May 17

This Day in History

Literary

May 17, 1873:

Dorothy Richardson, pioneer of stream of consciousness, is born

Influential English writer Dorothy Richardson, whose stream-of-consciousness style will influence James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, is born on this day in 1873.

Richardson, though seldom read today, was widely read and discussed in her own time. The daughter of a grocer who went bankrupt when she was 17, Richardson was well-educated and highly independent. After her father's economic catastrophe, she took a job as a teacher in Germany for six months, then taught in London and worked as a governess for two years. In the late 1890s, Richardson devoted herself to caring for her severely depressed mother, who killed herself in November 1895 while Richardson was out taking a walk.

Richardson moved to the Bloomsbury district in London, determined to support herself. She took a job as a dental assistant and earned extra money by writing essays and reviews. Unusually liberated for the time period, Richardson made friends with other young women who worked in offices. She attended public events and lived sparsely so she could afford concert tickets.

Richardson met H.G. Wells, the husband of an old school friend, in the early 1900s. She had an affair with Wells and in 1906 found herself pregnant with Wells' child. She broke off with him, hoping to raise the child herself, but miscarried. She then moved to Sussex, where she wrote a monthly column for The Dental Record and sketches for The Saturday Review while working on the first volume of her stream-of-consciousness novel, Pilgrimmage. The novel, which eventually stretched to 12 volumes, traced the development of a young woman whose life paralleled Richardson's.

The first volume of the novel, called Pointed Roofs, was published in 1915, followed by two more volumes in 1916 and 1917. Richardson married an artist, 15 years her junior, in 1917 and supported him with her writing. A review of her first three volumes published in 1918 first used the literary term "stream of consciousness" to describe her groundbreaking style. Many important 20th century writers adapted her techniques. Richardson died in 1957 at the age of 84.

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