Dorothy Richardson's Foreword to 'Pilgrimage.'

By Thomson, George H. | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview
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Dorothy Richardson's Foreword to 'Pilgrimage.'

Thomson, George H., Twentieth Century Literature

Monstrously, when I began, I felt only that all masculine novels to date, despite their various fascinations, were somehow irrelevant, & the feminine ones far too much influenced by masculine traditions, & too much set upon exploiting the sex-motif as, hitherto, seen & depicted by men.

- Dorothy Richardson(1)

Though it is complex, fragmentary, and oblique, qualities that in other modernist writers have elicited intense scrutiny, the 1938 foreword to Pilgrimage(2) has aroused little critical interest. One reason is its compression. In just four pages, Dorothy Richardson places Pilgrimage in the context of a very foreshortened history of realism (paragraphs 1 to 4), describes its genesis as a new kind of realist fiction (paragraphs 5 to 7), surveys the critical reception of this new realism (paragraphs 8 to 12), and apologizes for the inconveniences her novel has inflicted on its readers (paragraphs 13 to 15). The difficulties of so condensed a treatment are exacerbated by an ironic tone, judgmental stance, and involuted style. It is small wonder that so unforthcoming a document should have invited neglect rather than scrutiny.

Richardson's publishers, J. M. Dent and The Cresset Press, had hoped her introduction would give readers a fresh entry into her masterwork and help sell it to a wider audience. They were disappointed on both counts. Though she had dedicated her life to self-revelation through Pilgrimage, Dorothy Richardson dreaded the explicit self-exposure now asked of her. In December 1937 she wrote to Bryher: "I struggle to put together some sort of foreword for Pil. the most horrible job I ever attempted" (Windows 341). The result, a reluctant and tight-lipped summation of her artistic achievement, defied the deepest impulse of her creative work: her belief that all novels were expressive of the author, were in an important way autobiographical. Her young heroine, in the first flush of discovering this truth, exclaimed to herself: "I don't read books for the story, but as a psychological study of the author. . . . In a book the author was there in every word" (P 1: 384). Pilgrimage is not just "saturated in the personality of the author" (Wells 865) but saturated in the experiences of the author, taken rather directly from her life.(3) The foreword, then, should have been the crown of this deeply autobiographical enterprise, a statement of the way she as writer conceived and developed the personal subject of her novel. Instead, it was an act of obfuscation, a reluctant manifesto that managed to obscure even its most important truth, the announcement of Pilgrimage as a new kind of feminine fiction.

The foreword, then, is in need of decoding. The first task is to set down as precisely as possible what Dorothy Richardson is saying. The second is to locate historically her account of the genesis of Pilgrimage within the context of its 1912 time period. That will make possible a view of the foreword as an obliquely self-revealing preface to an ambitious autobiographical work of fiction. So viewed it may help us to understand better one of the major experimental novels of the twentieth century.

Detailed analysis is needed to piece out the complicated and sometimes elusive sentences of the foreword. The number for each paragraph will, where appropriate, precede my discussion.

1. Dorothy Richardson's brief survey of realism begins with Balzac. Though the ambitious scope of his essay on Les forces humaines dictates that he employ character types (who illustrate social forces), he is the father of realism because his imagination unites him so powerfully with his characters and settings.

2. Ignoring further developments in France and passing over those in England from George Eliot to George Gissing, Dorothy Richardson announces Arnold Bennett as the first English follower of Balzac.

3. She next distinguishes these founding realists from those who follow them in England.

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