May 17: On this day in 1873 the innovative British novelist Dorothy Richardson was born. While Richardson may not be “the genius they forgot” (the subtitle of one biography), she was once compared to Proust and Joyce, her writing was the first to be described as “stream of consciousness,” and Virginia Woolf credited her with the invention of something that Woolf herself would go on to make famous — “the psychological sentence of the feminine gender.” Richardson was certainly dubious of what the other gender could do: “Bang, bang, bang, on they go, these men’s books, like an L.C.C. tram, yet unable to make you forget them, the authors, for a moment.” She gave Henry James good marks for psychological depth, but failed him on male ego — “a non-stop waggling of the backside as he hands out, on a salver, sentence after sentence…. So what? One feels, reaching the end of the drama, in a resounding box, where no star shines and no bird sings.” Richardson’s goal was a style that allowed the author to disappear, and allowed art “its power to create, or arouse, and call into operation … the human faculty of contemplation.”
The autobiographical Pilgrimage tells twenty-five years of Richardson’s marginalized, impoverished, and remarkable life. She left home as a teenager, and soon learned “what London can mean as a companion.” She was attracted to the Fabians, Suffragettes, and other radical groups, but so determined for independence that she could not join them. When her one affair resulted in pregnancy and then miscarriage, she was distraught to lose the baby but glad to lose the father — H. G. Wells. She lived in an attic, on the edge of fame in all ways: two blocks away from where the Bloomsbury Group met; a half-dozen blocks from where Mary Woolstonecraft had, a century earlier, written Vindication of the Rights of Women; across the alley from where, at night, she could see W. B. Yeats writing by the light of “two immensely tall, thick white candles.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.