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Dorothy M. Richardson

On May 17, 1873, an extraordinary woman who would go on to become an extraordinary writer was born.  Dorothy Richardson began work on  Pilgrimage, her life-long experimental novel, around 1915, about the same time that Joyce, Proust, and Woolf were conducting similar literary experiments.  She was the first writer to work in what came to be called "stream of consciousness."  Virginia Woolf credited her with the invention of something that Woolf herself would go on to make famous, "the psychological sentence of the feminine gender."

Pilgrimage is an autobiographical work, covering twenty-five years of Richardson's remarkable and moving life.  Living alone in poverty and near-isolation, she set out to find a literary style with which to tell the story of a young woman coming into possession of herself while painstakingly avoiding the fluffery of "the romantic and realist novel alike." 

Born into impoverished gentility, from the age of seventeen Richardson was forced to earn her own living.  She worked for a while as a tutor-governess, first in Hanover and then in London.  Finally, she took a position in an English country house.

Richardson's mother committed suicide in 1895, and that led to the breakup of the family.  Richardson moved back to London and went to work Harley Street as a secretary/assistant to a dentist.

While in London, she began moving among avant garde Socialist and artistic circles, including the Bloomsbury set.  She began publishing translations and working as a freelance journalist and eventually gave up her secretarial job.  In 1917, she married artist Alan Odel.  Odel was years younger than she and was a distinctly Bohemian figure, with his waist-length hair wound around his head.  Until his death in 1948, he spent the winters with his wife in Cornwall and the summers in London.

Throughout her career, Richardson published large numbers of essays, poems, short stories, sketches, and journalistic pieces.  But her reputation as a writer rests firmly on her Pilgrimage sequence.  The first of the works in the group, Pointed Roofs (1915), was the first book in English to explore stream of consciousness.  The author disliked the term as used to describe her work, preferring to call her form of writing "interior monologues."  The discovery of this technique is often credited to Joyce and Woolf, and the failure to regard Richardson's role as pivotal to its development is due mostly to the critical neglect of Richardson's writing during her lifetime.  The fact that Pointed Roofs displays the writer's admiration for German culture at a time when Britain and Germany were at war may also have contributed to the general lack of recognition of the book's radical importance.

Often thought of as a feminist writer, Richardson calls for equal rights for women and affirms the importance of the feminine point-of-view as subject matter for her books.  The main character in Pilgrimage, Miriam, is a woman in search of her own full identity, which she knows is impossible to define in male terms of reference.  To achieve the right effect, Richardson bent the rules of punctuation nearly to breaking, and she extended sentence length to the point of near annoyance.  All that she did, she explained, in the name of "feminine prose," which she clearly saw as necessary for the expression of her character's feminine experience.

She also worked hard at removing her presence as narrator from her works.  She complained about male writers constantly injecting their voices into their work.  "Bang, bang, bang, on they go, these men's books, like an L.C.C. tram, yet unable to make you forget them, the authors, for a moment."  She liked James' works for their psychological depth, but she abhorred his male ego, which she described as "a non-stop waggling of the backside as he hands out, on a salver, sentence after sentence.... So what?  One feels, reaching the end of the drama in a resounding box, where no star shines and no bird sings." 

Richardson's goal was to develop a style that allowed her to disappear from her work while allowing art its own "power to create, or arouse, and call into operation...the human faculty of contemplation."

In fact, she succeeded all too well, both in her work and personally.  Although she caused an initial flurry of interest in stream of consciousness, she just as quickly disappeared from the literary scene.  Book sales lagged even behind her fame, and she had to depend upon the kindness of friends and her own work ethics to support herself.  While Proust was independently wealthy, Joyce had rich patrons and sponsors, and Woolf had her own publishing house, Richardson struggled along on her own, something she did for half a century.  When her one affair resulted in pregnancy and then miscarriage, she was upset about losing the baby but happy to give up the father, H. G. Wells. 

Living in an attic on the edge of fame was a way of life to which she seemed resigned.  Two blocks away, the Bloomsbury Group met regularly.  Six blocks from there, Mary Wolstonecraft had, a century earlier, written Vindication of the Rights of Women.  Across the alley from her flat, she could see W. B. Yeats writing by the light of "two immensely tall, thick white candles." 

Yet, despite her influence on those who would follow in her literary footsteps--and eventually overtake them--she seemed too preoccupied with her writing to be very concerned about her success. 

It was only when she was alone and in the intervals of quiet reading that she came into possession of her hands.  With others they oppressed her by their size and their lack of feminine expressiveness.  No one could fall in love with such hands.  Loving her, someone might come to tolerate them.  They were utterly unlike Eve's plump, white, inflexible little palms. But they were her strength.  They came between her and the world of women.  They would be her companions until the end.  They would wither.  But the bones would not change.  The bones would be laid, unchanged and wise, in her grave. - from Pilgrimage

Dorothy Richardson died alone, greatly forgotten and in poverty, in 1957.

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