Like many of the world’s best discoveries, I stumbled on Dorothy Richardson by accident. I had always been fascinated by Virginia Woolf, and wanted to write a PhD thesis about her. One breathlessly hot June day, I went to the London University library to search for an angle that hadn’t been explored before. The shelves were crammed with critical and biographical works; it was impossible to find anything fresh to say. Frustration mounted: I remember sweat trickling down the back of my shirt, and my head beginning to feel dense and woolly, as though it was packed with raw cotton.
And then, opening a book at random, I found a review by Virginia about a writer whose name I did not recognise. From a review inThe Nation and the Athenaeum, May 19, 1923:
There is no one word, such as romance or realism, to cover, even roughly, the works of Miss Dorothy Richardson … She has invented … a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender. It is of a more elastic fibre than the old, capable of stretching to the extreme, of suspending the frailest particles, of enveloping the vaguest shapes …
Instantly, I was riveted; the heat and my discomfort forgotten. Who was Dorothy Richardson? How had she come to re-invent the English language, in order to record the experience of being uniquely female?
Further investigation led me to Dorothy Richardson’s life work: the autobiographical novel-sequence, Pilgrimage. I began to read with growing excitement, for here was someone of undoubted importance, now largely consigned to oblivion.
Parallels between Virginia and Dorothy abound. Both were tormented souls who did not conform to social norms, and both were bisexual. Like Virginia, Dorothy lived for a time in Bloomsbury, though she led a far grittier and less privileged life, and this is reflected in her books. They shared similar writerly preoccupations. Dissatisfaction with the conventions of the realist novel – which they perceived as being explicitly masculine - led them to seek new narrative forms that would render the texture of consciousness as it records life’s impressions; life’s minute to minute quality.
Interestingly, Virginia was elsewhere critical of Dorothy’s work, as she was about other female contemporaries - Katherine Mansfield springs to mind. Virginia’s unsupportive stance probably stemmed from feelings of rivalry; I wonder how far it contributed to the relative lack of recognition her peers have received.
I was as captivated by Dorothy’s life as I was by her work, and I hope The Lodger gives a flavour of her affair with HG Wells, the discovery of her bisexuality and independence, and her path to becoming a writer. Unable to settle down and conform to any of the limited roles available to women in her day, she smashed just about every boundary and taboo going. And when one considers how many restrictions were placed on women at the beginning of the 20th century, her refusal to conform is all the more brave and remarkable.
Initially, Dorothy’s novels made her something of a cult figure. She was hailed as one of ‘the new women writers and an innovator of stream of consciousness. But the early recognition and interest in her writing gradually slid from her grasp, and she died in poverty and obscurity. A visitor to the old age home where she spent her last years was told that Dorothy suffered from senile delusions: she thought she was a famous writer. To which her perturbed visitor retorted, “She is a famous writer!”
The more I learnt about Dorothy, the more I became convinced that her story needed to be unearthed and retold. It seemed a tragic waste that this extraordinary woman died unrecognised, and her work has largely been forgotten. Many years and a PhD thesis later, The Lodger was born.
More from entertainment