They say love is blind. And when that love is young love, well, the stakes are raised higher still. It’s tempting to summarise the plot of Henry Handel Richardson’s 1908 debut Maurice Guest thus: A loves B; B loves C; C loves D; D loves E; F loves E too; but E loves A. And so on. Everyone is in love with someone, but that someone is either unobtainable, or attainable and completely wrong for them.
Of course, the novel is more than that. Much more. As a study of obsession and erotic love it has few equals. Madam Bovary comes to mind as the obvious touchstone. (It could also be related to Ahab’s ill-fated obsession for the white whale in Moby-Dick.) But there’s something about the very European Maurice Guest that defies comparison, even with the great novels.
The prose, if a little overblown at times, is otherwise sublime. I could quote from any of its 631 pages. Here is a sample from the opening, where Maurice Guest, a provincial Englishman, finds himself newly arrived in Leipzig, a centre of music, to study piano in the renowned Conservatorium. He has exited a concert in which he heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, (which I am happily listening to as I type):
Maurice Guest walked among the mossgreen tree-trunks, each of which vied with the other in the brilliancy of its coating. He was under the sway of a two-fold intoxication: great music and a day rich in promise. From the flood of melody that had broken over him, the frenzied storm of applause, he had come out, not into a lamplit darkness that would have crushed his elation back upon him and hemmed it in, but into the spacious lightness of a fair blue day, where all that he felt could expand, as a flower does in the sun.
In many ways this passage sums up Maurice in a nutshell. He is the musical scales personified, either running up in some wild jubilation (brilliancy, rich promise, flood, elation, fair blue day, expand), or plunging down in a dark despair (darkness, crushed, hemmed-in). As he walks on, pondering the music yet more, he is ‘full to the brim of ambitious intentions’.
Poor Maurice, with all his grand plans! He soon finds himself lonely in a new city, longing ‘for a familiar hand or voice to take the edge of an intolerable loneliness.’ The first chapter ends on an unsettling nightmare, setting the tone for what is to come. And if that isn’t enough foreshadowing, in the following chapter we get his mother’s view of his chosen calling as a musician, which she sees as ‘something of a tragedy’. (Mums know best, don’t they?)
There are others struggling to find their place in the high-pressure world of concert-level musicianship. It is this broad canvas that takes Maurice Guest into a place beyond Madam Bovary’s relatively contained cast. It allows Henry Handel Richardson to explore several flavours of sexual love: homosexual, sisterly, woman for homosexual man (yet another ill-fated love with a tragic ending of its own), group sex and sadomasochism. All these things are somewhat disguised by Richardson, but not to any large extent. They add a rich supporting tapestry to the main game of Louise and Maurice’s relationship.
Maurice finds some friends, including the lovelorn Dove (who, as my limited plot equation above suggests, loves Ephie, who in turn loves Schilsky) and the steadfast and hardy Madeleine, who falls for Maurice. But he is too obtuse to notice. And once he lays eyes on Australian Louise Dufrayer he can’t see anything but her…
For one instant Maurice Guest had looked at the girl before him with unconcern, but the next it was with an intentness that soon became intensity, and feverishly grew, until he could not tear his eyes away. The beauty, whose spell thus bound him, was of that subtle kind which leaves many a one cold, but, as if just for this reason, is almost always fateful for those who feel its charm: at them is lanced its accumulated force.
‘Intentness that soon became intensity’. Wonderful. He goes on to take in her appearance. This is what he notes of just her eyes:
So profound was their darkness that, when they threw off their covering of heavy lid, it seemed to his excited fancy as if they must scorch what they rested on; they looked out from the depths of their setting like those of a wild beast crouched within a cavern; they lit up about them like stars, and when they fell, they went out like stars, and her face took on the pallor of earthly dawn.
Oh dear. ‘Smitten’ doesn’t begin to cover it, does it?! He believes he loves her, but it is something else in truth, an obsessive passion that takes control of him body and soul. Madeleine tries to warn him off Louise, all to no avail. To his thinking, not a bad word can be spoken of her, and Madeleine’s warning is nothing more than scurrilous gossip.
Of course, the plotting equation will tell you Louise is in love with someone else, the genius violinist and composer (and cad) Schilsky. He treats her with contempt in the eyes of Maurice, who has to endure one torturous dinner where Schilsky complains about her suffocating him, which precipitates one of Maurice’s first explosions of rage, on this occasion at the man who is not worthy of speaking her name let alone touching her. Maurice, meanwhile, literally kisses the ground on which she walks (and I do mean literally!).
Louise is volatile, demanding and self-centred. She is an adventurous modern woman, whose life is one of ‘love, suffering and sensual abandonment’ as Carmen Callil writes in her excellent introduction to this Text Classics edition. Her ethos is summed up in this: ‘It’s myself I think of, first and foremost, and as long as I live it will always be thus.’ She is not the woman for the romantic and hitherto sheltered Maurice.
When the more-than-two-timing Schilsky leaves town, breaking Louise’s heart, Maurice picks up the pieces and attempts to put them back together with the glue of his ardour alone. He knows she cannot love him in the same way he loves her (and the way she loves Schilsky still), but he ploughs on anyway, pleading with her to be his.
At first she says no. But then, in a form of mental gymnastics I’m still trying to figure out, bends herself and enters the relationship. And Louise being Louise, this is no ordinary courting; it is a full-blown sexual affair. With the whole town whispering behind his back, Maurice sheds his studies and his friends as Louise consumes him. His tragedy is he can’t get beyond his jealousy of Louise’s past with Schilsky. She has to be his wholly, a state that is impossible.
There are so many wonderful scenes. To pick out any for mention does the others an injustice. However… the walk home from an evening concert where Maurice first talks to Louise is memorable, with all their talk of ‘peace of mind’, her overly dramatic talk of suicide, and the final ill-fated handshake. (She is not the only one to talk of suicide; Krafft, a homosexual with brief designs on Maurice and an unknown past with Louise and Schilsky, speaks of it also.)
A far more pleasant an excursion is had on the winter nights where Maurice and his loosely knitted group of friends go ice-skating along the frozen river. But even in these happier times dark clouds loom. There is the misguided Christmas Eve excursion on the ice with Louise when a snow storm blows in. Even when the two of them embark on their summer affair in a nearby town, Louise has her head turned by a female waitress who dotes on her!
Finally, the violence toward the end and the ultimate and heartbreaking disintegration of their relationship are unforgettable.
There were moments, though, where I wanted to throw the book, not so much across the room as at the characters. ‘What are you thinking/doing?’ I often wanted to scream. I found it hard to believe the way Louise commits to Maurice and then stays with him as he descends into his all-consuming, controlling and violent temper-tantrums. It was only when I allowed for her darker side toward the end that I found peace on this score. (Long before the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon there was Maurice Guest!) Even then I felt as though there would have been so many other more worldly (and more suited) persons for her to corrupt. But as I say, love is blind. And perhaps the abandonment that Louise all too often gives into is blinder still.
Henry Handel Richardson is the pen name of Australian Ethel Richardson, who herself studied piano at the Leipzig Conservatorium before she found the anxiety of public performance too hard to bear, at which point, encouraged by the husband she met in Germany, she turned to writing.
As befits both the writer and the story, music pervades every page of Maurice Guest, and wonderfully so. Fugues and etudes and sonatas and concertos and symphonies abound. I’ve mentioned Beethoven, but many composers are mentioned throughout, including Wagner, Mendelssohn, Vieuxtemps, Brahms, Handel, Chopin, and on.
Richardson is perhaps better known for the coming-of-age novel The Getting of Wisdom and the trilogy based on her father’s life The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. Both of those novels are set in Australia. Maurice Guest is not a comfortable read at times. How can it be when, as Madeleine puts it, ‘romantic feelings of [Maurice’s] kind are sure to end in smoke’? It’s not Australian in any particular way, so I can’t call it an ‘Australian classic’. It is, instead, that greater thing, a realist European novel of the highest calibre, a forgotten classic perhaps, but a classic nonetheless.
You can read Callil’s celebration of Maurice Guest on its centenary of publication on The Guardian website here.
In a recent interview on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book program, Thomas Keneally, Geordie Williamson and Carmen Callil discussed the Text Classics series, which is being released into the UK. When asked what their pick of these novels was, both Keneally and Callil chose Maurice Guest (Geordie chose Patrick White’s Happy Valley.) I’ve not read anywhere near the full list of Text Classics, but I can at least understand why Keneally and Callil opted for this particular Henry Handel Richardson work. In every sense, it’s a titan of a novel.
Lisa at ANZ Litlovers felt much the same as I did. Read her thoughts here.
Maurice Guest by Henry Handel Richardson
First published in 1908; this edition, 2012
Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)