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.

The years she spent in London at the turn of the century were exciting and fruitful ones: Richardson became involved with, but never wholly committed to, various political and religious groups, including the suffragettes and the Fabians; she read widely and attended lectures on philosophy and science; and she began a lifelong friendship with H.G, Wells, who encouraged her to write. By 1908, she had left her job and her lodgings, and was working as a freelance journalist, moving back and forth between the homes of various friends and family members. But it wasn’t until 1912, when she was almost forty, that she wrote Pointed Roofs, the first volume of what she saw as a new kind of novel. It marked the beginning of a project that was to be her life’s work and the basis for her (sometime) reputation as one of the most important innovators of the modern novel.

Pilgrimage, as the novel came to be known, depicts the consciousness of its autobiographical heroine, Miriam Henderson, from the age of 17, when she is about to leave for a teaching post in Germany, until she is 40, and preparing to write a novel very much like Pilgrimage. The narrative, written predominantly in the third person, is limited strictly to Miriam’s perspective: any information that the reader is given is filtered through Miriam in a style that Sinclair, borrowing from William James, labelled ‘stream of consciousness’. Richardson loathed the term, calling it a ‘death-dealing metaphor’, but it remains an accurate description of the way in which associations of thoughts and emotions determine the movement of the narrative. Conventions such as plot and characterisation, along with climaxes and conclusions, were rejected by Richardson as impediments to the representation of reality. Instead, she sought to create ‘a feminine equivalent of the current masculine realism’ – a realism grounded in subjective experience, which would capture, in form and content, what Richardson felt to be the essence of a woman’s life.

Richardson’s ambitious project presented numerous difficulties for her readers. The style of her novels is challenging in its unusual syntax and punctuation, its sudden changes in tense or person, the obscurity of its references and the minutiae of its details. Adhering to the reality of her own life, Richardson refused to make Miriam more appealing than she herself was as a young woman, or to create events to make Miriam’s life more exciting than hers had been. But the greatest problem was that she wasn’t telling a recognisable story: each volume is inconclusive, neither driven by any particular conflict nor moving to any definite resolution. While Joyce and Woolf also rejected conventional plots, they created new forms of structure and coherence. In contrast, Richardson’s volumes are essentially formless, and, more important, incomplete, since each volume is a chapter in a continuing work. The most radical aspect of Richardson’s fiction is this absence of an ending, which deprives the reader of one of the most basic pleasures of fiction and means that details and experiences must be accepted without any hope that they will be given order or meaning. Apart from an interest in Miriam, there is little impetus to read to the end of the individual novel, let alone to pick up volume after volume.

The lack of an ending also made publication problematic and the letters shed light on this previously ignored, but clearly important, factor in the strange vicissitudes of Richardson’s reputation. She wrote volume after volume, and expected her publishers (and her readers) to stick with her. But as these letters reveal, sales were poor and reviews mixed and with each new volume her publishers were more reluctant to go on and less forthcoming with advances and royalties. Given the demanding nature of her writing and the fact that Richardson seems never to have indicated when the novel would end, it’s remarkable that her work was published at all. The letters demonstrate that she devoted a great deal of energy to defending her project to her agent and publishers: she dismisses negative criticism by insisting that the work cannot be properly appreciated until it is viewed as a whole; she presses for the continuance of advances so that she can keep turning out volumes in quick succession; she argues that all her books must be kept in print by quoting letters from fans who have difficulty obtaining them from libraries.

By 1935, Richardson had published 11 ‘chapter-volumes’ over the course of two decades. It was unreasonable to expect many readers to stay with a single character for such a period of time, and new readers who happened on random volumes were at a loss to discover what the other volumes were or in what order they should be read. The fate of Pilgrimage was sealed with the publication of what was advertised as a four-volume ‘complete’ edition in 1938. Richard Church, an editor at Dent, wrote a strongly worded letter to Richardson arguing that a concluded Pilgrimage was absolutely necessary to, indeed was her last chance for, ‘the secure establishment of ... fame’. Richardson, wanting to keep her books in print, agreed to the edition, although she knew Dimple Hill, advertised as the final chapter-volume of Pilgrimage, was no such thing. The ensuing confusion and critical indifference were disheartening. Even though she worked intermittently during the last two decades of her life on March Moonlight, which she regarded as the final volume, it remained unfinished at the time of her death, and wasn’t published until 1967.

It was not only the nature of the work but also the nature of Richardson’s life which protracted the publication of Pilgrimage. Only two years after she embarked on her career as Dorothy Richardson, experimental novelist, she became Mrs Alan Odle, wife of an eccentric, sickly and impoverished artist and illustrator, 15 years her junior. The competing demands of these two roles fill her letters and are pointed to by Richardson as the reason almost every volume of Pilgrimage contains sections that are ‘I.R.’ – her shorthand for ‘imperfectly realised’. Odle’s health necessitated that they spend winters in Cornwall and his inability to make a living from his bizarre and rather risqué drawings thrust the burden of their support on Richardson. Rarely able to afford any house-hold help, she took on all the domestic duties herself and had little time left for writing Pilgrimage. One of the key refrains of her letters is: ‘I pine for a wife & a secretary.’ She writes to Bryher that ‘I’ now convinced that the reason why women don’t turn out much in the way of “art” is the everlasting multiplicity of their preoccupations, let alone the endless doing of jobs, a multiplicity unknown in any kind of male.’ One can’t help but think of Woolf, who did indeed get herself a wife in Leonard, in that he was able to make room in their lives for her writing. But Richardson got a child-husband, whose ‘pristine innocence’ and apparent helplessness she seemed never to begrudge. When revenue from Pilgrimage dwindled away, she began to do more of what she called ‘pot-boiling’: journalism, translations, even editing and proof-reading work for Wells. She drove herself so hard in the early Thirties that she suffered a breakdown, and afterwards was unable to write for any extended period of time. Unlike Woolf, she never found a way to separate herself enough from the demands of life to create the kind of art she wanted to create.

The surprising thing that these letters reveal is that Richardson doesn’t really seem to have wanted to separate herself from life in order to create art. Even though she repeatedly blames her domestic situation for the unsatisfactory quality of individual volumes and for her inability to complete the work, her letters tell a different story. While her financial difficulties were indeed real and oppressive (until she was aided by pensions from Bryher and the government), other burdens – the continual moving, the housework, the never-ending correspondence – were, to a large extent, self-imposed and self-perpetuated. She never challenges Odle’s status as ‘a man of leisure’ and even when they can afford a part-time maid, she is hesitant to get one. The correspondence that she complains about was enormous: in a letter from 1944, she calculates that ‘I must write, in any average year, upwards of 125,000 words in letters alone; the equivalent of nearly three of my books.’ Somehow, she managed to find the time to write a great deal, but more often than not she chose not to work on Pilgrimage, The fact is that the life she and Odle created for themselves gave Richardson a great deal of pleasure, which radiates from these letters: she delights in their conversations and their daily routines, in the people and the sights of Cornwall, in the changing seasons, even in the challenges of their crude accommodation in Cornwall and the chaos of their hectic weeks in London. She admits to a friend that reading a biography of Proust ‘turned me for a while green with envy’ but she then concedes that ‘on the whole I’d rather spend my whole life falling between two stools than in despairing of the world in 12 volumes.’

It was actually art rather than life, which proved to be a burden for Richardson. When she began Pilgrimage, the project was innovative and exciting; as the years passed, it became a straitjackct, allowing no escape and little room for artistic development. While Joyce and Woolf completed novels and moved on to new ones, Richardson was tied to Miriam and the events of her own past. She obviously felt she owed it to her patrons and her readers to finish Pilgrimage, but her diminishing interest is evident from the lack of reference to it in her letters for months, even years, at a time. As Richardson grew older, the distance between her fictional self and her present self became greater, and she found it increasingly difficult to relive and re-create her experiences. The irony is that she chose to privilege life over art in her fiction only to find that the writing of that fiction took her away from the life she loved. ‘To write is to forsake life’: Miriam, at the age of 40, contem plating a career as a writer, thinks these words in March Moonlight, but they were written by Richardson when she was in her seventies. The younger woman decides she is willing to pay the price, but the older was not.

The title declares these letters to be ‘windows on Modernism’, but as such, they will surely disappoint. Richardson makes few comments about Joyce, Woolf or other Modernists, and has little to say about her own work apart from her remarks about its publication. The early letters, written at a time when Richardson had contact with many literary figures, including D.H. Lawrence, Ford, Violet Hunt and Middleton Murry, are sketchy and rushed and her tendency to abbreviate makes them even more elusive (a problem which could have been alleviated by more assistance from Gloria Fromm). In later years, after Odle’s death and when the pressure to write Pilgrimage had cased, Richardson’s letters, especially those to Powys and to the poet Henry Savage, became more expansive, but they are as much about theology, politics and mysticism as they are about literature. However, as her 1938 Preface to Pilgrimage demonstrates, Richardson was highly aware of the other modern writers with whom she was most often compared, and her letters contain some interesting assessments of them. She is unabashed in her praise of ‘the sublime simple perfection’ of Proust’s art, but she carefully distinguishes his mode from her own: ‘he is not ... writing through consciousness, but about consciousness, a vastly different enterprise.’ Even though she was profoundly indebted to Henry James, she characterises his style as ‘a non-stop wiggling of his backside as he hands out, on a salver, sentence after sentence’. Her criticisms of prominent women writers such as Rebecca West, Elizabeth Bowen and Woolf appear to be coloured by jealousy, while her praise of lesser-known women writers, such as Ruth Suckow and E.B.C. Jones, seems extravagant.

It is something of a shock to discover that the prototype of the pessimistic and deprecatory Miriam was genuinely nice and endlessly interested and optimistic. Even in the face of World War Two, her letters celebrate the camaraderie and generosity which the deprivations of war prompted in her neighbours. Her curiosity about the world was not diminished by age, even after Odle’s death: it is marvellous to read a woman who came of age in the Late Victorian era enthusiastically discussing movies, the Cold War and Henry Miller (whose fiction she praises for its feminine qualities). The letters written when she was in her seventies are as lively as those written in her thirties, and confirm her assertion that life grows ‘richer & richer as the allowance of time ahead grows shorter’. In 1952, she writes reassuringly to Savage, five years her junior, that ‘just upon 80, I still feel astonishment over the fact, consciously discovered, in solitude, at the age of three, of there being anything, anywhere, & still look forward.’ Just a few months later her writing – of letters and of March Moonlight – came to an abrupt halt and she spent her final years being cared for in a nursing-home. She left March Moonlight unfinished, without an ending, a fact that has been much regretted, but which seems appropriate. Pilgrimage is more a work of life than a work of fiction, and in life, unlike fiction, meaning isn’t determined by the ending, but by the living.