Dorothy Richardson

Data for a Spanish Publisher


Editor’s Note

This essay was sent to me on January 3, 1951, by the author of the twelve-part sequence novel ‘Pilgrimage’, by way of providing biographical information for an article on her life and work which I was preparing for the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’. In an accompanying letter, Miss Richardson wrote, in part: ‘Always so far, save on one occasion, I have refused data. I gave in on behalf of the publisher of a translation who was, I felt, both plucky & ill-used. The translation, speculatively made, had been banned on account of the “social subversiveness & atheism” of the first volume, probably the only the Spanish censor had troubled to read). On the intervention of the British Council, the ban was lifted & I could hardly refuse the help appealed for by the enterprising publisher.’ On May 24, 1951, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, owners of the copyright for ‘Pilgrimage’, informed me that ‘Pilgrimage’ had  not been translated into any foreign language. The essay is here published for the first time with the kind permission of Mrs Rose lsserlis Odle, literary executrix of Miss Richardson.

My birth, towards the end of  last century (in May 1873), bringing my parents their third daughter, was a disappointment to both of them, and my father, perhaps because I proved wilful, and sometimes quite unmanageable, early acquired the habit of calling me his son. Finally there were four daughters spending their very happy childhood in a spacious, large-gardened house near one of the loveliest reaches of the Thames and not far from the ancient university town of Oxford, whence elderly sages, visiting my father, would occasionally appear in our midst. Inherit­ing the whole of my grandfather’s considerable business, my father had sold it and settled down to a life of leisure as an amateur of most of the arts and a deeply interested spectator of the doings of science, never missing a gathering, at home or abroad, of the British Associa­tion for the Advancement of Science, of which he was a member. Although his epicureanism, since his forbears for generations had been stem Puritans, was both fastidious and firmly disciplined, the spectacle of his existence nevertheless defined life to my dawning intelligence as perpetual leisure spent in enchanting appreciations.

My mother’s life, too, was leisurely. Her ample staff of devoted old­ fashioned servants loved and never left her unless it were to depart into marriage. She came of a long line of west-country yeoman land­ holders and although for the greater part of her life a semi-invalid it was she, our saint, who tried to make me see life as jollity, and, un­consciously, fostered my deep-rooted suspicion of “facts” and ordered knowledge. From the first I hated, and whenever possible evaded, orderly instruction in regard to the world about me. Not that l lacked the child’s faculty of wonder. In a sense, I had it to excess. For what astonished, and still astonishes, me more than anything else was the existence, anywhere, of anything at all. But since things there were, I preferred to become one with them, in the child’s way of direct apprehension which no subsequent “knowledge” can either rival or destroy, rather than to stand back and be told, in regard to any of the objects of my self-losing adoration, this and that. These objects were chiefly the garden, as known to me when no one was about, the woods, the sky, and sunlight.

”Education”, therefore, came to me at first in the guise of a de­stroyer whom secretly I defied. At the age of five I attended for a year a small private school and willingly learned to read, fascinated by the variety of combinations of letters and fired by the challenging irregularities of our unphonetic English spelling. All else went in at one ear and out at the other. When I was six, things began to move, and I recall, as if it were yesterday, the day when my life seemed to come to an end. We left our home. For two years, on account of my mother’s health, we lived on the south coast in a hired house with alien furniture. The local school made no impression beyond increasing my ability to read and write. But the sea was there, though only the channel sea in place of the boundless Atlantic of our summer holidays. It was there, day and night. From this unhomely home where, on an unforgettable night, l woke from a dream sob­ bin with the realisation that one day my parents would die, and feeling suddenly very old, we moved to the edge of one of the most charming of London’s south-western suburbs, to a home that be­came for me, from the moment we turned in, from a wide roadway lined with pollarded limes and drove up the approach between may­-trees in bloom and swept round past a lawn surrounded by every kind of flowering shrub, to pull up in front of the deep porch of a friendly-faced, many-windowed house; a continuous enchantment; save when, by some apparently unprovoked outburst of wrath and resentment, I had scared and alienated all my family.

Until my eighteenth year, apart from intermittent distresses over my mother’s fluctuating health, and early secret worries produced by the problem of free-will and the apparent irrationality Christian faith, life was very good and the future lay ahead bathed in gold. Music returned which from our seaside house had been most absent. To the classics of my childhood were added the alien wonders of Wagner and Chopin, who alone among the moderns were fully welcomed by my father. The scores of Gilbert an Sullivan and other musical comedies, eagerly purchased by my elder sisters after visits to the theatre, also dance music and popular songs, were relegated to the schoolroom piano, though the usual sentimental ballads, and light instrumental music, were welcomed at the “musical evenings” sandwiched between select gatherings of adepts for classical chamber music. My sisters were growing up and croquet on the front lawn was abandoned for very strict tennis on the sunk law in the back garden. Boating began, on the river near by. Skating in the winter and, all the year round, dances increasingly took the place of musical evenings. All this was to go on for ever. For just one year after our arrival, life was dimmed each day by the presence of a governess, a worthy being who, if she could, would have formed us to the almost outmoded pattern of female education: the minimum of knowledge and a smattering of various “accom­plishments”. For me, apart from music-lessons and learning to join, without decorating them with rows of blood-dots, fascinatingly various scraps of coloured material, she was torment unmitigated and even her attempts at bribery, by gifts of chocolate mice, could not prevent my sliding, whenever opportunity offered, under the table.

But school, when it came, was revelation. The Head, a disciple of Ruskin, fostered our sense of fair play, encouraged us to take broad views, hear all sides and think for ourselves. We learned all about our country’s internal struggle against every sort of absolutism. Some of us felt ourselves hoary sages with a definite mission in life. Then there was Literature, and again the sense of coming into a goodly heritage. Our aged literature master had been in his youth a friend of Robert Browning and while inevitably he made us Browningites, he gave us through this one doorway the key to much else. In contrast to our Shakespearian teacher who insisted on our imbibing, with every few lines of a play, so many learned annotations that the very name of our great poet became a burden. Even so, there was still the fascination of words of their sturdy roots, their growth and transformation, and the strange drama of the pouring in from every quarter of the globe of alien words assimilated and modified to the rhythm of our own speech enriching its poetry and making its spelling and its pronunciation the joy of those who love it and the despair of all others. French, some of us painlessly acquired through sheer adoration of the white-haired old man, a scholar, who discoursed at large, gently told us tales, read to us, or dictated, French prose, taking for granted that we had learned, each week, the allotted page of rules. German came to us in a series of scenes, with a hot-tempered Fraulein of Junker birth and convic­tions, sometimes reaching proportions of sound and fury sufficient co bring in the Head from her study next door with oil for the troubled waters. To my inability to endure the teaching of geo­graphy unrelated to anything else on earth, I owed my removal, at the request of my parents to whom in my misery I had frantically appealed, from any geography lessons whatsoever and was placed, in compensation, in a class for the study of logic and psychology, newly introduced into the sixth form curriculum. Twice a week, among these stately elders, I delightedly acquired the rules of formal logic, joyously chanted the mnemonic lines representing the syllogisms and felt, with the growth of power to detect faulty reasoning, some­ thing akin to the emotion later accompanying my acquisition of a latch-key. Psychology, however, with its confidence and its amazing claims, aroused, from the first, uneasy scepticism.

In due course I found myself in the sixth form and head of the school. Almost unawares, for life was opening out and school had many rivals. Yet leaving school, in spite of all that seemed to lie ahead, was tragedy. Once more, it seemed, the end of life. But worse was to follow. My father, through disastrous speculation, lost the greater part of his resources. We were poor. The future offered no hope of redemption. Some of the servants were dismissed, their places being taken by my sisters, engaged to be married and willing, therefore, to explore the unknown mysteries of domesticity. It dawned upon me that I must make my own living. Since in those days teaching was the only profession open to penniless gentle­ women, I accepted, because I liked the idea of going abroad, the first post offered by the London agency I secretly visited: that of English teacher in a school in Germany. In vain my horrified family fought against this outrageous enterprise and to Germany I went, returning at the end of six months convinced that many of the evils besetting the world originated in the enclosed particularist home and in the in­stitutions preparing women for such homes. An impression strength­ened by further teaching experience in school and family respectively. My sisters meantime had married. We had lost my mother. Our home was finally broken up. Thrown on my own resources, longing to escape from the world of women, I gladly accepted a post with connections of my family, a secretarial job, daily, offering me the freedom I so desired. Transferring myself to a Bloomsbury attic, I existed for years on the salary of one pound a week, usual in those days for women clerks, scarcely aware of my poverty and never giving a thought to all I had left behind. In its place stood London and what London can mean as a companion, I have tried to set down in Pilgrimage. There were of course summer holidays, spent with friends at home and abroad, and week-ends with relatives and friends with whom I shared old associations. Delightful restorative times of ease and orderly living. Also as much as I liked of various and interesting social life in company with the friendly household of my employers. But from all these excursions I returned to my solitude with the sense of escaping from a charming imprisonment.           

During these London years I explored the world lying outside the enclosures of social life, and found it to be a kind of archipelago. Making contact with the various islands, with writers, with all the religious groups (from Roman Catholic to Unitarian and Quaker), with the political groups (from the Conservative Primrose League to the Independent Labour Party and Russian anarchists) and, through the medium of books and lectures, with the worlds of Science and Philosophy, I found all these islands to be the habitations of fascinating secret societies, to each of which in turn I wished to belong and yet was held back, returning to solitude and to nowhere, where alone I could be everywhere at once, hearing all the voices in chorus. The clear rather dictatorial voice of Science-still-in-its­ heyday, still far from confessing its inability to plumb, unaided, the nature of reality. Then the philosophers whom, reading, I found more deeply exciting than the novelists. And the politicians, roaring irreconcileably one against the other, unanimous only in their determination to exclude, by almost any means, the collaboration of women from the national housekeeping. The clerics, of all varieties, still for the most part identifying religion with morality and inevitably revealing, though with naive unconsciousness, in the definition of God presented to their congregations, the result of being enclose academies of males. For their God demanded first and foremost docility, fear, blind obedience and a constant need of praise and adulation – all typically masculine demands. The mystics, so far, I had not encountered. Of art, apart from current academic work, I knew next to nothing.                                                                    

Experiments in being engaged to be married were not entirely satisfactory. To be in love was indeed fatally easy, and a condition I cannot recall escaping, save for brief intervals, from adolescence onwards. But to face up to marriage was another matter, and on more than one occasion I withdrew a provisional pledge. Sometimes the situation was reversed, my partner being the one to retreat. For a moment the Suffrage Movement diverted me from all else. Now and again all seemed darkness within and without, but always I failed to achieve, try as I would, a complete despair. At times the world-wide Catholic Church seemed seductively to offer a refuge. But it offered also the spectacle of the corrupting influence of power. It needed the Protestants. Tragedy. Well, if life were tragedy, it still was life, the ultimate astonisher.

Meanwhile I had begun to write. Translations and free-lance journalism had promised release from routine work that could not engage the essential forces of my being. The small writing-table in my attic became the centre of my life. In 1907 I escaped into the country. A series of sketches contributed to The Saturday Review moved a reviewer to urge me to try my hand at a novel. A sugges­tion that both shocked and puzzled me. The material that moved me to write would not fit the framework of any novel I had experienced. I believed myself to be, even when most enchanted, intolerant of the romantic and the realist novel alike. Each, so it seemed to me, left out certain essentials and dramatised life misleadingly. Horizon­ tally. Assembling their characters, the novelists developed situa­tions, devised events, climax and conclusion. I could not accept their finalities. Always, for charm or repulsion, for good or ill, one was aware of the author and applauding, or deploring, his manipulations. This, when the drama was a conducted tour with the author deliberately present telling his tale. Still more so when he imagined, as did Flaubert, that in confining himself to “Constatation” he re­mained imperceptible. In either case, what one was assured were the essentials seemed to me secondary to something I could not then define, and the curtain-dropping finalities entirely false to experience.

The first chapter-volume of Pilgrimage, begun in 1913, was finished just before the outbreak of war. Various publishers refused it and it finally appeared in the autumn of 1915. Meanwhile I had met my husband, an artist, who introduced me to a new world, the missing link between those already explored. In 1917 we were mar­ried, risking the adventure in spite of misgivings on both sides.These have been falsified and we are still married.

August 1943

Dorothy Miller Richardson (17 May 1873 – 17 June 1957) was a British author and journalist. She authored Pilgrimage, a sequence of 13 semi-autobiographical novels published between 1915 and 1967. As one of the earliest writers in the modernist movement, she employed stream of consciousness as a narrative technique. This letter appears in the June 1957 edition of The London Magazine, published in the weeks after her death, edited by Joseph Prescott. 

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