Friday, November 6, 2009

Discovery


Virginia Woolf and James Joyce are writers who are widely credited for having introduced and developed the “stream of consciousness” literary technique, which sacrifices traditional grammar, punctuation and syntax in the attempt to chronicle the natural flow and organic development of ideas and sensations, the scattered impressions the mind collects from moment to moment.

But before Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and the Waves, before Ulysses and just after the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) began to publish volumes of her magnum opus, what would amount to life-long project, a thirteen novel sequence called Pilgrimage.

Richardson, who experimented with the “interior monologue,” is the largely un-credited creator of “stream of consciousness”, though she disliked that phrase and parodied it as “shroud of consciousness. Virginia Woolf attributes Richardson with the invention of “what we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender”. Richardson was trying to redefine the novel and create “a feminine equivalent of the current masculine realism” (her introduction to the first volume in Pilgrimage).

I discovered Richardson entirely by accident (as usual). I found the first volume of Pilgrimage, containing the first three novels: “Pointed Roofs”, “Backwater”, and “Honeycomb”, on a shelf at Goodwill for $1 a few weeks ago. After noticing Virginia Woolf’s praise on the back cover, and seeing that Richardson was a modernist – a period that interests me – I bought it. I’ve become increasingly glad that I did.

Pilgrimage is a largely autobiographical sequence which starts by addressing the “beginning of economic autonomy [which] corresponds with the beginning of autonomous self-consciousness” (Gill Hanscombe’s intro to Pilgrimage). The first novel or chapter (as Richardson preferred to call it), “Pointed Roofs,” introduces young Miriam Henderson who, in the wake of her family’s economic misfortune, goes to Germany to teach English to young ladies as Richardson did.

I’m only partway through “Pointed Roofs” so I’m no expert, but am excited to read more of Pilgrimage and read more about Richardson and her influence. As with all new discoveries, I am a bit of an evangelist right now. So now you know! Give credit where credit is due. Dorothy Richardson: modernist, innovator.

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