Following on from my earlier post, I thought I would write a little about Dorothy Richardson’s intentions for Pilgrimage before discussing the first book or ‘chapter’, Pointed Roofs. In their edition Virago reprinted a foreword Richardson wrote in 1938, presumably to the first four-volume collection of Pilgrimage. Richardson uses this Foreword to restore her reputation and insist on her place in English letters as the inventor of a new form for the novel.
Richardson begins by explaining how the novel, in 1911, was dominated by realism. It was then that she decided to write a novel herself, which she saw as a gendered task:
Since all these novelists [Bennett’s successors] happened to be men, the present writer, proposing at this moment to write a novel and looking round for a contemporary pattern, was faced with the choice between following one of her regiments and attempting to produce a feminine equivalent of the current masculine realism.
She chose the second path, but quickly became dissatisfied with her work and the inadequacy of the form to express the reality she perceived. Her explanation is extremely tortuous in terms of syntax, as if she found it difficult to put into words but at the same time was fastidious in conveying it as precisely as possible:
Aware, as she wrote [Richardson writes of herself in the third person throughout the Foreword], of the gradual falling away of the preoccupations that for a while had dictated the briskly moving script, and of the substitution, for these inspiring preoccupations, of a stranger in the form of contemplated reality having for the first time in her experience its own say, and apparently justifying those who acclaim writing as the surest means of discovering the truth about one’s own thoughts and beliefs, she had been at the same time increasingly tormented, not only by the failure, of this now so independently assertive reality, adequately to appear within the text, but by its revelation, whencesoever focused, of a hundred faces, any one of which, the moment it was entrapped within the close mesh of direct statement, summoned its fellows to disqualify it.
In fact, reality itself, or ‘contemplated reality’, is given form as a critic looking over Richardson’s shoulder, that form having been given by the act of writing itself. In other words, the subject of the literary act is continuously commenting on it, as if art and reality are caught in a continuous, looping dialogue.
In 1913, the opening pages of the attempted chronicle became the first chapter of ‘Pilgrimage,’ written to the accompaniment of a sense of being on a fresh pathway, an adventure so searching and, sometimes, so joyous as to produce a longing for participation [...]
Richardson is anxious throughout the Foreword to emphasise the originality, the ‘freshness’, of her work as it is fundamental to her fashioning her reputation. She is absolutely determined to establish herself as the first novelist to walk along this literary ‘path’, to use ‘stream of consciousness’ in English (not that she likes the term, satirically characterising it as ‘gladly welcomed by all who could persuade themselves of the possibility of comparing consciousness to a stream’) and to that end turns to a discussion of competitors for that title.
Richardson mentions ‘two figures’ who had simultaneously embarked on the ‘lonely track’ she had taken: ‘a woman mounted upon a magnificently caparisoned charger’ and ‘a man walking, with eyes devoutly closed, weaving as he went a rich garment of new words [...]’. I assume these are Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and wonder why she does not name them. She acknowledges that Proust actually got there first, but he could not have influenced her since she had not read his work and had only second-hand information about it (‘News came [...] said to be [...]’):
News came from France of one Marcel Proust, said to be producing an unprecedentedly profound and opulent reconstruction of experience focused from within the mind of a single individual [...]
Henry James was another (named) rival and here Richardson really betrays her ambition to be accepted as the first to tread the ‘lonely track’:
Finally, however, the role of pathfinder was declared to have been played by a venerable old gentleman, a charmed and charming high priest of nearly all the orthodoxies, inhabiting a softly lit enclosure he mistook, until 1914, for the universe, and celebrated by evolving, for the accommodation of his vast tracts of urbane commentary, a prose style demanding, upon the first reading, a perfection of sustained concentration akin to that which brought if forth [...]
Apart from the swift blow with the claws, one can almost hear her muttering ‘I am the pathfinder!’ and she admits ‘it was [...] not without a sense of relief that the present writer discovered, in [James’s criticism on] “Wilhelm Meister” [...]’ that she found James laying out rules for The Novel which differed entirely from her approach. So he was not the pathfinder after all!
Having settled the question of originality, Richardson ends her Foreword with a defence of her punctuation:
Feminine prose, as Charles Dickens and James Joyce have delightfully shown themselves to be aware, should properly be unpunctuated, moving from point to point without formal obstructions. And the author of ‘Pilgrimage’ must confess to an early habit of ignoring, while writing, the lesser of the stereotyped system of signs, and, further, when finally sprinkling in what appeared to be necessary, to a small unconscious departure from current usage. While meeting approval, first from the friend who discovered and pointed it out to her, then from an editor who welcomed the article she wrote to elucidate and justify it, and, recently, by the inclusion of this article in a text-book for students of journalism and its translation into French, the small innovation, in further complicating the already otherwise sufficiently complicated task of the official reader, helped to produce the chaos for which she is now justly reproached.
In other words, dear reader, should you find Richardson’s prose difficult the reason is that you are a dunderhead. I enjoy her feigned humility. Richardson seems similarly humble earlier in the Foreword. She is rather disingenuous about how Pointed Roofs and its sequel came to be published, claiming it was entirely through the insistence of a ‘kind friend’ rather than her own efforts or ambitions. (‘Oh, I didn’t think of publishing but other people persuaded me [because my work is SO amazing]’ is actually rather a Renaissance trope, and has a lot of precedents among female writers from times when publishing their literary work was considered Unwomanly.) (Not that I disbelieve her account, I just think that she may not have been quite as diffident as she implies.)
(Dorothy Richardson (1917), from Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)
Richardson is deadly serious in this Foreword, recognising it as her chance to establish her reputation. She was, after all, sixty-five years old when she wrote it and all too aware not only of how undervalued her fiction was in comparison to all those she referenced in the Foreword, but also that she did not have unlimited time or opportunity left to rectify that. Consequently I found that the prose labours slightly under the weight it carries; the passage I quoted, near the beginning of this post, in which she describes her realisation that her original form was inadequate took several readings to yield its meaning to me and her sentences tend to be long and qualified by many subclauses, as if she tried to pack in as much as she could while rendering an accurate and nuanced account. I think she was also rather uncomfortable about promoting herself, hence the moments of catty wit and unconvincing humility – she isn’t sure how to do it, despite having a strong sense of her own worth as a novelist. All of which I find endearing.
It is also interesting that she places her work as in the realist tradition but in opposition to the ‘male’ novel. (As I mentioned in the earlier post, Elaine Showalter traces this antagonism to her affair with H.G. Wells.)
And when I do finally start writing about Pointed Roofs itself, you will see when I quote from it that, in this novel at least, her novelistic style was entirely unlike the Foreword: vivid, ‘joyous’, fresh and luminous.