Literary Fiction

It’s Women Writers, Not Novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard, Who’ve “Struggled”

Meet Dorothy Miller Richardson, a true literary revolutionary, critically praised a century ago for what Knausgaard is lauded for: portraying life's minutia. Never heard of her? Quelle surprise.

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Karl Ove Knausgaard is not a worrier, or so he writes in Sunday’s issue of the New York Times Magazine of his North American road trip, characteristically titled “My Saga”: “I think I’m not so focused on worldly matters, which in turn means that some day I just might write a masterpiece.” He’s also a writer possessed of an incredible confidence that every thought he has about every place he goes, every person he encounters, every plate of spaghetti he consumes, is worthy of attention—may be, in fact, the makings of a masterpiece.

I remember when a friend first described the Norwegian literary phenomenon of Knausgaard’s My Struggle to me: “It’s this incredibly beloved, six-volume-long stream-of-consciousness, autobiographical novel about a stay-at-home dad. And, you know, his feelings.” What? Yes, please. I devoured the 500-page-long Volume 1; the writing seemed to describe the texture of my own thoughts. I realize that to certain readers it will sound like a particularly tedious form of torture, but I found Knausgaard’s focused attention to the minutia of his life to be fascinating.

I also found the literary establishment’s rapturous love of him to be pretty fascinating. Jonathan Lethem called him “a living hero.Lorin Stein told the New York Times that Knausgaard had “solved a big problem of the contemporary novel.” I mean, I like his writing. I like-it-like-it. But really, so much attention for a plotless book about a guy’s feelings—really? I wanted to be happy. How patient readers could still, despite our tweety, byte-size attention spans, devour lengthy novels while blocking out the noisy death rattle of print media!

And yet, as Katie Roiphe pointed out in Slate, something about the critical froth of adoration for Knausgaard smacked of sexism. When Jeffrey Eugenides told The New Republic that Knausgaard “broke the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel,” I remembering thinking, Gee, it seems to me that plenty of people have written about the epic-strength struggles of their everyday inner lives, but you seem not to have read those books, perhaps because they had ladies on the cover, or worse, were about MOTHERS.” As Roiphe wrote, “I don’t think we would be able to tolerate, let alone celebrate, this sort of domestic diary-like profusion from a woman.”

When women writers do, as Alice McDermott did in her tightly knit, sensitive, and critically acclaimed novel Someone, even critics who loved it called it “quietly exquisite” (itals mine). As Meg Wolitzer noted in her canny essay “The Second Shelf,” if “a woman writes a doorstop filled with free associations about life and love and childbirth and war, and jokes and recipes and maybe even a novel-within-a-novel, and anything else that will fit inside an endlessly elastic membrane, she risks being labeled undisciplined and self-indulgent.” Can it be that women have always written such books, but that they have been largely ignored?

Yes, actually, I think so. As much as I do love my dear prolific weirdo Knausgaard, he hasn’t really done anything all that revolutionary. In fact, exactly a century ago, England saw the beginnings of a similarly expansive novel brimming with what Ben Lerner called Knausgaard’s “radical inclusiveness … style-less style … apparently equal fascination with everything.” And no, I don’t mean Proust or Joyce, although at the time the writer was often mentioned in the same breath. I mean a multivolume novel that created its own wildly inventive, truly brand-new form, sending shockwaves through the literary establishment of the time: Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Miller Richardson. May Sinclair first coined the phrase “stream of consciousness” to describe the first three modernist novels of Richardson’s Pilgrimage series that began with the 1915 publication of Pointed Roofs, in a 1918 review for a publication called The Egoist, when she wrote, “In this series there is no drama, no situation, no set scene. Nothing happens. It is just life going on and on …[a] stream of consciousness going on and on.” Virginia Woolf and H.G. Wells were among its many fans. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of it. It’s been out of print for decades.

Dorothy Miller Richardson began writing Pilgrimage, her 12-volume novel (or possibly 13-volume novel, depending on whom you ask) in order to, in her own words, “produce a feminine equivalent of the current masculine realism,” according to Horace Gregory’s book, Dorothy Richardson: An Adventure in Self-Discovery. Indeed, in that same review Sinclair claimed that Richardson produced the effect of “being the first, of getting closer to reality than any of our novelists who are trying so desperately to get close.”

Richardson wrote that plot was “inexcusable. Lollipops for children,” according to Modern British Women Writer, an A-Z Guide, edited by Vicki K. Janik, Del Ivan Janik, and Emmanuel Sampath Nelson. And it shows. Her plotless Pilgrimage concerns itself with the low-key travails of Miriam Henderson, a thinly veiled version of Richardson herself. Like her creator, Miriam is one of four daughters in a comfortable, upper-middle-class London family. When Miriam is 17, her father loses his fortune, and she is forced to go out into the world and make a living. She tries out several different jobs before landing a position as a secretary in a London dental office, a post that allows her to live on her own and to experience the freedoms of modern city life. It is a rapturous time for her: While walking alone in London she thinks, “I am part of the dense smooth clean paving stone …” London leads to a literary circle of friends, and eventually Miriam is writing and living a bohemian life.

Pilgrimage is not a domestic story, for Miriam is neither a mother nor a wife. (At one point in Volume 3, she thinks, “So there was nothing for women in marriage and children. Because they had no thoughts. Their husbands grew to hate them because they had no thoughts.”) It’s not a love story; though the thoroughly modern Miriam does have a few romantic interludes, she’s not one to lose her head over any of the men she beds. It’s not even really a bildungsroman, because so few lessons are learned, conclusions drawn. It’s an experimental, elastic, unruly doorstop, a “diarylike profusion,” 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. For thousands and thousands of pages.

Richardson’s writing traffics in subtlety. As you begin reading the first volume, Pointed Roofs, you might think you know this story, recognizing the brushstrokes from Villette, or Jane Eyre, or Little Women: the bright young woman who has fallen on hard times and must work as teacher, who will fall in love with a German professor (as Miriam’s sister suggests) and enjoy both a marriage-plot-worthy happy ending and accompanying satisfactory narrative epiphany. But Richardson’s story resists something so tidy. She plays with the format and then discards it for a more modern approach; you can almost see the marriage plot’s corset lying on the floor, stepped out of so that the book may stand naked before you.

In fact, the dreamy professor-lover never shows up. There is only the barest hint of a romance, and in fact, the action of the story hinges on a look. A look. But that lingering, smoldering look that a man gives Miriam doesn’t herald an impending engagement, it is instead intercepted by the jealous head mistress of the school, who diverts Miriam away from the German school and back home to England and the dreariness of looking for more suitable work.

Not that Miriam is hoping to get married. Unlike most of our marriage plot heroines (Villette’s Lucy Snowe, Jane Eyre, even independent Jo March) Miriam looks for meaning within herself, rather than in a man. For one thing, she doesn’t believe she’ll ever find a partner who will match her, who will understand her way of seeing the world. Miriam muses in Backwater (Volume 2), while walking in a garden and remembering her first moments of “strange independent joy” as a 6-year-old in a similar garden,

“She wanted to speak to someone of these things. Until she could speak to someone about them she must always be alone. Always quite alone, she thought, looking out, as she walked, across the busy stretch of sea between the two piers, dotted with pleasure boats. It would be impossible to speak to any one about them unless one felt perfectly sure that the other person felt about them in the same way and knew that they were more real than anything else in the world, knew that everything was a fuss about nothing. But everybody else seemed to be really interested in the fuss. That was the extraordinary thing.”

Miriam notices everything, excavating the profound in the mundane. Long passages of the novel describe her experiences (both disappointing and revelatory) playing piano, reading books, and (in the great tradition of literary flâneurs like those from Balzac, Baudelaire, and more recently Teju Cole) walking around the city and looking at stuff. Miriam is never far from philosophy. Realizing with dread that she is not cut out for yet another one of the careers she’s tried, she muses, “Then nothing matters. Just one little short life.”

Miriam needs to support herself financially, yes, but she also wants to be herself, a pretty lofty pair of goals for a single woman in early 20th century London. Faced with the shame of her father’s financial ruin, she thinks, “I want to live, even if I have to slink through life. I will. I don’t care, inside. I shall always have myself to be with.” She rejects religion, to the horror of the headmistresses at the English school where she teaches in Backwater. She rejects becoming a wife, which is the answer for two of her sisters. After her experience as a governess in Honeycomb (Volume 3), she rejects a domestic post, which is the answer for another of her sisters. After her mentally ill mother commits suicide while under Miriam’s care, she takes the dramatic, liberating step of deciding to rent a room just large enough for her and her alone (The Tunnel, Volume 4). Only now, only here, in her own tiny room in just-barely-not-a-slum, potentially-almost–Bohemian Bloomsbury does Miriam’s life start to feel more on track:

“She was surprised now with her familiarity with the details of the room … that idea of visiting places in dreams. It was something more than that … all the real part of your life has a real dream in it; some of the real dream part of you coming true. You know in advance when you are really following your life.”

And yes, the wallpaper is yellow.

This volume is also when Miriam meets a charismatic, brilliant, married professor named Hypo Wilson (based on her real-life friend-mentor-paramour H.G. Wells.) They become lovers—conveniently, he believes in free love—which Richardson writes about with her characteristic honesty. Perhaps more significantly, he encourages her to write. Finally she has found a way to transcend the unsatisfactory reality of finances and fuss. The following four volumes of Pilgrimage trace her life as an aspiring writer and philosophical pilgrim amidst the London literati; Oberland (Volume 9) is an odd interlude in Switzerland almost entirely focused on a child Miriam encounters there; the final three volumes trace Miriam’s spiritual searching which leads her to Quakerism and the countryside, resounding with echoes of her early garden epiphany.

Throughout the novel’s volumes, Miriam searches for meaning:

“What was life? Either playing a part all the time in order to be amongst people in the warm, or standing alone with the strange true real feeling—alone with a sort of edge of reality on everything; even on quite ugly common things—cheap boarding-houses, face-towels and blistered window frames.”

That strange, real feeling—how to stand alone with it? Like so many protagonists before her, Miriam is asking, as Vivian Gornick would later write in her essay “Ruthless Intimacies,” “Where is the world? Without or within?” Gornick is writing about Woolf, but Richardson worked in a similar register, and her female characters ask this same question of themselves.

Over the course of these thousands of pages, Miriam investigates issues large (money, class, freedom, cities, marriage) and small (the delicious micro-rebellions of reading the newspaper and smoking cigarettes like a man, the questions of what kind of music means the most and what is the best kind of book to read). One of the many telling passages in Honeycomb has Miriam analyzing an author she loves and in doing so, telling us how to read her own book:

“Then you read books to find the author! So that was it. That was the difference…this was how one was different from most people … Dear Eve; I have just discovered that I don’t read books for the story, but as a psychological study of the author … she must write that to Eve at once; tomorrow. It was rather awful and strange. It meant never being able to agree with people about books, never liking them for the same reasons as other people … But it was true and exciting.”

Like Knausgaard, Richardson resists finality, refuses to hand you a moment when her narrator has figured out life and can now be happy forever after. Each volume ends on some grumbly, inconclusive note: “She was just going home with nothing to say for herself.” “She summoned her strength, but her body seemed outside her, empty, pacing forward in a world full of perfect unanswering silence.”  “Away. Away.” The 13th volume, March Moonlight, was published posthumously and offers slightly more conclusiveness, but this is still no clutching-book-to-chest-and-sighing situation.

Why has Richardson’s book vanished from our consciousness? As much as I have loved this book over the years I’ve been reading it (it’s a slow burn), even I can admit that, like Knausgaard, Richardson is as boring as she is fascinating—often at once. Both My Struggle and Pilgrimage—just look at those titles, would you, for two novels about nothing more than normal life!—are essentially anti-novels, much more like life itself than a novel usually is. For that reason they are by turns revelatory and unsatisfying, like life itself. In short these books tease the perennial question of what a novel should do, what a novel should mean. Life, too.

It’s also possible that the disappearance of Pilgrimage has more to do with a bad confluence of logistics and luck than it does the book itself. The “definitive” (weighty, hardcover, expensive) 12-volume set of Pilgrimage was published in 1938, a year in which England was distracted by war, and the set sold poorly. The ending seemed unfinished; indeed Richardson was working on a final volume, March Moonlight, which wouldn’t be published until after her death. To earn a living she wrote “hackwork” for popular magazines, like her mentor H.G Wells, but she didn’t have a gift for it and presumably her numb journalism didn’t drum up fans for her fiction.

For much of her adult life she teetered on the edge of poverty, her time eaten away by housework in her inexpensive lodgings that lacked electricity and plumbing, her day jobs, and her voluminous correspondences with friends and fans (her day’s time-suck equivalent of Facebook).

But also, let’s be real here: We still read Proust—not only do we still read him, he’s become a lit-world talisman. And the main character of À la recherche du temps perdu, a book universally regarded as a masterpiece, isn’t exactly a fascinating creature. He’s often barely there, spending wide swathes of the seven volumes observing others. Meanwhile, Richardson’s brave, unflinching, all-seeing portrait of Miriam Henderson has few readers outside academe. And of course, we’re all frothing over Knausgaard. Maybe Dorothy Richardson’s problem was that the world wasn’t quite ready to accept the life story of an ordinary, working-class woman as significant; maybe in a future, more-enlightened time, some visionary soul will see fit to lug these beautiful pages back into print.

After her significant contribution to the world of literature, Dorothy Richardson died at the age of 84, penniless and forgotten. 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.” Miriam, like the main character of Pilgrimage. Breaking the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel, indeed.

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