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In this extract taken from Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom, the author uses Laura’s perspective to present a scene in which a group of schoolgirls are seated and lectured in front of the rest of the school, of which one girl in particular, Annie Johns, is publicly called upon by their principal and accused of theft. The text is composed of six paragraphs, of which only one is dialogue, followed by a lengthy seventh paragraph. Told in the third-person, the entire excerpt is rich in descriptive language, enhanced by the use of alliteration and cleverly selective vocabulary, so as to achieve an attention-grabbing and detailed description of the characters’ thoughts and feelings. I find that Richardson is able to create a serious and tense atmosphere, evoking a suspenseful mood as should be the case for such an incident.
In the opening paragraph of this extract, Richardson introduces the characters and sets the scene. The poor quality of the desks, ‘blackened, ink-scored, dusty, with eternally dry ink-wells’, indicates that the girls are possibly studying in a lower-class school where a higher standard of education environment is not available. Although Tilly, Inez and Bertha’s names are mentioned, it is made clear that Laura is the central character as we are given a detailed idea of how she feels.
Richardson brings the reader into the intense atmosphere immediately, and apart from the literal description of Laura’s ‘flushed’ face, her difficulty of breathing and her cold hands and feet, further detail is added by the use of alliteration and shrewd phrasing. The consonance of the letter ‘f’ in ‘The cheeks of the four were flushed’ not only lets us imagine the pale colour of the girls’ faces but also picture the girls as they bite their lips in anticipation. This idea is brought to mind when Laura moistens her lips. The repeated use of the letter ‘w’, in ‘while the others only whispered and wondered’, forms a particular shape of the reader’s mouth, dissimilar to the shape of a smile.
The fact they are whispering and wondering also suggests that there are matters at hand that need to be kept secret to oneself, and the writer is encouraging the reader to keep reading. In addition, we are given the first glimpse of Richardson’s use of placing a short clause at the beginning of his sentences. Using the word ‘But’ at the beginning of a sentence in line 4 is grammatically incorrect, but the author writes in this specific way to augment the reader’s idea of the nervousness the girls are feeling. Also to increase the tension, Richardson employs em dashes to create caesuras (that is, deliberate pauses).
Consonance using the letter ‘f’ is used for the second time in the beginning of the second paragraph. ‘The first foregoing minutes’ recalls the picture of the girls’ lips, and the mention of the ‘foregoing minutes’, once more, attracts the reader to keep reading. Although silence is already present, Richardson makes a point of stressing the utter quietness, and exaggerating any noise that can be described, as minimal as they may be. This is done carefully when the writer describes the sound after Mr Strachey enters the scene as ‘an ominous hush’, the sounds of whispering and Laura’s trouble in breathing and when Mr Strachey raises his hand ‘to enjoin a silence that was already absolute’. This marks the beginning of a lot of light being shed on these characters.
In line 11, the way in which Laura suddenly grows calm contrasts with the emotional nature of Bertha’s character later on, and this may show that Laura is less easily frightened or anxious and that she has the ability to keep her composure in uncomfortable situations. It is interesting to know that her calmness allows her to clear her mind of all anxiety and ‘take note of everything that passed’. Her calmness is vital for the reader to continue to understand and perceive the event as we are given her view, and the reader can appreciate Laura’s observance and self-control. The reader can also appreciate Richardson’s clever manipulation of this character’s perspective.
As for Mr Strachey, him being labelled as ‘The Principal’ gives the impression that he has no need for a name in this current situation. The title is impersonal and implies that he is strictly being professional now. This formal occasion is also accentuated by the tidy arrangement of the desks, as unsanitary as they are, and the use of words and phrases such as ‘culprit’, ‘a few introductory remarks’ and ‘the present case’, relating the school-situated theft to an actual court case.
Richardson then allows the reader to know Mr Strachey is somewhat of an authoritarian. This is suggested by Mr Strachey’s decision to raise his hand for silence that the writer vividly describes as ‘already absolute’ and his way of ordering Annie Johns to stand up. ‘”Will Miss Johns stand up!”‘ is a question in strict linguistic terms, but the exclamation mark indicates that it is a command and not an inquiry. Bertha’s description adds a certain fearful quality to Mr Strachey’s character as Bertha cries from an overwhelming sense of panic. Probably the most outstanding use of alliteration is the consonance using the letters ‘b’ and ‘h’ in ‘Bertha … the unhappy’ in lines 16 to 18. The letter ‘b’ generates a dramatic sound as we imagine Bertha releasing her emotions, and the letter ‘h’ produces a sort of sobbing noise that is gradually reduced like the actual use of the letter ‘h’.
Last of all, Annie Johns is described as ‘pale and silly-looking’. Everything from the impersonal disregarding of her name, to the metaphor associating her with a small hunted animal, to the portrayal of her unattractiveness and insanitariness, characterize her as an unappealing person to sympathize for just judging by her appearance. Richardson’s use of the letter ‘s’ in the words, ‘stood’, ‘silly-looking’, ‘stared’, ‘Strachey’, ‘stares’ and especially the image created by ‘the snake’, foreshadow the crime that is to be addressed soon. The sounds created by the words, ‘mouth’, ‘fallen’, ‘half’ and ‘fear’, emphasize (yet again) the biting of the lips and the changing shape of the mouth.
When we reach the last paragraph in line 25, all the components established in the previous paragraphs come together as Richardson uses punctuation, consonance and figurative language to vividly portray the scene and assign actions to the names and faces of the characters we are now familiar with in this particular extract.
Laura’s ability to pay close attention to her surroundings is referred to as she is described as being unable to ‘take her eyes off the scene’, ‘fascinated by [Mr Strachey’s] oratory’ and ‘appreciating [Mr Strachey’s] points’. Richardson mentions lips again and this time, they belong to Mr Starchey. Particular phrases such as ‘the Principal passed on to the present case’ and ‘He made it all live vividly before her’ create a cacophonous effect and the reader may visualize Mr Strachey has he speaks dramatically, perhaps spitting as he enunciates too. Earlier, Mr Strachey is said to be speaking in a ‘low, impressive tone’ and Laura’s admiration of his rhetoric highlights this as well.
Information concerning Laura herself is minimal, but we find out about her by observing Richardson’s skilful way of letting us into her perspective without actually writing in the first-person. The reader can know that Laura has the capability to recognize what the rest of the girls are going through by the way the writer talks about how Laura knows ‘what it was to be poor’ and understands ‘what it would mean to lack your tram-fare on a rainy morning’ (a brief instance of pathetic fallacy).
Laura ‘could imagine, too, with a shiver’, to what extent the details of this crime could be revealed. When Richardson describes the lolly-shop as having ‘octopus arms’, and tells us that Laura is considering ‘if every one else agreed with [Mr Strachey]’, it indicates that Laura is imaginative, bright and deductive in her reasoning as she puts her observation skills in good use, and all of this suggests that her aptitude is possibly brought about by some difference between her attitude to education and the other girls’ approach.
This extract was interesting to analyse and to see how a writer can use a character so captivatingly to direct us to what is significant in the actual plot. This includes the characterisations of Bertha, Annie Johns and Mr Strachey, as well as Laura, and the way in which Richardson applies alliteration to this text to create visual impressions. I guess I could say that I was fascinated by Richardson’s style as he made the scene and the characters all live vividly before me. I hung on his diction, appreciated his style and the clever way in which he worked up his climaxes. As grammatically incorrect as it is in saying this, I feel I have certainly been ‘getting’ some wisdom.