Dorothy Richardson Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Dorothy Richardson’s literary reputation rests on the single long novel Pilgrimage. She referred to the parts published under separate titles as “chapters,” and they were the primary focus of her energy throughout her creative life. The first appeared in 1915; the last—unfinished and unrevised—was printed ten years after her death. Before 1915, she wrote some essays and reviews for obscure periodicals edited by friends and also two books growing out of her interest in the Quakers. She contributed descriptive sketches on Sussex life to the Saturday Review between 1908 and 1914. During the years writing Pilgrimage, Richardson did an enormous amount of miscellaneous writing to earn money—columns and essays in the Dental Record (1912-1922), film criticism and translations as well as articles on various subjects for periodicals including Vanity Fair, Adelphi, Little Review, and Fortnightly Review. She also wrote a few short stories, chiefly during the 1940’s. None of this material has been collected. A detailed bibliography is included in Dorothy Richardson: A Biography by Gloria G. Fromm (1977).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The term “stream of consciousness,” adapted from psychology, was first applied to literature in a 1918 review of Dorothy Richardson’s Pointed Roofs, Backwater, and Honeycomb. In the twentieth century, novels moved from outward experience to inner reality. The experiments that marked the change were made almost simultaneously by three writers unaware of one another’s work: The first volume of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931) appeared in 1913, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man began serial publication in 1914, and Richardson’s manuscript of Pointed Roofs was finished in 1913.

Richardson was the first novelist in England to restrict the point of view entirely to theprotagonist’s consciousness, to take for content the experience of life at the moment of perception, and to record the development of a single character’s mind and emotions without imposing any plot or structural pattern. Her place in literature (as opposed to literary history) has been less certain; some critics feel that her work is interesting only because it dates the emergence of a new technique. The absence of story and explanation make heavy demands on the reader. Since the protagonist’s own limited understanding controls every word of thenarrative, readers must also do the work of evaluating the experience in order to create meaning.

Richardson wrote what Virginia Woolf called “the psychological sentence of the feminine gender”; a sentence that expanded its limits and tampered with punctuation to convey the multiple nuances of a single moment. She deliberately rejected the description of events, which she thought was typical of male literature, in order to convey the subjective understanding that she believed was the reality of experience. The autobiographical basis of Pilgrimage was not known until 1963. Richardson, like her protagonist and like other women of her period, broke with the conventions of the past, sought to create her own being through self-awareness, and struggled to invent a form that would communicate a woman’s expanding conscious life.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Bluemel, Kristin. Experimenting on the Borders of Modernism: Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage.” Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997. The first chapter assesses Richardson and previous studies of her. Subsequent chapters explore Richardson’s handling of gender, problems of the body, and science, and the author’s quest for an ending to her long work. Includes notes and bibliography.

Fromm, Gloria G. Dorothy Richardson: A Biography. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1977. An objective biography, which carefully draws distinctions between the events of Richardson’s life and those of her fictional characters, but also identifies clear correlations between the two. Extensively researched and well written and supplemented by illustrations, chapter endnotes, a comprehensive bibliography, and an index.

Gevirtz, Susan. Narrative’s Journey: The Fiction and Film Writing of Dorothy Richardson. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. A probing discussion of Richardson’s aesthetic. This is a challenging study for advanced students. Pilgrimage receives detailed discussion throughout the book. Includes extensive bibliography not only on Richardson but also on feminist theory, literary and cultural theory, poetics and phenomenology, theology and spirituality, travel and travel theories, and narrative.

Radford, Jean. Dorothy Richardson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. An excellent introductory study, with chapters on reading in Pilgrimage, the author’s quest for form, London as a space for women, and Richardson as a feminist writer. Includes notes and bibliography.

Rosenberg, John. Dorothy Richardson, the Genius They Forgot: A Critical Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973. The strength of Rosenberg’s biography lies in his scholarly credibility, as he aptly parallels events in Pilgrimage to Richardson’s life. His concluding analysis of Richardson’s pioneering impact upon the development of the novel, however, lacks the impact of his earlier writing. Contains both an index and an ample bibliography.

Winning, Joanne. The Pilgrimage of Dorothy Richardson. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000. An argument for the “lesbian modernism” informing the subtext of Richardson’s Pilgrimage.