Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson was born into an affluent Melbourne family in 1870. Her father Walter was a doctor of medicine. When Richardson was nine he died of syphilis after being admitted to Melbourne’s Kew mental asylum. His illness and suffering had a huge impact on his family.
After his death, Richardson’s mother took her children to Maldon where she worked as the postmistress. Richardson was sent to board at the Presbyterian Ladies College in 1883—an experience that provided material for her novel The Getting of Wisdom. At school she developed into a talented pianist and tennis player.
In 1888, she travelled to Europe with her mother and studied at the Leipzig Conservatorium where she met John George Robertson, a Scottish expert in German literature. The pair married and settled in London. She published her first novel, Maurice Guest, in 1908, taking the pen name of Henry Handel Richardson (which she used for all of her books).
Richardson made her only journey back to Australia in 1912 to complete her research for the trilogy that would become The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. Her final novel The Young Cosima appeared in 1939. Henry Handel Richardson died in Sussex in 1946.