Absorbing novel about ground-breaking author

Review: Vivien Horler

The Lodger, by Louisa Treger (Bloomsbury Reader/ Jonathan Ball)

In an author’s note at the end of  The Lodger, Louisa Treger writes that Dorothy Richardson, on whose life this novel is based, died in poverty and obscurity in an old age home in 1957.

A visitor was told Richardson suffered from delusions, believing she was a famous writer. Surprised, the visitor responded: “She is a famous writer!”

It turns out she was one of the early innovators of “stream of consciousness” writing, “which imitated the movement of the female mind”.

In a review of Richardson’s Revolving Lights in 1923, Virginia Woolf wrote: “Dorothy Richardson has invented … a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender. It is of a more elastic fibre than the old, capable of stretching to the extreme, of suspending the frailest particles, of enveloping the vaguest shapes…”

Treger was reading up on Woolf for a PhD thesis when she came across that review and was immediately intrigued. Who was Dorothy Richardson and what had she done? Treger changed direction, wrote her PhD thesis on Richardson instead, and then this novel.

But the source of Richardson’s fame came much later than the period in which The Lodger. Treger says the book is a melding of fact and fiction, broadly following the known outline of Richardson’s life.

But a reading of Richardson’s biographical entry in Wikipedia reveals a much tougher cookie than appears in The Lodger, in which Dorothy is forever suffering from the vapours, is desperately miserable, exhausted, is frequently ill and is also malnourished.

But I am supposed to be writing a review of a novel, not of Dorothy Richardson’s life. It opens around 1910 with Dorothy, a young spinster who works as a dental receptionist and assistant and who lives in an attic in Bloomsbury, goes to Kent to spend the weekend with an old schoolfriend.

The friend has recently married the writer HG Wells, and both Dorothy and Bertie, as he is known, are immediately attracted to each other. Bertie tells Dorothy, whom he calls Dora, that he dearly loves his wife, Jane, who devotes her life to making his as comfortable as possible, but that Jane has never been able to satisfy him physically. And he needs that release if he is to continue being a successful writer.

He also tells her that he and Jane have an open marriage.

Dorothy is aroused and flattered, although is smart enough to realise that the open marriage almost certainly works only one way. Bertie is persuasive, and tells Dora he has always wanted a woman whose mind and whose body will respond to his – that they will be partners in every significant way.

Eventually they become lovers, but to their distress, Dora turns out to be no more enthusiastic about sex with Bertie than Jane was.

After some time the relationship with Bertie peters out.  She meets a committed young suffragette, and discovers that she is in no way sexually frigid.

But Bertie’s big contribution to Dorothy’s life is to read her written musings about life in London, and urge her to write more seriously. And when a despairing Dorothy has lost both Bertie and the suffragette, her eyes fall on the pile of pages she has written, and something in her mind steadies.

Her protagonist is as alone as Dorothy, she realises. Dorothy has a flash of inspiration: “At last she had it, the method of her novel. She would banish her narrator entirely. The inner world of her heroine, her developing consciousness, would be all there was.”

And that’s the end of the novel. But the real-life result of Dorothy Richardson’s writing was, in the main, a 13-volume novel called Pilgrimage, a fictionalised account of her own life between 1891 and 1915, and the first stream of consciousness novel published in English.

But as Treger says, while at first Richardson became something of a cult figure, her writing was hard to read. Readers did “not want to struggle with an epic and slowly unfolding examination of consciousness”.

And Richardson was gradually forgotten. So much so that while HG Well features in her Wikipedia entry, there is no sign of her in his.

This is a most readable and beautifully written novel; I found it absorbing. I’m also very glad I wasn’t living as a 30-something single woman in the years before World War I.

  • The Lodger was first published in 2014 and reissued last year

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