Dorothy Richardson is the almost forgotten pioneer of stream of consciousness writing in English, predating the internal monologues of Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway (1925) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) by several years. She is, though, beginning to be re-discovered and to mark the centenary of her first novel, ‘Pointed Roofs’, a blue plaque was unveiled in Bloomsbury in May 2015 – where she lived opposite W.B. Yeats between 1905 & 1906.
Until earlier this year, Dorothy Richardson was an author who had barely touched my consciousness either, although perhaps ought to have done. My only remembered ‘encounter’ with her had been a fictionalised version of her relationship with HG Wells (from the latter’s perspective) around 1907 in David Lodge’s biographical novel ‘A Man of Parts’.
A review in the excellent Pyschogeographic Review, recommended the debut novel by Louisa Treger, ‘The Lodger’, another biographical novel, which focused on the period of Richardson’s (middle picture below) life in a run-down Bloomsbury lodging house, particularly on her affair with Wells.
Treger’s novel was a stunningly good debut, bringing to life both Richardson and early 20th century London where Richardson had a struggling existence as a dental secretary on Harley Street. However, Treger’s writing was, perhaps, at its best in depicting the fictionalised Richardson’s wanderings around central London – in place there were sublime descriptions (as I have since discovered, echoing some of Richardson’s own writing.)
Reading ‘The Lodger’ intrigued me enough to start on Richardson’s own work – ‘Pointed Roofs’, volume one of the thirteen novels that make up ‘Pilgrimage’, seemed like an obvious starting-point. It is strongly autobiographical and covers Richardson’s thinly disguised self working in a school in Hamburg. It is perhaps not surprising that this was to be her style – her semi- fictional self thought in one of the later novels (1)
In a book the author was there is every word…. a dance by the author, a song, a prayer, a sermon, an important message. Books were not stories printed on paper; they were people; the real people….
Pointed Roofs isn’t the easiest read, stream of consciousness writing often isn’t, something compounded by lots of German and French phrases interspersed through the text – my schoolboy French and non-existent German offered me very little help with this. There is little of a ‘plot’ – the narrative covering ordinary daily life and observations through the consciousness of a young teacher, focusing mainly on her internal observations of those around her. That shouldn’t put the potential reader off though, it is well worth reading, and I have continued with the subsequent novels of ‘The Pilgrimage’. Richardson’s style matures with her semi-autobiographical self, Miriam Henderson, and the second novel, ‘Backwater’, and more particularly, the third, ‘Honeycomb’ have a real, stunning beauty and depth in the language and much stronger development of the characters.
Richardson married the artist Alan Odle a couple of years after the publication of ‘Pointed Roofs’ and they split their time between London and Trevone, a small coastal village near Padstow in Cornwall, remaining at Trevone after 1939.
The link to south London was at the end of her life. In 1954 she moved into a private nursing home at 131 Albemarle Road in Beckenham (close to Shortlands), which is on many of the Beckenham Running Club routes. She spent her final years there until her death on 17 June 1957 – a notice of it being placed in The Gazette.
The nursing home is now part of a private hospital; the pointed roofs of the original 1930s mock Tudor gables are still there in the heavily adapted building – not that dissimilar to those she wrote about (2)
The facades of the dwellings passing slowly on either hand were higher, here and there one rose to a high peak, pierced geometrically with tiny windows. The street widening out ahead showed an open cobbled space and cross-roads. At every angle stood high quiet peaked houses, their faces shining warm cream and milk-white, patterned with windows.
- Dorothy Richardson (1917) ‘Honeycomb’ – pp 384-5 of Virago Modern Classics ‘Pilgrimage’ Volume 1, 1979
- Dorothy Richardson (1915) ‘Pointed Roofs’ – p115 of Virago Modern Classics ‘Pilgrimage’ Volume 1, 1979