Dorothy Richardson, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Literary History

Amy Shearn on how and why Karl Ove Knausgaard’s champions have neglected the modernist Dorothy Richardson, whose roman-fleuve Pilgrimage anticipates My Struggle in mode and method:

As much as I do love my dear prolific weirdo Knausgaard, he hasn’t really done anything all that revolutionary. In fact, exactly a century ago, England saw the beginnings of a similarly expansive novel brimming with what Ben Lerner called Knausgaard’s “radical inclusiveness … style-less style … apparently equal fascination with everything.” And no, I don’t mean Proust or Joyce, although at the time the writer was often mentioned in the same breath. I mean a multivolume novel that created its own wildly inventive, truly brand-new form, sending shockwaves through the literary establishment of the time: Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Miller Richardson. May Sarton first coined the phrase “stream of consciousness” to describe the first three modernist novels of Richardson’s Pilgrimage series that began with the 1915 publication of Pointed Roofs, in a 1918 review for a publication called The Egoist, when she wrote, “In this series there is no drama, no situation, no set scene. Nothing happens. It is just life going on and on …[a] stream of consciousness going on and on.” Virginia Woolf and H.G. Wells were among its many fans. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of it. It’s been out of print for decades.

Shearn is right to censure critics for their ignorance of literary history, including women’s contribution to the novel. And I find any attempt to remind us of Dorothy Richardson refreshing: I certainly made it further into Richardson’s opus than I did into Knausgaard’s, and I think Richardson’s prose merits the type of praise given to Knausgaard’s far more than his does, namely, the seeming paradox that it is rivetingly boring. I hope, in fact, to read more of Richardson in the future, whereas I hope never to look on Knausgaard’s book-cover-borne face again after having allowed him to bore me more than I have ever been bored before for 100 endless pages.

At the risk of sounding like Laura Kipnis, however, I must say I do not think the question of Richardson’s reception and reputation lends itself to the women vs. the patriarchy melodrama implied by the (no doubt editorially-imposed) sensationalist headline of Shearn’s article, “It’s Women Writers, Not Novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard, Who’ve ‘Struggled.'” For one thing, the Richardson/Knausgaard comparison is not like-to-like: Richardson had notoriety in her own time, if not to Knausgaard’s degree, but was forgotten (though not entirely) by subsequent generations. We have not yet had a chance to forget Knausgaard, but I would not be surprised if we do. As for Proust, his novels are, at the level of the sentence, far more stylistically compelling than either Richardson or Knausgaard; refusing the reader all forms of traditional literary pleasure was never part of his program. Finally, Pointed Roofs and The Tunnel have been brought back in print in Broadview Press critical editions, so I suspect that we are seeing a wave of western interest in experimentally shapeless autobiographical narrative that is bearing up both Knausgaard and Richardson, obviating any need to pit them against each other.

On the gender question: the fact is that some of Richardson’s greatest critical champions were and are men: H. G. Wells, John Cowper Powys, Leslie A. Fiedler, Scott McCracken, and more. Among Richardson’s severest detractors, on the other hand, we find notable modernist women and feminist critics.

Katherine Mansfield for one was not impressed:

In a review of the novel and works by two other women novelists, Mansfield accuses Richardson of a lack of “memory”— by which she seems to mean a lack of selection. Memory, she writes, should “[mount] his high throne and [judge] all that is in our minds—appointing each his separate place, high or low, rejecting this, selecting that—putting this one to shine in the light and throwing that one into the darkness”; instead, in Pilgrimage, “Miss Richardson dives into [memory’s] recesses and reproduces a certain number of … treasures—a pair of button boots, a night in spring, some cycling knickers, some large, round biscuits—as many as she can fit into a book.”

Shearn describes Virginia Woolf as “a fan” of Richardson’s; the mandarin Woolf would not have liked to be described as a fan of anything, I’m sure, and probably not of Richardson either. Her review of Pilgrimage‘s fourth volume is exquisitely ironic and cutting:

The method, if triumphant, should make us feel ourselves seated at the centre of another mind, and, according to the artistic gift of the writer, we should perceive in the helter-skelter of flying fragments some unity, significance, or design. That Miss Richardson gets so far as to achieve a sense of reality far greater than that produced by the ordinary means is undoubted. But, then, which reality is it, the superficial or the profound? We have to consider the quality of Miriam Henderson’s consciousness, and the extent to which Miss Richardson is able to reveal it. We have to decide whether the flying helter-skelter resolves itself by degrees into a perceptible whole. When we are in a position to make up our minds we cannot deny a slight sense of disappointment. Having sacrificed not merely “hims and hers,” but so many seductive graces of wit and style for the prospect of some new revelation or greater intensity, we still find ourselves distressingly near the surface. Things look much the same as ever. It is certainly a very vivid surface. The consciousness of Miriam takes the reflection of a dentist’s room to perfection.

If you detect fandom in that last sentence, you are a better person than I am.

Later in the twentieth century, in her pioneering feminist literary history, A Literature of Their Own, Elaine Showalter delivers this devastating verdict on Richardson’s career as a whole:

Women, Richardson thought, were wise in their ancient maternal suffering. If they were to keep their advantage, therefore, they must continue to monopolize suffering and refuse to benefit by the social changes that would permit them to share masculine consciousness. Conversely, men had to remain emotionally childish, or women would lose their power. Socialists had observed with distress that, in the political realm, Mrs. Pankhurst’s initial motives, which had included personal ambition, gradually merged with a mystical self-destructive identification with the Cause. Similarly, the quest for female consciousness, basically a liberating and fulfilling pilgrimage, could become a self-defeating rejection of all male culture, an end in itself, a journey to nowhere. In the case of Dorothy Richardson, I think, female consciousness became a closed and sterile world; thus she was an innovator who did not attract disciples.

Given the foregoing, can we conceive that anyone, man or woman, could be presumed to make an aesthetic judgment in good faith? Alice Brittan writes this panegyric to Knausgaard so eloquent and intelligent it almost makes me want to give him another chance. And I would much rather read Richardson than Knausgaard even though I am skeptical about both of their aesthetic projects, preferring the not-obviously-gendered will-to-form in the modernist poetics of Woolf and Joyce.

I read Pointed Roofs before I read Villette, and I liked the former novel a bit less after having read the latter, an unqualified masterpiece. As Shearn notes, Pointed Roofs seems like a modernist re-writing of Villette, but Brontë’s novel needs no such supplement: it swerves quite capably from its own marriage plot and in fact manages to be suggestively plotless without the need of overtly avant-garde experimentation. Villette is easier to read than Pointed Roofs, but, it seems to me, more subtle: less complicated but more complex. I would ultimately level the same charge against both Richardson and Knausgaard: we are all struggling pilgrims, but even so, no amount of experimental theory or we’re-all-in-this-together bathos can dislodge economy from its eminence among aesthetic criteria. Mansfield and Woolf did not hesitate to apply this insight in their criticism of Richardson, so I see no reason why we should fail to apply it to any writer, male or female.


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2 thoughts on “Dorothy Richardson, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Literary History

  1. It’s disingenuous, a little, to say that women did not support richardson.

    What about that very important 1918 May Sinclair review in which Sinclair uses the words ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe what DR does.

    I see in the very same Tunnel review by Woolf a lot more appreciation of DR than you give her credit for: ‘We are asking too much; but the extent of our asking proves that “The Tunnel” is better in its failure than most books in their success.’

    What about the other Virginia Woolf review in which Woolf makes that famous mention of DR exploring what the nature of a woman’s sentence could be:
    ‘It is a woman’s sentence, but only in the sense that it is used to describe a woman’s mind by a writer who is neither proud nor afraid of anything that she may discover in the psychology of her sex. And therefore we feel that the trophies that Miss Richardson brings to the surface, however we may dispute their size, are undoubtedly genuine. Her discoveries are concerned with states of being and not with states of doing. Miriam is aware of “life itself”; of the atmosphere of the table rather than of the table; of the silence rather than of the sound. Therefore she adds an element to her perception of things which has not been noticed before, or, if noticed, has been guiltily suppressed. ‘
    This is far less one-sided than you make it out to be.

    What about Bryher’s long friendship and financial support of Richardson? Her friendship with H.D.?
    What about Gloria Fromm, writing a DR biography and editing her letters?
    When you mention Scott McCracken you also need to mention Deborah Longworth.

    1. Thank you for this. I wasn’t trying to imply that all men did X and all women did Y, but that both groups were internally differentiated on the merits of Richardson (and Knausgaard), as against the article’s exaggeration in the other direction. And some individuals, such as Woolf, were differentiated within themselves in their responses.

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