Richardson and the Little Review

Following a lead sent our way by Dr Clare Hutton from Loughborough University, some new Dorothy Richardson letters have surfaced. The letters come from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s archive of the New York-based modernist magazine, the Little Review, and relate to Richardson’s publications in this important periodical.

Richardson first appeared in the Little Review at a crucial time in its history. The magazine had serialized successive episodes of James Joyce’s Ulysses from March 1918, but in May 1919 a new issue of the Little Review was seized by the US Post Office on grounds of the obscenity of Joyce’s text – the January issue of the same year had also suffered the same fate. The magazine resumed for its subscribers in June 1919 with a number of important changes: readers were urged to ask ‘the government to reimburse you for your losses’ for the confiscated issue; the London editor, Ezra Pound, had ‘abdicated and gone to Persia’; his replacement was John Rodker; and readers could enjoy a new serialised novel alongside Joyce’s – Interim, the latest volume of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage.

In April 1918 the Little Review included an important piece of Richardsonia – and an important piece of modernist theory more generally – when it published a version of May Sinclair’s seminal review, ‘The Novels of Dorothy Richardson’ (the original of which was published in The Egoist in 1918), the first known application of the term ‘stream-of-consciousness’ to the content of a novel. By publishing Sinclair’s piece, the magazine acknowledged Richardson’s position as a literary innovator. Richardson’s letters to the Little Review reveal that the feeling was mutual: in one letter, Richardson modestly declined to submit any writing as ‘I have nothing that from the L. R. standpoint is not perfectly orthodox and commonplace’. At the same time, however, in April 1919, when Richardson wrote to propose the serialization of Interim, she flagged up the novel’s content rather than its experimental form: ‘I think, it may be helped out by the fact that it contains a thread of transatlantic (Canadian) interest.’

When Interim appeared in the Little Review, it was immediately clear that Richardson’s latest novel accorded with the magazine’s stated aim to make ‘no compromise with public taste’. In Interim, Richardson initially adopted a method of notating dialogue that resembles Joyce in extremis – the normal run of line breaks and inverted commas is replaced with unbroken strings of dialogue, sometimes separated by long dashes. Critics have been baffled, however, about Richardson’s decision, halfway through Interim, to revert back to the conventional method for representing dialogue. Given the absence of a handwritten manuscript, some critics have put this change down to a kind of artistic losing-face. But the Little Review letters contain a fascinating ‘Memorandum for printer’s reader’, which – read one way – might just return Interim’s changing appearance on the page to the realms of an unequivocal aesthetic decision. In her ‘Memorandum’, Richardson urged: ‘Please have all dialogue as it is in the typescript i.e. sometimes as part of the text, sometimes between “dashes” & occasionally spaced-out & with (or without) inverted commas.’ Punctuation, too, is to be adhered to ‘most carefully’, ‘safeguarding the sometimes unconventional presence, or absence, of the comma.’ All of which aptly sums up the appearance of Interim in its final form.

At the moment, I am working my way through the early volumes of Pilgrimage, collating variants between different editions. As commas are added or removed between editions, or are left in when they would not survive the attentions of a more dogmatic editor, I have begun to see Richardson’s punctuation through an almost mystical lens. While it’s perhaps not healthy to speculate too wildly about Richardson’s designs – especially given the relative paucity of documentary evidence surrounding the genesis of Pilgrimage – there are few more pleasurable aspects of editorial work than to track the subtle changes, the fluctuations of shading and nuance, that arise as an author revises a text. And Richardson’s ‘Memorandum’ in particular gives cause to take seriously her punctuational oddities, and to look for the changes in literary effect and meaning that emerge as she moves her commas or about, or changes her speech marks. Richardson’s 1924 essay ‘About Punctuation’ already looked like a revealing interpretative key to her contemporary novels, but with these new letters emerging from the archive, we have even further confirmation of the intricacies of Richardson’s experimental practice.

Adam Guy


About cultpol

Dorothy Richardson fan.
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