The Getting of Wisdom (1978)

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Plot summary: 1890s. Laura Tweedle Rambotham enters an exclusive Melbourne ladies’ college. The film follows her struggles with acceptance, conformity, romance, friendship and achievement over the next four years.

Trigger/content warnings: This blog entry contains discussions of racial slurs and bisexual erasure.

In this entry, I look at beauty standards, likability, bisexuality, compulsory heterosexuality and peer pressure in the Australian coming-of-age comedy-drama The Getting of Wisdom. (The content under the cut contains spoilers.)

Laura Tweedle Rambotham (Susanna Fowle), an imaginative and pompous thirteen-year-old, is sent from her remote country town to be educated at Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne in the 1890s. Utterly assured of her own genius and charm, Laura expects to take the school by storm, but has a rude awakening when she arrives.

I cannot lie, I probably would have chosen a similar outfit for my first day at a new school.
I cannot lie, I probably would have chosen a similar outfit for my first day at a new school.

As a plain, outspoken, overconfident eccentric with babyish clothes, no father and a mother who (gasp!) works for a living, Laura is a laughingstock among her privileged peers. Her efforts to win over her classmates and teachers come to naught, and Laura is faced with the prospect of life as a nobody. Over the next few years, Laura must grapple with overwhelming peer pressure from her worldly-wise classmates, crushes on Rev. Robbie Shepherd (John Waters) and Evelyn Suttor (Hilary Ryan) and her own desire to succeed academically and socially.

Laura (Susanna Fowle)
Laura (Susanna Fowle)
Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 6.01.15 pm
Evelyn (Hilary Ryan)

To begin with, I love the look of the young cast in The Getting of Wisdom. (Keep an eye out for a young Sigrid Thornton as Maria, a young Kerry Armstrong as Kate … and a young Barry Humphries AKA Dame Edna as the Reverend Strachey.)

L-R: Maria (Sigrid Thornton), Laura and Kate (Kerry Armstrong)
L-R: Maria (Sigrid Thornton), Laura and Kate (Kerry Armstrong)

In this film, people who are stunningly good-looking and perpetually put-together seem to appear about as much as they do in real life, which is to say, not very often. Certainly, many of the young actors are pretty, but they’re pretty in a “prettiest girl in your Year Nine Maths class” way, rather than a “twenty-seven year-old alien supermodel goddess” way. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Laura’s thick, dark, unkempt, utterly fantastic eyebrows.

Those eyebrows are amazing and must be exalted and praised.
Those eyebrows are amazing and must be exalted and praised.

Laura is also delightfully awkward – always the one to take the joke too far and get told off. She takes herself ultra-seriously and is very taken with her own cleverness, which I can certainly relate to as a former swotty-but-deeply-insecure teenage girl. One of my favourite parts in the film is when Laura plays Thalberg on the piano during an afternoon tea in the principal’s study. To a modern audience, the piece she plays merely sounds like “classical music” (and very advanced classical music at that). As Laura finishes the piece to stunned silence, one of her classmates laughs disbelievingly. Smash cut to the principal, Mrs Gurley, giving Laura a royal bollocking for “desecrating the walls of the principal’s study with music fit only for cheap theatrical entertainment!” The fact that the piece is an extremely technical one for a girl of Laura’s age is only acknowledged grudgingly. (Compare with this video featuring preadolescent girls dancing to Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda: most of the comments relating to the young girls are about the perceived “sexiness” of their moves and the inappropriateness of the song choice, rather than the extraordinary talent needed to pull off this performance.)

Not only is Laura not conventionally pretty or cool, she’s also not particularly nice. At the beginning of Laura’s second year at PLC, she relishes the chance to take part in hazing a new girl as she herself was hazed on her first day, and only softens once she and the new girl are alone.

Annie Johns (Alix Longman)
Annie Johns (Alix Longman)

The new girl, Annie Johns (nicknamed “Chinky” by her classmates) develops a massive crush on Laura and even steals in order to buy her a ring. When Annie’s thieving is discovered and she is expelled in front of the entire school, Laura finds herself having all the wrong feelings – “I just noticed stupid things like that she hadn’t cleaned her boots, and there was a lace undone. And I was scared that she’d say something about me … I didn’t care about Chinky at all.”

Some critics have taken the film to task for its unlikable heroine. For example, Alison Darren describes the film, and its protagonist, thus:

Lush drama that would evoke warm memories of school and the pursuit of academic success were it not for the irritating leading character on whom the audience is supposed to focus. Unfortunately, Laura is a pompous little pest who is inevitably given a hard time by other, richer girls who find her eccentricity hard to swallow. Her misery is compounded by her unselfconsciousness and naivety, which leave her vulnerable to the petty prejudices and snobbery of all around her. Her lack of social skills relegate her to a separate existence from the others (2000, 84).

For me, there’s something novel about the fact that Laura is a really prickly, difficult person. It seems that White adult men onscreen practically get a round of applause and a lollipop every time they behave like charming assholes. Why shouldn’t a gawky teenage girl get the same privilege?

Desperate for the acceptance and approval of her classmates, Laura cons them all into believing that she is having an affair with the Reverend Robbie Shepherd, who is something of a heartthrob for the PLC girls. She almost manages to believe it herself, until she visits the Shepherd family in their home and realises that her darling Robbie is “self-centred and selfish and mean and bossy.” When her deception is exposed, the other girls exclude her, but things look up when Evelyn, a beautiful and cultured older student, takes a shine to Laura and begins spending a lot of time with her. Had I grown up in the 1970s, I would have been writing ALL the fanfiction about Laura and Evelyn. Just look at this clip of one of their first and most significant interactions:

After the Robbie Shepherd fiasco, Evelyn invites Laura to share a room with her. At one point, Laura becomes speechless as Evelyn walks through the room in the nude after bathing one night. Before long, Laura is staring moonily out of windows in class, too besotted with Evelyn to concentrate on her school work.

In light of the fact that Laura is shown to be attracted to both a man and a woman, contemporary reviewers and critics seem to have some difficulty figuring out how to describe Laura’s sexuality. Corones, for instance, reads Laura’s interest in Evelyn as a reaction to her being disappointed by Robbie, suggesting that it is “possible to conclude that Laura in the end totally rejects the role-playing necessary with men, by turning from them to a woman” (1983, 85). Darren, on the other hand, reads Laura as a lesbian.

Ethel Richardson, the author of the semi-autobiographical novel that the film The Getting of Wisdom was based on, was married to a man, George Robertson, but their marriage “seems to have been based on shared intellectual interests rather than passion,” as Ethel Richardson “tended to reserve her most passionate feelings for women” (Geason 1999, 75). There is no way of knowing how Ethel Richardson would have labelled herself or the character of Laura. Frankly, I don’t believe it is possible or particularly useful to attempt to separate out the histories of lesbian and bisexual women. When we look at women in history who were involved with people of more than one gender, we have no idea whether they were legitimately attracted to men, whether it was social pressure or necessity that coerced them into relationships with men, or whether their involvements with women were the result of situational sexuality. Furthermore, while queer women in the past may or may not have experienced their sexuality the way queer people do today, they did not use the same labels or frameworks we do to define themselves. Imposing our labels and frameworks back in time onto them makes no more sense than them declaring that all queer people who come after them must define themselves as inverts, homophiles, female adventurers, members of a “third sex,” regardless of whether they identify with these labels or not.

Of course, I understand the temptation to feel threatened by people with similar attractions to yours not identifying as you do. I, personally, have felt uncomfortable when I’ve read literature claiming that queer women in my age bracket are more likely to identify as sexually fluid or decline to label themselves sexually, given that labelling myself as a lesbian is a source of comfort and pride for me. Feeling that your identity may fall out of favour someday, or that it represents a blip in the history of sexuality, is not a pleasant feeling. However, it’s important to recognise that someone else’s identity does not invalidate yours. Could we not think of it as exciting, rather than threatening – the idea that people just a few decades from now might experience their sexualities totally differently to us, that human beings are constantly growing in the way they view themselves?

That said, this film is notable for depicting a teenage girl falling in love with/getting crushes on both a man and a woman, and not representing this as unusual or deviant. Laura’s interests in Robbie and Evelyn aren’t presented as evidence of her being flighty, unable to commit, sexually voracious or out to entrap others. Since bisexual representation is so thin on the ground and bisexual representation that isn’t pathologised is even rarer, I’m tagging this entry under “bisexual girls” as well as “queer girls.”

The film also provides an interesting focal point in terms of discussing compulsory heterosexuality. According to Rodney Hall, in the Victorian period, school for girls was “an education in how to survive in the world after” (in Chong 2013) This essentially meant finding a husband – if a girl didn’t make a good marriage, there were very few options available to her.

According to Treagus,

Tension also comes into the relationship because Evelyn goes out in the company of men, and this is where the reality of the social world comes home to Laura: ‘your friend’s affection was wholly yours as long as no man was in question’ (Richardson 1910, 209). Ties with men are ultimately more important because they lead to marriage, which is the economic and social necessity for most women, and Laura is made to experience the compulsory nature of heterosexuality, at least as it relates to Evelyn’s life choices (2014, 234).

In critiquing the characters, Darren also points out the ways the film both explores and perpetuates compulsory heterosexuality in its storyline: she claims that audiences are invariably aware that Laura and Evelyn’s relationship “won’t last long because Evelyn is rich and gorgeous, and compelled, therefore, to heterosexuality even before a relationship with Laura makes this an appealing option” (2000, 84).

The Getting of Wisdom is a fascinating screen treatment of the machinations of peer pressure, not least because the protagonist actually succumbs, rather than heroically fighting against it. The peer pressure we see in the film is mostly to do with class. Laura learns to downplay her origins as she learns that having parents who work for their living – particularly a mother who works – is considered deeply shameful. Her first roommate at school, Lilith Gordon, learns about Laura’s origins and holds them over her as blackmail material. In one scene, Lilith walks into Laura’s room as Laura is opening a package from home, containing a singularly hideous dress sewn by her mother.

“Well, well,” Lilith says. Laura, mortified, puts the dress down. “Walk up, walk up for the peep show!” Lilith raises her voice and shouts into the hallway, “Only a penny for the peep show! Tweedledum’s got a new dress.” Laura runs to slam the door and tells Lilith to shut up.

As the girls tussle over the dress, Laura tries to say that the dress isn’t hers. “Who else would have a thing like that?” scoffs Lilith.

“It belonged to a girl who died, and her mother sent it to me as a remembrance of her,” Laura lies.

Alluding both to the commonplace nature of death in Victorian society and to her own callousness, Lilith is unmoved. “Oh, so now we wear secondhand clothes?”

Realising she has dug herself in deeper, Laura shouts, “Don’t you dare tell anyone that!”

“I’m going to tell them everything about you. About this awful dress, and about your horrid mother working in a horrid post office and doing dressmaking!”

Laura wrenches the dress away from Lilith and bursts out savagely, “And I’ll tell them your mother’s a drunk!”

Lilith is horrified. “What?”

Advancing on Lilith, Laura snarls, “And you try and hide her away, but sometimes she gets out, and she puts mustard on her pudding and she can’t feed herself properly, and you can’t even give her a knife because she might cut somebody’s throat!”

Lilith bumps into the door and wails, “It’s not true!”

“I can still tell everyone, can’t I? And they’ll believe me. So you shut up and leave me alone!” Lilith dashes out of the room. This is not a moment of triumph, this is Laura going to her dark place. Laura throws the dress into a corner and sinks into a chair.

According to Kennedy:

The wisdom Laura learns is that of outwardly conforming, and saying what her companions expect of her. One of Richardson’s achievements is that despite the autobigraphical element Laura never becomes a heroine whose inner strength and genuine moral superiority set her apart. It is quite clear that Laura objects to snobbery and bullying because she is the victim, not because she dislikes snobbery and bullying per se (2012).

If you’re sick of teen films where protagonists have to be conventionally beautiful, good, nice, uncomplicated and staunchly heterosexual, I would strongly encourage you to check out The Getting of Wisdom.

Trailer

Reference

  • Chong, Weng Ho. 2013. “In the market for men” — Rodney Hall on fiction and The Getting of Wisdom. http://blogs.crikey.com.au/culture-mulcher/2012/03/20/in-the-market-for-men-rodney-hall-on-fiction-and-the-getting-of-wisdom/
  • Corones, Eva Jarring. 1983. The Portrayal of Women in the Fiction of Henry Handel Richardson. Lund, Sweden: CWK Gleerup.
  • Darren, Alison. 2000. Lesbian Film Guide. London and New York: Cassell.
  • Geason, Susan. Great Australian Girls and the Remarkable Women They Became. Sydney: ABC Books.
  • Kennedy, John. 2012. The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson. Classic Readers: ALIA Retirees. http://retireereaders.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/getting-of-wisdom-by-henry-handel.html
  • Richardson, Henry Handel [Ethel]. 2009 (originally published 1910). The Getting of Wisdom. Melbourne, Victoria: Penguin.
  • Treagus, Mandy. 2014. Empire Girls: The Colonial Heroine Comes of Age. Adelaide, South Australia: The University of Adelaide Press.
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