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Dorothy Richardson

May 17, 1873
Dorothy Richardson   (1873 - 1957)
"The Genius They Forgot"
by Steve King

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On this day in 1873 Dorothy Richardson was born. Pilgrimage, Richardson's life-long experimental novel, began appearing in 1915, at about the time Joyce and Proust were engaged in similar experiments. While Richardson may or may not be "the genius they forgot" (the subtitle of one biography), her writing was the first to be described as "stream of consciousness," and Virginia Woolf credited Richardson with the invention of something that Woolf herself would go on to make famous -- "the psychological sentence of the feminine gender."

Pilgrimage is autobiographical, covering twenty-five years of Richardson's remarkable and moving life. Living alone, in poverty and near-isolation, Richardson set out to find a literary style which could tell the story of a young woman coming into possession of herself, and avoid the dressings-up of "the romantic and realist novel alike." She also wanted a genuinely female voice: "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 gave Henry James good marks for psychological depth, but failed him on male ego -- "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 a style that allowed the author to disappear, and allowed art "its power to create, or arouse, and call into operation ... the human faculty of contemplation."

She disappeared all too well, in fact and fiction. There was an initial flurry of interest in her "stream of consciousness" style, and even periodic bursts of fame: book reviews on "the comparative merits of exhaustive M. Proust, modest Miss Richardson or stupendous Mr. Joyce"; one Paris dinner with the Hemingway-Stein set; a place in Ford Madox Ford's The March of Literature -- though, already in 1939, so far back that she was the "amazing phenomenon" of a "great" novelist accorded "complete world neglect." Sales lagged even further behind the fame, and supported by only hack work and occasional charity -- Proust was independently wealthy, Joyce had his rich patron and his helpmeets, Woolf had her own publishing house -- Richardson had to struggle on alone. This she quietly did, for a half-century.

The strong impression gathered from the biographies is that Richardson preferred it this way. She left home as a teenager, and soon learned "what London can mean as a companion." She was attracted to those fomenting change -- Fabians, Suffragettes, Anarchists -- but so determined for independence that she could not join any group. When her one affair resulted in pregnancy and then miscarriage, she was distraught to lose the baby but glad to lose the father -- H. G. Wells. She lived in an attic, on the edge of fame in all ways: two blocks away from where the Bloomsbury Group met; a half-dozen blocks from where Mary Woolstonecraft had, a century earlier, written Vindication of the Rights of Women; across the alley from where, at night, she could see W. B. Yeats writing by the light of "two immensely tall, thick white candles." Later, when she married the painter Alan Odle, one much younger and even more impoverished than herself, the only affordable recreation from their day's work would be a late night bus ride: "We went right down into the deserted city and over London Bridge, and saw a very nice young golden moon."

Richardson's style is sometimes described as cinematic. If so, it is that of the most scrupulous documentary, and unlikely to attract anyone who enjoys even a splash of Hollywood -- though recent scholars might attract attention with talk of her "lesbian modernism." Whatever her accomplishment, it came from her own two hands:
    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.

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