alerts is an on-going section of this publication set aside for informal commentary and information on new or neglected books by relevant women poets, in brief letter, journal or notation form. We intentionally think of these comments as not complete in the scholarly sense, with the hope of removing prohibitions linked with thinking/writing critically. Your response is invited.



Dorothy Richardson married Alan Odle, a self-employed artist--he never had a gallery and his hopes of an exhibition came to ruin--or as she might better say, he was a "self-occupied artist," much her junior. Our heroine lied about her years at the registrar's office where they married. This marriage, according to Bryher, when we spoke of Richardson several years ago in Switzerland, was the mistake of her life. (It is questionable if Dorothy would have agreed.) All the years of her marriage she was convinced that Alan would die of the consumption that finally killed him. As a result she coddled, nourished, nursed this fine skeleton who wore a wig and was engaged in illustrations for Candide much of his indulged life. Grotesque, warped, sexual, these sophisticated images strewed their brilliantly executed presences over the Odle lodgings. And Dorothy was equally obsessed by Pilgrimage, the series of books that lent their name to "stream-of-consciousness." Within these pioneer volumes she exhaustively relinquished the fame that was to belong to Joyce. She evidently did not have time, or that sense of urgency which belongs to writers like Joyce, who ceaselessly push their just claims before benefactors and public.

Yet Dorothy had Bryher, a faithful and consistently loyal supporter, without whom it is easily guessed she would never have written her story of Miriam, her remembrance* of a woman which, commenced in 1906, was viewed from the continuing life of the author with its impoverishment and demands to neglect her talent. Dorothy repaid Bryher her loyalty and assistance with the manuscript of Pointed Roofs, which Bryher insisted on assessing for the benefit of Dorothy's relatives.

Here is a glimpse of Dorothy as it found its way to Bryher in a letter. This is Dorothy in situ in Cornwall after she and Alan have returned from Switzerland where they had wintered at Bryher's expense for the first time without worries, tasting also an unexpected and exaltive trip to Paris. Cornwall was surely a summer retreat, yet the Odles are there in blustery winter always, and the rent was cheap, the winds blew, the surf pounded, the cottage shook; they had escaped London for Alan's health. In summer they would return to London to endure the heat, reversing the usual schedule as they went on their enduringly perversely difficult way.

We must also remember that Bryher's subsidy was moderate, consistent with Dorothy's pride. Dorothy added to their funds--Alan's inheritance had long gone and he was by now completely dependent on her--writing innumerable articles, translations from medical treatises to philosophy to Gide--at the cost of the eventual completion of her novel. She labored nearly every minute of her life, it would seem. If not writing articles then there was the housekeeping, real labor as she was an eccentric housekeeper and the Odle menu causes shivers. Bryher, again, subsidized with enormous baskets from Fortnum and Mason each Christmas and holiday, and special orders of Gold Flake cigarettes Dorothy hoarded.

Dorothy must never be viewed as a drudge. She was a willing, an agile and bemused victim of her talent for self-sacrifice, "the windiest corner, the chair in a draught," as H.D. observed. These were doughty rather than obsequious choices.

At last we arrive at the letter addressed from Padstow, Cornwall in 1924:

"I scribble surreptitiously, on my knee, upstairs, getting together something about Paris, about Antheil, about Women & Art for Vanity Fair, to work on when I get to town and a table. No room for a table in the tiny bedroom, which I choose because it has two windows. . . Labouring on my last chapter & writing letters, each very important, to be posted at once & separately, excuse for sending A. to the post office, profiting by his pristine innocence as to the hours of collect & at the same time accounting for the time I spend scribbling. If he thought me at work, he's at work too, but over a table, instead of lounging by an open window blissfully reading, going cheerfully and importantly up the lane, at frequent intervals to post. . . "

lt's all there, isn't it? One of the innovators of the century scribbling on her knees in a scarcely heated cottage. And she did not compare herself to Emily Brontė. I don't think she compared her lot to anyone's, or her writing.

-- Barbara Guest

* As in Proust's volumes. Bryher supplied Dorothy with all of Proust in French. After his translator, Scott-Montcrieff, died, Dorothy wished further to exhaust herself by inheriting his job. She never completed Pilgrimage.

** The work of Alan Odle was finally exhibited in Paris, 1983.


From 1927 to 1933, Dorothy Richardson wrote a column called "Continuous Performance" in the British film journal, Close Up.* In "There's No Place Like Home," one of the articles, she emphasizes the responsibility of the audience and the artist to engage with the material of an art form. She suggests this interactive approach as a possible way of engaging with a film; and in her novel-writing, she insists on this approach and procedure as a necessary reading practice for the audience, and writing practice for herself. She demands that one enter and actively dream, that is, travel, through her thirteen-volume epic novel Pilgrimage, rather than expect to be led through a clearly mapped place.

In Pilgrimage Richardson subverts what she considers to be a common expectation of the novel and film: the desire for "perfection of part or whole." As she says in "There's No Place Like Home," "Perfection, of part or of whole, we shall rarely see, but there is no limit to vision and if we return quite empty-handed, we shall know whose is the fault." She responds here directly to some of her critics, especially Virginia Woolf, who sees her method of subversion as an aesthetic failure. In Woolf's review of The Tunnel and Revolving Lights (two of the Pilgrimage novel-volumes), she writes, "The critic is absolved from the necessity of picking out the themes of the story [because] . . . the reader is not provided with a story . . . . " * *

To this and other comments like it, Richardson replies with the question, What is a story? She does not pose the question directly in this article, but asks instead--What expectations for perfection of part or whole does a reader or viewer bring to any art?

In her quest to disturb common reading and viewing habits and to suggest a different aesthetic criteria, Richardson goes on to say, "It is true that an excellence shining through will bring out anywhere and everywhere our own excellence to meet it . . . . " Excellence, for her, has much to do with the ability to stimulate this interactive relationship. As she describes in another of the "Continuous Performance" columns:
"I realized that the source of the haunting guilt and loss [experienced at the theatre] was for me, that the players, in acting at instead of with the audience, were destroying the inner relationship between audience and players. Something of this kind, some essential failure to compel the creative consciousness of the audience.
Such co-operation cannot take place unless the audience is first stilled to forgetfulness of itself as an audience. This takes power."

In the context of Richardson's poetics, power is more excellent than perfection. Through, for example, broken lines, long winding passages, sentences that trail off, she forces the reader to contact the texture and material of Miriam's consciousness and to forget her or himself. Reading Pilgrimage, one travels again and again to the "miracle" of Miriam reading:
"The mere sitting with the text held before her eyes gave her the feeling of being strongly confronted. The strange currents which came whenever she was alone and at ease flowing to the tips of her fingers, seemed to flow into the book as she held it and to be met and satisfied." (Backwater)

In "There's No Place Like Home," this is what Richardson suggests is possible in place of perfection: "The miracle works, some part of it works and gets home.'

-- Susan Gevirtz

* "There's No Place Like Home," Close Up, No. 5, November, 1927.** Woolf, Virginia, "Dorothy Richardson," in Virginia WooIf, Women and Writing, Barret, Michele, editor, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York and London, 1979.

Excerpted from "Pilgrimage as Poetic Practice: Traveling as Writing as Reading in Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage," by Susan Gevirtz.

Note: Pilgrimage was first published by individual novel-volume between 1915 and 1935. Virago Press in London now publishes Pilgrimage as a collection.

Barbara Guest, most recently known for her biography of H.D., Herself Defined, the Poet H.D. and Her World (Doubleday & Co., 1984), is also the author of seven books of poems. Her innovative novel, Seeking Air (Black Sparrow Press, 1978), is a must for writers interested in new structural possibilities for prose and poem-forms. In one of Guest's many gestures towards Dorothy M. Richardson and Pilgrimage in Seeking Air, a main character is named Miriam, and, as in Pilgrimage, Guest's Miriam is "the genius of the place," a place "to inhabit," and a vehicle in which to travel.

Susan Gevirtz is a poet living and working as a Poet-in-the-Schools in San Francisco. She is also in The History of Consciousness Ph.D. program at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The focus of her Ph.D. work is Dorothy Richardson, pilgrimage and travel narratives by women writers and the poetics and politics of form in modernist women's writing.