Dorothy Richardson


by Anthony Domestico

Dorothy Richardson

Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957), now largely ignored but once regarded as one of the most important of modernist novelists, was a pioneer of the stream-of-consciousness technique.  Her thirteen-novel project, Pilgrimage, is a prime example of modernism at its finest and most maddening: dilatory in its pacing, challenging in its form, and concerned above all else with the faithful representation of the (oftentimes dull) whims of everyday consciousness.

Richardson was born in Abington, Oxfordshire in 1873.  Due to her family’s financial difficulties, she was forced to find employment at the age of 17, working as a governess and then later as a dental assistant.  This experience would provide fodder for Richardson’s depiction of her heroine’s ventures into the working world in Pilgrimage.

While in London working at a dental office, Richardson came into contact with a number of literary and cultural figures.  She began writing freelance for the Dental Record and other publications.  Her first two books, the 1914 The Quakers Past and Presentand the 1915 Gleanings from the Work of George Fox, were non-fictional works concerned primarily with religious history.

In September of 1915, the first volume of Pilgrimage, entitled Pointed Roofs, appeared, introducing the figure of Miriam Henderson to English letters.  Richardson’s prose was experimental, relying upon long lists and paratactic sentences to map the consciousness of a young woman serving as a tutor-governess at a German boarding school.  Not nearly as formally challenging as her own later work, this first novel was still a daring first step: in writing a female Bildungsroman, in believing that the mind of a young, working class girl was itself a worthy topic for fictional exploration, Richardson helped lay the ground for experiments by other writers such as May Sinclair and Virginia Woolf.

Richardson continued working tirelessly on Pilgrimage, with new volumes coming out almost yearly.  In 1918, May Sinclair wrote a laudatory review of Richardson for the Little Review, comparing Richardson’s new novel with James Joyce’s recent A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  In this review, Sinclair used the term “stream of consciousness” to describe Richardson’s novelistic technique; this was the first time the term had been used to describe the fictional representation of the mind.  Throughout much of the early twentieth century, Richardson was paired with Joyce and Woolf as one of the originators and developers of this most modernist of techniques.

Richardson’s personal life was fraught with difficulties.  In 1917, she married the artist Alan Odle.  She would go on to have an affair with H.G. Wells, resulting in a pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage.  Her books were not as well regarded as those of Woolf or Joyce, and she struggled to make ends meet throughout her entire writing career.  She died in 1957, her reputation having waned while those of other modernists waxed.  Richardson remains the most forgotten of the early and innovative practitioners of the stream-of-consciousness method