I was intending to tackle the modernists chronologically, as far as possible. But I was too impatient to wait for myself to complete the reading list, which would have indicated where to start and excitedly plunged right into Pointed Roofs, the first book or chapter of Dorothy Richardson’s thirteen-novel record of the life of Miriam Henderson, Pilgrimage. Pointed Roofs, begun in 1913 and published in 1915, is considered the first stream-of-consciousness novel in English, preceding both Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway; in fact, Virginia Woolf wrote this of it (quoted on the back of my Virago Modern Classics edition):
There is no one word, such as romance or realism, to cover, even roughly, the works of Miss Dorothy Richardson. The chief characteristic is one for which we still seek a name. She has invented a sentence we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender...proving that the novel is not hung on a nail festooned with glory, but, on the contrary, walks the high road, alive and alert, and brushes shoulders with real men and women...
Yet Richardson is not nearly as well known as James Joyce or Woolf, despite Virago reissuing Pilgrimage and a collection of her short stories as Modern Classics. Indeed, her work has languished out of print for a while, although print on demand seems to be working in her favour and the Virago editions are in print again, albeit at weirdly high prices. I wonder why she is so much more obscure than most of her contemporaries.
Difficulty may be one reason; length may be another, one which discouraged even other modernist writers. When it was originally published, Katherine Mansfield was less than enthusiastic about Richardson’s work, criticising the novels The Tunnel and Interim as lacking proportion, ‘leav[ing] us feeling...that everything being of equal importance to her, it is impossible that everything should not be of equal unimportance’, and complaining that Richardson ‘seems deliberately to set [her mind] a task, just for the joy of realizing again how brilliant a machine it is’. In A Literature of Their Own Elaine Showalter expresses similar reservations, writing that ‘Richardson’s art is afraid of an ending’, and seems to find her resistance to structure problematic. It is possible, therefore, that Richardson’s magnus opus, taken as a whole, did not succeed, or at least her intentions for it were not always understood.
Showalter also claims that Richardson might have been ‘the Gertrude Stein of the English novel if she had been more self-promoting and more affluent’. I think that’s an important point. Undoubtedly, women novelists have struggled to gain the same level of recognition as their male counterparts; without a talent for publicity or influential friends, obscurity has been a real threat to them. Other, better-known modernist women writers did have support. Mansfield was posthumously championed by John Middleton Murry. Jean Rhys was rediscovered by Diana Athill at André Deutsch in the 1960s. Woolf was a central figure in a highly influential artistic and intellectual coterie, and ran her own publishing house. So it would appear, at least initially, that being the female author of an experimental and lengthy work of fiction (and I can think of no other, can you?) was not enough to establish Dorothy Richardson in the popular canon. (I don’t count academics, they’ve been writing about her for years of course.)
So who was Dorothy Richardson? She was born in Abingdon, near Oxford, in 1873, the third of four sisters in a middle-class family. Later the family moved to London, where Dorothy attended a progressive school named Southborough House. Their fortunes had already proved to be somewhat precarious, and when Dorothy was seventeen they suffered a disastrous reversal after her father’s speculations failed. This prompted Dorothy to seek employment and her first appointment was at a German school. She then worked as a teacher and governess in England. On holiday with Dorothy in 1895, her mother Mary committed suicide by cutting her throat with a kitchen knife; Dorothy found her.
Richardson gave up teaching and moved to Bloomsbury where she lived on an attic on a pound a week earned through secretarial work. She had an affair with H.G. Wells which resulted in a miscarriage in 1907. This drove her close to a breakdown and she may have started writing in reaction to this. Indeed, Showalter sees her literary efforts as an attempt to produce an ‘anti-Wells’ novel, one which opposed his masculine realism. She began with short pieces and reviews published in small periodicals and the Saturday Review before embarking on Pilgrimage, which was her life’s work.
In 1917, at the age of forty-four, Richardson married an artist named Alan Odle, fifteen years her junior. The marriage seems to have been a happy one, the couple having shared views of art and literature. They spent their winters in Cornwall and summers in London, Richardson all the while working on Pilgrimage which she published book by book up to the eleventh one, Clear Horizons (1935). In 1938 Dent published Pilgrimage in four volumes, including a twelfth ‘chapter’, Dimple Hill. The final, unfinished chapter, March Moonlight, was published by Dent (and Alfred Knopf in the US) in 1967. Richardson had died in a nursing home in Kent in 1957, Odle in 1948 in Cornwall to which they had retired permanently in 1939. (Further information on Dorothy Richardson can be found at the Dorothy Richardson website.)
(Adrian Allinson, Portrait of Alan Odle and Dorothy Richardson, undated, from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, which also has some great photographs of Richardson)
Richardson was political, exploring the intellectual groups of early-twentieth-century London – from the Primrose League to groups of Russian anarchists – and supporting women’s suffrage, including visiting imprisoned suffragettes in Holloway. She actively helped refugee German writers in the 1930s. Her father often called her his ‘son’ – he may have been quite a dominating figure in her life – and Richardson’s life suggests that she resisted the expectations of a woman in turn-of-the-century England. Gillian Hanscombe, in the Virago introduction, suggests that Miriam’s pilgrimage in the novels is partly a journey towards resolving the question of whether that resistance represents a failure or a triumph. Hanscombe also gives a wonderful description of Richardson in later life provided by a niece of Odle’s:
In middle age Richardson still had a golden heap of very long hair, piled on the top of her head; she had a ‘massive’ face, dark brown eyes, a clear skin, and pince-nez balanced on her nose, because she was ‘always reading’. She created the impression of being tall, because she was ‘so stately’. [...] Dorothy talked the most [of her and Odle] and late into the night; she seemed never to do ‘anything ordinary’ and had a voice ‘like dark brown velvet’. She spoke very slowly indeed and was ‘immensely impressive as a person’. Her life seemed to be arranged ‘very very carefully’ and she was ‘not at all spontaneous in her actions’. She could ‘only work on a certain image of herself’ which was ‘very cerebral’. It was hard for her to deal with ordinary people. Although she and Alan were very affectionate with each other, they ‘didn’t touch’. [...] Dorothy [...] was ‘very plump, with white creamy arms and very beautiful hands’; ‘as she spoke she would screw up her eyes and slightly purse her mouth and everyone would listen’.
(Alan Odle sounds most eccentric in appearance: ‘in fact over six feet tall, [he] was very thin, with waist-length hair wound around the outside of his head. He never cut his hair and rarely his fingernails, but since he had “beautifully long elegant fingers”, the image he presented was not an unattractive one.’)
Miriam Henderson, through whose consciousness Pilgrimage is filtered, is apparently at least partly based on Richardson herself; certainly her life closely resembles the author’s up until her marriage to Odle, and that is the justification for all this biographical information. Still, this post has run on long enough so I will save discussion of Richardson’s purpose in Pilgrimage for another post.
(Edited to add: Many thanks to Martin Steenson of Books and Things and author of The Life and Work of Alan Odle for pointing out two errors in this post.)