No Sense of an Ending

Jane Eldridge Miller

  • Windows on Modernism: Selected Letters of Dorothy Richardson edited by Gloria Fromm
    Georgia, 696 pp, £58.50, February 1995, ISBN 0 8203 1659 8

To read the letters of Dorothy Richardson is to become exhausted, vicariously, by the ‘non-stop housewifery’ which consumed her days. From 1918 until 1939, Richardson and her husband moved three times a year. Every autumn, they settled in a primitive rented cottage in Cornwall, where Richardson was responsible for shopping, cooking and cleaning, as well as for her own and her husband’s sizeable correspondence. In the spring, Richardson would pack up their belongings and they would move to nearby lodgings for a few months, only to pack up again, this time to live in London for the summer, where Richardson’s domestic duties lessened but her social ones increased, as she and her husband met friends and associates they were unable to see the rest of the year. Then in the autumn, Richardson prepared their London rooms for winter tenants, and they returned to Cornwall.

Even after the war brought an end to this routine, Richardson continued to live in austere conditions in various Cornwall cottages, with little domestic help, until 1953, four years before her death. It is amazing that she found time to write the letters collected in this edition, let alone her 13-volume novel Pilgrimage, whose experimental narrative anticipated those of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. It’s an odd conjunction: on the one hand, Joyce and Woolf; on the other, Dorothy Richardson, Modernist, struggling to light a recalcitrant wood stove or wearing galoshes to cook breakfast in a flooded kitchen.

In the Twenties and Thirties, Richardson’s work was frequently linked with that of Joyce and Woolf. By the time of Joyce’s death, his reputation was firmly established. Woolf finally attained prominence in the Seventies. But even after a feminist revival in the Seventies and Eighties, Richardson seems destined to remain what Ford Maddox Ford once called her – an ‘abominably unknown contemporary writer’. Many factors have contributed to her anomalous position in literary history, but these letters underscore the significance of her rejection of a literary life and her refusal to foster a public image. Although she had acquaintances in the literary world (her correspondents included H.G. Wells, Bryher, H.D. and John Cowper Powys), most of her life was lived in obscurity, and her friendships were mainly epistolary ones. Her aversion to having her picture taken and her reluctance to submit to interviews (she believed that readers should ‘keep their illusions’ about the authors they read) rendered her personally invisible and the intentions behind her work enigmatic. One unfortunate but slightly comic consequence of this self-effacement was that she began to be confused with an American writer also named Dorothy Richardson, whose photograph kept haunting reviews of Pilgrimage. In exasperation, Richardson declared: ‘I think that about finishes me. I shall try advertisement writing.’ The publication of her letters brings Richardson into the public eye as never before, but the letters chronicle a quiet life almost entirely devoid of drama or emotional upheaval. In that respect, and in their detailed recording of the fabric of daily life, they resemble Pilgrimage, in which, as the novelist May Sinclair noted approvingly, ‘nothing happens.’

Richardson was the third of four daughters of a man who sold the family grocery business in order to live as a ‘gentleman’. But the privileges she enjoyed – summer holidays by the sea, a good education at Southborough House in Putney – were tempered by anxieties over her father’s waning fortune and her mother’s mental illness. In the late 1880s, her father made a series of disastrous investments, which led Richardson, at the age of 17, to accept a teaching position in Germany to ease her family’s financial situation. She later taught at a girls’ school in North London and worked as a governess. But after her father was declared bankrupt in 1893, and her mother committed suicide in 1895, Richardson decided to make a fresh start by moving to London and living on her own. She rented an attic room on the edge of Bloomsbury and began working as a secretary-assistant for a Harley Street dentist.

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