Writing the Neverending Novel
Dorothy Richardson worked for decades on a 13-volume long novel about… nothing much really. Why?
I think many of us have touchstone books that are almost like old friends. For me, there’s this extremely long novel I’ve been reading, on and off, since I found a dusty copy in a used bookstore about twenty years ago. As the other aspects of life flurry around me — in that time I’ve gotten married, changed jobs, moved apartments, had two children, published three novels, gotten divorced — this book is always waiting midsentence, midrevelation, ready for my return.
This book that helps bolster me whenever I’m feeling stuck is Dorothy Richardson’s 13-volume novel Pilgrimage — hundreds and hundreds of plotless pages about a working-class woman named Miriam Henderson and her various non-adventures in pre-war London. Richardson wrote the novel over many decades, and in fact hadn’t finished yet by the time she died. It garnered a flurry of attention when the first volumes starting getting published, admired by Virginia Woolf, championed by H.G. Wells, lauded in a review by May Sinclair in which the term “stream of consciousness” was used for the first time. But the volumes quickly went out of print and dropped off the cliff of literary obscurity.
How can I describe Pilgrimage to you? It’s neither bildungsroman nor love story; it’s a woman’s story but not a domestic one, as Miriam shirks marriage and motherhood. It’s an experimental, elastic, slow-moving, unruly doorstop, — like James Joyce on chamomile tea — audacious in its implicit claim, which is to say, that an ordinary woman’s life — a working woman’s life — is worth paying attention to.
Over the course of the 12 volumes that were published in Richardson’s lifetime, I have to admit, not much happens. What really matters is that Miriam notices everything, and long passages of the novel describe her experiences (both disappointing and revelatory) playing piano, reading books, and, like any self-respecting flâneur, walking around and looking at stuff.
Richardson succeeds in recreating life, she does. The issue — as many of her contemporary reviewers pointed out at the time — is that life is often very boring, which is probably why we generally require works of fiction to make a narrative of the formless stuff of existence, shape the world into story. Richardson resists that impulse. She’s not about to pluck out the dramatic aspects of Miriam’s life and massage them into a compelling page-turner with a tied-in-a-bow ending; she dismissed plot as “lollipops for children.” Richardson wants to challenge us all to probe deep into the consciousness of this woman, to slough off the usual expectations we have of fiction. This isn’t a book that makes you lose yourself. It’s a book that makes you go deeper into yourself.
Richardson couldn’t have imagined the world I live in, or how much her words, little read in her time, could mean to me. In a way, I guess, we’re always writing for future readers whose world we can’t know.
Sometimes we write simply because we want to believe in the future. Look at the Future Library, a forest planted outside of Oslo, Norway, intended to provide the paper for an anthology of books being written now. Writers including Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell have supplied novels to the project.
Can there be any more deeply optimistic project? Or a better reason to write? These books are a hedge against destruction, a vote of confidence in our ability as humans to maintain a livable environment, to keep a forest intact, to still value and read print literature in a century. It’s a gutsy gamble, particularly given how things seem to be progressing.
The Future Library is to be published 100 years from now. I write this almost exactly 100 years after Richardson began to publish Pilgrimage.
Who takes on a writing project like Pilgrimage? Richardson was, like her heroine Miriam Henderson, one of four children born to a comfortable, upper-middle-class London family; like Miriam, when Dorothy was 17 her father lost his fortune and she was forced to go out into the world to make a living. After finding that life as a governess and teacher, the most obvious career paths for a young woman of her background, didn’t suit her, Dorothy moved to London and landed a position as a secretary in a dental office.
Despite the stresses of poverty, she loved living on her own, experiencing the freedoms of a modern city — this, in the newly-post-Edwardian early 20th century, when respectable unmarried women were still expected to live quite circumscribed lives. Dorothy, on the other hand, rented her own room in the shabby, almost-bohemian Bloomsbury, and acquired a literary circle of friends, including H.G. Wells.
Wells happened to be married to an old friend of hers. He also happened to, — conveniently enough! — believe in free marriage. They began an affair, and perhaps more significantly, he encouraged her to write. In 1912, friends introduced her to Cornwall, a wild coast more hospitable to struggling writers than expensive, intense London, and Richardson began to dive into Pilgrimage in earnest. Wonderfully, she lodged in a converted chapel that she swore was haunted.
Following the publication of Pilgrimage’s first two volumes, Pointed Roofs and Backwater, Richardson found herself back in London, staying in a boardinghouse comprised mostly of artist’s studios. One of these artists turned out to a bohemian young illustrator named Alan Odle, who told her he was a fan of her work. They married soon after, in 1917.
If there is a moral of this story perhaps it is: always compliment writers.
It’s unclear whether this was actually a great move for Richardson, though, erstwhile champion for women’s independence and avoider of domestic drudgery. Odle, a gangly, long-haired fellow 15 years her junior, was tubercular, alcoholic, and not expected to live long.
But hooray (or alas?), his health improved and once married he lived for many years. Richardson supported him, as his art didn’t bring in much income. For much of her adult life she teetered on the edge of poverty, her time eaten away by day jobs and housework in her bare bones lodgings that lacked amenities like electricity and plumbing. Her novel writing, unsurprisingly, suffered.
Dorothy Richardson died at the age of 84, penniless and forgotten. She spent her last years in a nursing home, claiming (rightly!) that she had once been a famous author. How’s this for a chilling detail? On her headstone in The Great Southern Cemetery in Kent, her name is incorrect. Inexplicably, instead of “Miller,” her actual middle name, the stone reads “Dorothy Miriam Richardson,” permanently fusing her fictional self onto her identity.
What kept her going? How did she keep the faith? I have to believe that she believed just that strongly in her project, and in her ability to create this new and unique mode of novel-writing.
Scholars have frequently noted that her aim was to accurately express the female sensibility. But in order to write a novel about what is it like to be a woman — or rather, what is it like to be Miriam Henderson — Richardson needed to create a form as idiosyncratic as a personality. She didn’t set out to be experimental with her discursive, dreamy, structure-less novel structure. She simply found that the form she was looking for hadn’t been invented yet.
Pilgrimage also crystallizes something that makes the Long Haul so rare, so risky: by its very nature it bucks capitalism. A book you can contently read for 17 years at a time doesn’t exactly send you racing back to the bookstore. A painter who takes 8 years to complete a painting isn’t what you’d call a great investment for a gallery. These projects resist being made into salable products. And in our world this is a rebellion of the highest order. Maybe even a mutiny. (They also, of course, make it hard for their creators to support themselves, which makes the creative process take even longer, which — you get it.)
Pilgrimage is about patience — the writing of it was, and the reading of it is, and the story itself is one of Miriam slowly unfurling, ceaselessly becoming.
Richardson’s entire project focuses on the often-invisible process of “eternal becoming,” what life, after all, really is about. Miriam’s existence is about living rather than achieving, just as the book is about becoming what it is — and always was, when one considers that was written long-hand, and published serially.
Sometimes the unending project is not just an interesting option. It’s the only real option. We are all, really, our own Long Haul.