourne, where (unlike her fictional counterpart) she was not only academically successful but also an outstanding student of music. Unusual for stories of school-life, The Getting of Wisdom was clearly aimed at a mature readership able to understand irony and a critique of the colonial educational provision of its day, including a determination to preserve sexual ignorance in young women.
Laura Tweedle Rambotham, the main character, is the eldest child of a country family. She is a clever and highly imaginative child, given to inventing romantic stories for the entertainment of her younger siblings, and an avid reader. She is also both proud and sensitive and her mother finds her difficult to handle. Her mother is the widow of a barrister who supports her family in genteel poverty on her earnings from embroidery. At the age of twelve Laura is sent off to boarding school in Melbourne. Her experiences at school shock and humiliate the unworldly Laura. The girls at the school are generally from rather wealthy families and those, like Laura, who come from less fortunate backgrounds learn very early not to divulge their circumstances for fear of ridicule. From time to time Laura lets little snippets of information about her family slip out, and she suffers for it.
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