What's in a Name?: Authorship, Autobiography, and Henry Handel Richardson's "Myself When Young"

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Author: Dunya Lindsey
Date: June 2010
From: Antipodes(Vol. 24, Issue 1)
Publisher: Wayne State University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,757 words
Lexile Measure: 1370L

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Henry Handel Richardson never finished her autobiography Myself When Young (1948); terminal illness forced her to abandon writing, and it ends with her honeymoon in 1895, fifty years prior to her death. Though the conclusion of the narrative does not temporally contain her life, it is, however, no less complete than if it had closed, as she planned, in 1903: by its nature, autobiography imposes an artificial closure on a necessarily incomplete life; no writer can narrate her own death as a past event. The point at which to end an autobiography is itself a choice, the moment or event chosen usually indicating the nature of the thematic structure imposed upon the life, itself episodic and chaotic. For female autobiographers this shaping is of particular concern, and Jill Kerr Conway, an autobiographer and critic, has remarked:

For the woman autobiographer the major question becomes how to see one's life when one has been taught to see it as expressed through family and bonds with others ... How can she construct the life history of someone other than a sex object whose story ends when soundly mated? (4)

Richardson negotiates this difficulty by defining her actualization not wholly through her private identity, delineated by her familial and social relationships, but also through her self-positioning as an author, which emphasizes her difference from others.

According to her companion and co-editor of her autobiography, Olga Roncoroni, Richardson's autobiography was intended to end on her return to England and the beginning of her career as a fiction writer (NLA MS 1174/1/7076). Even the autobiography's shortened end soon after her marriage indicates this, for she intended to close Myself When Young prior to her fiction-writing life began. Richardson therefore presents a life leading up to her position as an author, which coincided with her use of a pseudonym. Richardson's teleology, then, leads not to marriage and the acquisition of an identity as a wife and mother (and taking the name "Robertson") but to her self-creation as "Henry Handel Richardson," the begetter of fiction rather than children, standing in the role of author rather than wife. That she "signed" Myself When Young with "Henry Handel Richardson" rather than her married name "Mrs. J. G. Robertson," which she used in private life, or her given name "Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson," signals the intertextual system in which the autobiography exists: Myself When Young retrospectively relates the author's pre-pseudonymous writing life to her later fiction and public identity "Henry Handel Richardson."

Myself When Young indicates the importance Richardson placed on names as a sign that reflects the public identity of the individual. In the autobiography names function to indicate social status, as in Richardson's inclusion of her maternal grandfather's nickname, "Gentleman John" (3), and her description of the snobbery of her English cousins who could not even mention an employer otherwise than by using the term "some titled personage," nor "without obsequiously dropping their voices" (92). Richardson's erroneous claim that her family bore a "double-barreled name, with a carefully preserved...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A232469950