Dorothy Miller Richardson, born on May 17, 1873, was the third of four daughters. Her father, Charles Richardson, worked in the prosperous grocery business that his father had established, but he wanted to be a gentleman. He abandoned Nonconformity for the Church of England and, in 1874, sold the family business to live on investments. During Dorothy’s childhood, periods of upper-middle-class luxury (a large house, servants, gardens, membership in a tennis club) alternated with moves arising from temporarily reduced circumstances.
Charles Richardson had hoped for a son, and he took Dorothy with him to lectures in Oxford and meetings of scientific associations. She was sent at age eleven to a private day school for the daughters of gentlemen. It was late enough in the century for the curriculum to emphasize academic subjects; her studies included logic and psychology. In 1890, realizing that her family’s financial condition had become seriously straitened, Dorothy looked to the example of Charlotte Brontë and Villette (1853) and applied for a post as pupil-teacher in a German school. Six months in Hanover were followed by two years teaching in a North London private school and a brief spell as governess for a wealthy suburban family.
By the end of 1893, Charles Richardson was declared bankrupt; in 1895, two of Dorothy’s sisters married. Her mother, Mary Richardson, was troubled by an unusually severe bout of the depression that had gripped her for several years. Dorothy took her mother to stay in lodgings near the sea and found that she required almost constant companionship and supervision. On November 30, 1895, while her daughter was out for a short walk in the fresh air, Mary Richardson committed suicide.
At the age of twenty-two, responsible for her own support and severely shaken by the past two years’ events, Richardson moved to an attic room in a London lodging house and took a job as secretary and assistant to three Harley Street dentists. For young women at that time, such a step was unusual; by taking it Richardson evaded the restraint, protection, and religious supervision that made teaching an acceptable profession for young women of good family. The nineteenth century was drawing to a close and London was alive with new ideas. Richardson explored the city, made friends with women who worked in business offices, and lived on eggs and toast so that she could afford concert tickets.
Soon after moving to London, she was invited for a Saturday in the country by an old school friend, Amy Catherine Robbins, who had married her science instructor at London University–a man named H. G. Wells. He had just published The Time Machine (1895). Richardson was fascinated by Wells and by the people and ideas she encountered at his house but angered by his way of telling her what to do. She was aware that she stood outside the class system and between the Victorian and modern worlds. She was drawn both to picnics with cousins at Cambridge and to Anarchist and Fabian meetings. She sampled various churches (including Unitarian and Quaker) but refrained from committing herself to any group or cause.
In 1902, Richardson began contributing occasional articles and reviews to Crank and other magazines edited by a vegetarian friend. She refused a proposal from a respectable physician and broke her engagement to a Russian Jew, Benjamin Grad. Her friendship with Wells passed at some point into physical intimacy, but she continued to struggle against being overwhelmed by his ideas and personality. In 1906, finding herself pregnant, she brought the affair to an end; she looked forward to rearing the child on her own and was distressed when she suffered a miscarriage.
Exhausted physically and mentally, Richardson left her dental assistant job and went to Sussex to recover and think. In 1908, she began writing sketches for the Saturday Review. Then, as her fortieth year approached, she began deliberately searching for the form that would allow her to create what she called “a feminine equivalent of the current masculine realism.”
The term “stream of consciousness,” adapted from psychology, was first applied to literature in a 1918 review of Richardson’s Pointed Roofs, Backwater, and Honeycomb. In the twentieth century, novels moved from outward experience to inner reality. The experiments that marked the change were made almost simultaneously by three writers unaware of one another’s work: the first two volumes of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931) were published in 1913; James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man began serial publication in 1914; and the manuscript of Pointed Roofs was finished in 1913.
Richardson was the first novelist in England to restrict the point of view entirely to the protagonist’s consciousness, to take for content the experience of life at the moment of perception, and to record the development of a single character’s mind and emotions without imposing any plot or structural pattern.
Pointed Roofs was at first rejected by publishers; when it was published in 1915 it puzzled readers, distressed some reviewers, and failed to make money. Richardson persisted, however, on the course she had set, even while living an unsettled life in YWCA hostels and borrowed rooms and earning a minimal income by proofreading and by writing a monthly column for the Dental Record. In 1917, she married the artist Alan Odle, who was fifteen years younger than she and had been rejected for military service by a doctor who told him he had six months to live.
Richardson’s books attracted some critical recognition in the years after World War I, but they never earned money; she was usually in debt to her publishers. She supported herself and Odle (who lived until 1948) and also coped with all the practical details of their life–housekeeping, paying taxes, writing checks, doing his business with publishers and exhibitors. The couple moved frequently, spending the off-season (when lodgings were less expensive) in Cornwall and going to rooms in London for the summer. During the early 1930’s, Richardson took on the burden of five full-length translations from French and German. Returning to Pilgrimage and the state of mind in which it was begun became increasingly difficult for Richardson; the later volumes were weakened by extraliterary distractions and also by the psychological difficulty for the author in concluding the work that was based on her own life. The final segment, March Moonlight, was found unfinished among her papers after she died on June 17, 1957, at the age of eighty-four.
Richardson wrote what Virginia Woolf called “the psychological sentence of the feminine gender”; a sentence that expanded its limits and tampered with punctuation to convey the multiple nuances of a single moment. She deliberately rejected the description of events, which she thought was typical of male literature, in order to convey the subjective understanding that she believed was the reality of experience. The autobiographical basis of Pilgrimage was not known until 1963. Richardson, like her protagonist and like other women of her period, broke with the conventions of the past, sought to create her own being through self-awareness, and struggled to invent a form that would communicate a woman’s expanding conscious life.