Q: THE LODGER is the first biographical novel about Dorothy Richardson. Unknown to many, she was a pioneer in her day and one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. Why is it important to you to share her story?
A: A visitor to the old age home where Dorothy spent her last years was told that she suffered from delusions: she thought she was a famous writer. To which her startled visitor replied, “She is a famous writer!”
When I read this, I thought it was tragic: it seemed a terrible waste that this brave and complex woman died unrecognized and has largely been forgotten. Dorothy’s literary achievements were remarkable – she forged a new style of fiction that became known as stream of consciousness. Her life was as fascinating as her writing, for she was deeply unconventional in both, smashing just about every boundary and taboo going. The more I learnt about Dorothy, the more I became convinced that her story should be unearthed and retold.
Q: What’s the significance of the title, THE LODGER?
A: The title is apt because Dorothy was a lodger in a seedy boarding house in Bloomsbury at the time the novel is set. What I particularly like about it is its ambiguity and its suggestion of anonymity, transience, unbelonging. It captures Dorothy’s lack of roots or stability, as well as her inability to fit into any of the limited roles available to the women of her day.
Q: How did you come to discover Dorothy Richardson?
A: I stumbled on her by accident while researching Virginia Woolf for my PhD thesis. I found a review by Virginia about a writer whose name I did not recognize:
There is no one word, such as romance or realism, to cover, even roughly, the works of Miss Dorothy Richardson … She 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…
I was riveted. Who was Dorothy Richardson? How had she come to re-invent the English language, in order to record the experience of being uniquely female? This was the beginning of an enduring fascination with her.
Q: You’ve called Dorothy Richardson the forgotten Virginia Woolf. Can you explain?
A: This question is worthy of a whole essay! Briefly, Dorothy Richardson is a name few people are familiar with today. In her time, not only was she hailed as one of ‘the new women writers’ and an innovator of stream of consciousness, but she was considered Virginia Woolf’s equal. She and Virginia were contemporaries who were familiar with each other’s work, and there are numerous parallels between them. Both were tormented souls who did not conform to social norms, and both were bisexual. Both had unusual, though successful, marriages: Virginia to Leonard Woolf and Dorothy to the artist Alan Odle. Like Virginia, Dorothy lived for a time in Bloomsbury, though she led a grittier and less privileged life. The lives of both were blighted by madness and suicide. Virginia’s breakdowns and eventual suicide have been well documented; Dorothy’s mother suffered a breakdown and committed suicide while Dorothy was looking after her. Perhaps most importantly, Virginia and Dorothy shared similar writerly preoccupations. Dissatisfaction with the conventions of the realist novel – which they perceived as being explicitly masculine – led them to seek new narrative forms that would render the texture of consciousness as it records life’s impressions, life’s minute to minute quality.
Q:THE LODGER examines a brief but dramatic period in Richardson’s life during which she has an affair with H.G. Wells, discovers her bisexuality and independence, and finds her voice as a writer. Why did you choose to focus on this time in her life?
A: This was one of the most eventful periods in Dorothy’s life and, I think, the most interesting. For a start, it was full of conflict, which is always meaty fodder for writers, and the conflicts were central to and representative of her character. Dorothy was torn between being bohemian and being respectable, exulting in her independence yet frightened by it, attracted to men and women, wanting close relationships yet repudiating them. I became particularly absorbed by her affair with H.G. Wells. He was such a complex and compelling man, not conventionally handsome, yet irresistible to women because of his intellect and the way he made them feel he was interested in all of them – their thoughts as well as their bodies. I was intrigued by the way Dorothy’s encounters with Wells helped her find her voice as a writer – partly in opposition to his views. This period of Dorothy’s life was full of pivotal events, which shaped everything that came after.
Q: Richardson is credited with inventing a new style of writing called “stream of consciousness.” Can you explain what that means?
A: Stream of consciousness is a narrative method that renders the flow of thoughts and images passing through the minds of the characters as they occur.
Interestingly, it was a term Dorothy disliked. “Stream of consciousness is a muddle-headed phrase,” she told an interviewer. “Consciousness is not a stream, it’s a pool, a sea, an ocean. It has depth and greater depth and when you think you have reached its bottom there is nothing there, and when you give yourself up to one current you are suddenly possessed by another.”
Q: Despite Richardson’s achievements, she died alone in relative obscurity. Why do you think this is?
A: Dorothy blamed her failure to gain lasting recognition on the extra journalism and translations she was forced to take on in order to support herself and her husband (neither her books nor Alan Odle’s drawings made enough to live on). While her inability to give single-minded attention to her fiction was undoubtedly a component in her lack of success, it is not the whole story. The new fluid prose she set out to create was challenging as well as brave. Paradoxically, some of the ways in which she tried to revolutionize the novel actually made hers harder to read. None of the usual threads of plot or characterization are given; the entire world of the novel is filtered through the protagonist’s consciousness. Readers wanted instant gratification; they looked to fiction for action and sensation. They didn’t want to struggle with a gigantic and slowly unfolding examination of consciousness.
Q: Before pursuing a career as a writer, you were a classical violinist. Why did you stop performing? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
A: I stopped performing because I caught a virus, which turned into the debilitating condition ME. For the best part of a year, I suffered overwhelming fatigue and limbs that ached as though I had flu. Being on stage was out of the question, but it was possibly the best thing that could have happened, because it gave me the opportunity to rethink my life: I realized that I wanted to work with words, not music. Actually, I think the desire to write was always there, below the surface: for most of my life, I kept diaries and scribbled short stories. I now look back on my time as a musician as an extended writer’s block, and I believe that my illness was my body’s way of telling me I was on the wrong track, and it was time to stop and change things.
Q: How did your career as a musician prepare you for life as a writer?
A: Music was fantastic training for being a writer because it taught me the discipline to glue my butt to a chair and spend hours alone, honing my craft. There are numerous parallels between music and writing, including rhythm, color, tone, and the ability to blend many voices, or make a single voice stand out. Just as an extra beat throws a piece of music off balance, so a surplus word can destabilize a sentence.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from THE LODGER?
A: The sense of having had an enjoyable thought-provoking read, of having journeyed into the world of a remarkable woman and writer living in a society that was discouraging if not downright hostile to women who desired independence and their own identity. Perhaps even a desire to discover Dorothy’s writing for themselves.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: My second novel is well under way. It’s about a girl who was part of the Kinderstransport – the rescue mission that brought thousands of refugee Jewish children to England from Nazi occupied Europe. They left their families to go to the care of strangers, in a foreign country whose language they only had the barest grasp of. They didn’t know what would happen to them, or if they would see their parents again.
I hope to write many more novels and raise my children. For me, those are the only important things.