Dorothy M. Richardson: the forgotten revolutionary

Most people today have not heard of Dorothy M. Richardson. In her day, however, she was famous for revolutionising the modern novel. She was the first writer to be labelled “stream of consciousness”, before Virginia Woolf and before James Joyce, and she was generally credited with the invention of a “method” of writing that was modern, innovative and unsettling. 

Richardson’s 13-volume novel Pilgrimage was described by one critic as “the best history yet written of the slow progression from the Victorian period to the modern age”. Miriam Henderson, the character through whose consciousness Pilgrimage is narrated, is engaged in a quest for independence: her father has invested unwisely and her middle-class home is threatened. She does not marry, like her sisters, but leaves home to become a student teacher in Germany, a governess, a live-in teacher in North London and a dental secretary on Harley Street. She gets involved in the political and intellectual life of fin de siècle London. Pilgrimage is a zeitgeist novel. As the world changes around her, the reader is presented with a Miriam who is a collector of experiences: she listens to her first gramophone record, wears her first blouse, sees her first colour photographs. She has a “tremendous adventure” in a café in London, and tries her first lager:
“It was still bitter, but the bitterness was only an astringent tang in the strange cool lively frothy tide; a tingling warmth ran through her nerves, expanding to a golden glow that flowed through the room and held her alight within itself, an elastic impalpable bodiless mind.”
Pilgrimage was also revolutionary in form. Richardson was conveying her main character’s impressions, fragmentary and confusing as these were, and she refused to impose any authorial interpolation: if Miriam doesn’t see it or understand it, the reader doesn’t either. Richardson deplored the kind of novel that she called the “conducted tour, the author leading, visible and audible, all the time”. What was more important than description was the portrayal of the consciousness receiving joy; the repeated realisation of the wonder of being alive:
“There’s so much – eternally. It’s stupendous. I’ve no right to be in it; but I’m in. Someone means me to be in. I can’t help it. Fancy people being alive. You would think every one would go mad.”
It is this joy that novelist May Sinclair celebrated in her famous “stream of consciousness” review of Pilgrimage. She selects several quotations from the first few volumes, each dealing with a kind of mystical revelation. It is not just surface consciousness that is being represented here, but something deeper: “Something that was not touched, that sang far away down inside the gloom, that cared nothing for the creditors.” These moments, early modernist epiphanies, are high points around which the novel is constructed. They are the mystical, profound and memorable moments in a life.

Given Richardson’s importance to the development of the English novel, her subsequent neglect is extraordinary. Her first few books, Pointed Roofs (1915), Backwater (1916) and Honeycomb (1917), were received with rapturous enthusiasm and occasional confusion. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, the gaps between the publication of each instalment grew longer and longer as Richardson struggled to meet her deadlines; a new generation of readers had not read the earlier volumes and were disinclined to “catch up”; some faithful readers were apparently, because of poor promotion, unaware of new volumes appearing. By 1938 she was sufficiently obscure for Ford Madox Ford to bewail the “amazing phenomenon” of her “complete world neglect”. By this time, however, she had managed to change publishers, and a new Collected Edition of Pilgrimage was published by Dent & Cresset Press in 1938. This was the edition that Virago Press used when it republished Pilgrimage in the late 1970s, in its admirable but temporary repopularisation of Richardson.

Now, 100 years after her first novel, Pointed Roofs, was published, modernist scholars are once again reclaiming her work. The Arts and Humanities Research Council has awarded a large grant to the Dorothy Richardson Scholarly Editions Project, which is publishing her novels and a collected edition of her letters with Oxford University Press; a blue plaque dedicated to her was unveiled in May; and today marks the launch of a free online exhibition of her selected letters with commentary.

The website tells two stories, which the visitor can follow by clicking through and reading high-quality images of the original letters, with the beautiful and ornate handwriting that she was known for. There are blots and tears, and one letter, her first attempt at typewriting, is a masterpiece of typography: “itis so exciting tomake mistakes in sp/elling and in spacing ... issee now that Dada/came first into beig/on a type writer/ __wyhavecappitalsorsep/arateyourwqrdsb/bbbBBBBBB BBBB . . .”

The letters are almost tangible, fascinating as artefacts in their own right, and the stories they tell give an intriguing glimpse into Richardson’s life and working practice.

The story of the 1938 edition is one of those showcased in the online exhibition, through the letters Richardson wrote to her friend S. S. Koteliansky. A translator and editor, Koteliansky was friend to several modernist writers, notably Katherine Mansfield, and understood the publishing world. When Richardson complained to him, in December 1933, that she wasn’t making any money from her contract with Duckworth, he urged her to switch publishers. It was not so simple, she replied: if she had even a single volume published with a different press, Duckworth would let the earlier volumes go out of print. A new publisher would have to “acquire his stock” and pay back her unearned advance of “something like £60” to Duckworth. She also wanted the new publisher to issue a “definitive, corrected edition, unlimited, of Pilgrimage in four volumes”. “Kot” rose to the challenge, and by March 1935 she was writing to the novelist and editor Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman) about this “miracle”.

Bryher, who was the life partner of the American poet H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), was immensely important in Richardson’s life. She was one of Richardson’s most regular correspondents, she gave her regular gifts of money, and she supported the writing of Pilgrimage through her persistent enthusiasm for the project.

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