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2. Modernist Non-fictional Narratives of War and Peace (1914-1950)
III/ Non-fiction Ambiguities, Audiences, and Technologies

Dorothy Richardson’s Correspondence during the Second World War and the Development of Feminine Consciousness in Pilgrimage



As an unjustifiably marginalized forerunner of English modernism, Dorothy Richardson left behind her, apart from her 13-volume novel Pilgrimage, a few short stories and poems, a considerable amount of non-fictional writings including essays and over two thousand letters. The majority of Richardson’s correspondence was first transcribed and edited by Gloria Fromm in Windows on Modernism. George H. Thomson systematized the total of Richardson’s known correspondence in his Dorothy Richardson: A Calendar of the Letters, enabling thorough research and unique insight in Richardson’s life. Furthermore, Richardson’s correspondence is of cultural value, even though Richardson, in her letters, accounts mainly for her daily life, financial constraints and constant moving to-and fro from Cornwall to London. However, her letters also, in a very subtle way, portray life in a world where socialism, communism and fascism were competing. Unlike some of her contemporaries, direct treatment of war is absent from both her novels and correspondence. Moreover, the letters written during the Second World War are particularly focused on domestic life in war time England. The present paper, through the analysis of Richardson’s correspondence during the Second World War and her unconventional way of dealing with current political and social events, aims to show Richardson’s unique approach to female experience and the development of feminine consciousness.

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1Dorothy M. Richardson (1873-1957) is a unique figure in English Modernist fiction. Her work consists of the thirteen-volume unfinished novel Pilgrimage, modeled on the writer’s own life but escaping the label of autobiographical fiction, a considerably smaller number of short stories and poems, and translations. In addition, her nonfiction includes reviews, a great deal of essays and correspondence. Even though she became quite well known as a female modernist writer after the publication of the first “chapter-volume” Pointed Roofs in 1915, the initial interest (and certain recognition) gradually decreased over the years and eventually faded away. Thus Dorothy Richardson died in poverty and her work remained “abominably unknown” (Ford Madox Ford 848). However, within the women’s movement of the 70s and 80s and its efforts towards revival of forgotten or marginalized works by women, after the publication of Richardson’s biography by Gloria Fromm in 1977, Virago’s four-volume edition of Pilgrimage in 1979, the publication of several books on Richardson and Pilgrimage (by Jean Radford, Carol Watts etc.) in the nineties, along with the formation of the Dorothy Richardson’s Society (2007), Richardson’s place as a pioneer of the “stream-of-consciousness” novel and a technical innovator, and even more importantly, as a writer of feminine experience and of development of feminine consciousness has been, to a certain extent, restored. The importance of Pilgrimage as a one-of-a-kind feminist narrative, as a multifaceted novel encouraging reader’s collaboration, along with its aesthetic value have been recognized by a growing number of critics and readers of her work.

2This paper focuses on Dorothy Richardson’s correspondence during the Second World War and the representation of the war and war-time England in her letters written between 1939 and 1946 published in Gloria Fromm’s Windows on Modernism: Selected Letters of Dorothy Richardson (1995); it aims at shedding light to Richardson’s personal attitudes and understanding of fascism and antisemitism and how they are connected to Pilgrimage’s main protagonist Miriam Henderson who could be perceived as (at the very least) prejudiced in a contemporary context.

3Dorothy Richardson was an avid letter-writer. She wrote professional and private letters to family members (hers and her husband’s), friends, well-known and lesser known intellectuals, poets, writers, editors, and artists of the day. She had several regular correspondents such as John Cowper Powys, Owen Wadsworth, Winifred Bryher, Peggy Kirkaldy, Henry Savage, S.S. Koteliansky as well as John Austen, Bernice Elliot, E.B.C. Jones, Ruth Suckow, her younger sister Jessie Hale, H.G. Wells, Hugh Walpole, Sylvia Beach, and so on (Fromm xx). However, many of her letters (her early correspondence, a large number of her correspondence with H.G. Wells, with her sister, etc.) have been lost. What has remained of her correspondence starts from 1901 when she was twenty-eight and living in Bloomsbury, London and ends in the early 1950s when she was moved to a nursing home near London. Gloria Fromm and George Thomson have done so far much of the groundwork on Richardson’s correspondence. In Windows on Modernism, one-fourth of Richardson’s letters has been edited and published (out of approximately 1,800 items, as Fromm believed to have survived). Thomson’s Calendar of Letters (2007) lists 2,086 items. In addition to this, in 2008 Janet Fouli edited a volume of Richardson’s correspondence with John Cowper Powys. It contains 104 letters written by Richardson. There are also about 30 other items which have been published in books or journals (Ekins 6). Furthermore, Richardson Editions’ Project and the scholars involved in it are currently tracing the path for future research in Richardson’s literary output and her, even more neglected, correspondence. Namely, within the framework of the Project, three volumes of Richardson’s Collected Letters were to be published by Oxford University Press in 2018-2020.1 Richard Ekins in his article “Dorothy Richardson, Quakerism and ‘Undoing’: Reflections on the rediscovery of two unpublished letters” states that according to Scott McCracken, the editor of the upcoming volumes of Richardson’s correspondence, 17 new items have been discovered (Ekins 6). Moreover, Ekins draws the attention to two more letters written by Richardson in 1914, of which the editors of the upcoming edition were not aware (Ekins 6). Thus, the work on Richardson’s correspondence shows itself to be an active field indispensable for further understanding and appreciation of Pilgrimage and Dorothy Richardson as a writer, with discoveries yet to come.

1. About Pilgrimage and the importance of Richardson’s correspondence

4During the writer’s lifetime and after, Pilgrimage has been criticized for various reasons: the bulky body of the text, the length of the sentences, the unconventional punctuation, the lack of form, plot and unity, the effort it requires from the readers, but predominantly the egocentrism and narcissism of the main protagonist Miriam Henderson. Virginia Woolf considered the novel was dominated by the “damned egotistical self” of the heroine (Bell 257). Miriam is also described by critics as “self-centered and self-contained”; as unable to change and evolve due to her self-absorption (Thomson 152). One can even find reviews describing Miriam’s mind as “unsound”, her imagination “sick”, in short, a “fictional pathology” (Thomson 146).

  • 2 Hereafter the multivolume Pilgrimage is referred to by P and the volume number, for instance P1.

5Although these comments are quite exaggerated, in today’s terms however, it could be easily said that Miriam Henderson is prone to generalizations, stereotyping, and prejudice. Contemporary critics and readers are often puzzled by Miriam’s anti-Semitic comments and her understanding of race and nation (McCracken 5). Moreover, for Miriam, throughout the thirteen volumes of Pilgrimage, Germany is the perfect, transcendental place where she begins her pilgrimage towards self-discovery, which actually enables her very quest, and to which she always returns. Miriam is enchanted by German nature, language, music, and mysticism. This controversial choice, although conditioned by the autobiographical veracity upon which the whole novel is constructed, contributed to the misunderstanding and the mixed reception of Pilgrimage. The first “chapter-volume” Pointed Roofs, published in 1915 during the course of the First World War, covers the period between March and July 1893, and is mainly set in Hanover, Germany. Disregarding the political situation, Germany is described in positive terms as “all woods and mountains and tenderness” through the eyes of a young seventeen-year old girl who leaves her native country for the first time (Pilgrimage 1: 21; hereafter P)2.

6Nevertheless, the novel abounds with hints and details planted in the text, whether consciously or not, which point to another crucial aspect of the novel, that is, the importance of memory and remembering, which, if taken into consideration along with Richardson’s correspondence, could contribute to the revaluation and better understanding of the controversial attitudes of the heroine. For instance, in Chapter V of Pointed Roofs, Miriam visits a Lutheran church with the headmistress and the students of the girls’ school where she teaches English. The congregation was singing a hymn. A tune she knew and sang with her sisters back in England. However, in that Lutheran church the hymn sounded more beautifully:

What wonderful people… like sort of a tea-party… everybody sitting about […] happy and comfortable. […] ‘Nundank – et – al – le – Gott’ […] sang as these Germans sang it, it did not jerk at all. It did not sound as a proclamation or an order. […] there was nothing to object to in it. (P 1:75, 76)

7However, within the epiphanous atmosphere described with warmth and strong fondness, those “wonderful people” resemble “a troop, a little army under the high roof, with the great shadows all about them” (P1, 76). Was Richardson, in a masterly seamless way, planting clues for the reader to grasp the fold in time, i.e., the moment of writing the novel alluding to the First World War? Is it a trace of the act of memory the novel represents? Is it an unconscious premonition by young Miriam? Or is it an indication of the more conscious narrator retelling the events in retrospect?

8Indeed, as many critics before have stated, the uniqueness of Pilgrimage lies in its structure as an act of memory, an act of personal and of cultural memory as well. It portrays the actual development of the consciousness of a woman at the end of the Victorian era and at the beginning of modernism between 1891 and 1912 written in retrospect by Richardson from 1912 till 1954. Moreover, the protagonist modeled on Richardson herself, in the last “chapter-volume” March Moonlight starts writing the first volume Pointed Roofs. However, the readers and critics of the time were not aware of that fact, nor of Richardson’s plan to write about the development of female consciousness in that particular timeframe through “a young, still developing, and therefore still limited consciousness” (Fromm 1977, 153). Instead, what struck them and what they focused on was the limitations of the protagonist’s consciousness, her individuality which was read as highly accentuated egoism and the “accumulation of material, half-unworked, part unconscious, registered, but not, […] synthetized” (Watts 7) without clear-cut positions. Miriam is placed in the middle of myriads of impressions, opinions, movements, and arguments. She refuses to organize them or to comment on them consistently. On the contrary, from volume to volume, Miriam’s consciousness shows a tendency towards contradiction, attachment and detachment, acceptance and refusal. The advantage of contemporary readers and critics is to have the whole (although unfinished) body of the text at their disposal and follow the development of Miriam’s consciousness without interruption or pauses due to the difficult publication process of the novels. They know about the autobiographical nature of Pilgrimage and have Richardson’s correspondence to rely on in order to better understand that development and the writer’s project. In that sense, Carol Watts asks several important questions in her Dorothy Richardson (1995) which still require answers:

What would such an affirmative portrayal of the Germany of 1890 mean in the Hun-hating years of the First World War? How would Miriam Henderson’s experiences and allegiances in the London of anarchists and revolutionaries look to those voting in the first Labor government after the war, in the years of the Red Scare? Where would a new woman of the 1890s find herself, twenty years and more later? And how would it become possible to write in anti-Semitistic [sic] form of Jews and Jewishness, of Germany, in the following decades, with evident knowledge of and opposition to the rise of Fascism? (Watts 6, 7)

9Could these queries that trouble critics and readers be answered by taking into consideration Richardson’s attempt at writing through a developing consciousness; by grasping the folds in time the novel rests upon and what they reveal of Richardson’s attitudes towards fascist Germany, Jews, and the horrors of the Wars; by relying on Richardson’s correspondence in particular? Could Richardson letters shed light on the nature of the protagonist’s generalizations, stereotyping, and prejudice?

2. Folds in time

10In a letter to Bryher from 14 December 1945, Richardson refers to the volumes of Pilgrimage as a “war-time casualty”: “1914 crashed down exactly at the moment when the first vol. was ready, & 1939 in time to crush the new edition” (Fromm 533). Pilgrimage, set between 1893 and 1912, does not contain any direct treatment of the World Wars. However, taking into consideration the years when the novels were published and the events occurring during those years, peculiar folds in time are created which are important for understanding Pilgrimage, its protagonist, its writer and their attitudes towards the Wars.

11The Boer Wars or more precisely the Second Boer War (1899-1902) took place during the period covered by Deadlock (1921) and Revolving Lights (1923). The volumes provide the opportunity for Miriam, who is attending lectures, meetings, gatherings of various thinkers, religious and political groups, to ponder about English imperialism, race, nation, religious, national and feminine identity, Jewishness, but also to allude to the threat of the Second World War. In Revolving Lights, during the conversation Miriam is having with Hypo Wilson (the novelized version of H.G. Wells), she enthusiastically talks about a lecture by Emil Reich, a popular Hungarian lecturer of Jewish descendance, she had attended. She is worried at the possibility of war which Reich accentuates, referring to the prospects of what would be the First World War. The novel, however, was published in 1923, thus Miriam’s words herald the Second World War and draw attention to the “blindfolded” (P3, 376) English people who are not able to see the threat.

12In Dawn’s Left Hand, published in 1931, a similar fold in time appears. Miriam refers to another of Reich’s lectures where he is warning about the beginning of the First World War : “Ladies and Gentlemen […] Germany prepares for war. Europe knows it. Before this century is ten years old, England will know it. Perchance too late” (P4, 200). Miriam fears the war. For a moment, she finds comfort in Hypo’s words that the war “can be written away” (P3, 376). But soon after, she wonders: “’Do you really think the war can be written away? There are so many opinions, and reading keeps one always balanced between different sets of ideas.’” (P3, 377). Indeed, Miriam is desperately trying to discover “truth”. Overwhelmed with different ideas, she analyzes conservative, liberal, socialist, capitalist, Lycurgan concepts but nowhere can she find ‘truth’: “Neither of them is quite true. Why doesn’t God state truth once and for all and have it done with it?” (P3, 376). As Hypo suggests to her, and reproaches her with, Miriam is “too omnivorous”; she gets “the hang of too many things”, she is “scattered” (P3, 377), “feathery. One thinks you’re there, and suddenly finds you playing on the other side of the field’” (P3, 375). She is passionate about new ideas, but she still holds tightly to some late-Victorian concepts; she refutes colonialist narratives, but at the same time strongly reacts to the sight of a “Negro” in Deadlock; she is enthusiastic and open-minded about foreigners, and their “unprejudiced foreign minds” (P3, 375), but she is not aware of her antisemitic observations about her suitor Michael Shatov.

13In novels appearing during the development and the fortification of German Fascism and antisemitism, Miriam in Pilgrimage meets a Russian Jew, Michael Shatov, falls in love with him but refuses to accept his marriage proposals because of his “Jewishness”, which amounts to a fear of limiting her developing consciousness, of his views that “wife and mother is the highest position of woman” (P3, 222). Miriam’s relationship with Shatov has been analyzed by Eva Tucker in her article “Why Won’t Miriam Henderson Marry Michael Shatov” and by Maren Linett in “’The Wrong Material’: Gender and Jewishness in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage”, and indeed Miriam’s generalizations about Michael and Jewishness in general could be read as “anti-Semitic”. Although the whole novel is centered upon escaping a late-Victorian understanding of the world, Miriam does seem to fall, from time to time, into the trap of the narrative she is trying to break free from. In Dimple Hill, which was published in 1938 at the beginning of the Second World War and covers the year 1907 when Michael Shatov is going to marry her intimate friend Amabel, Miriam refers to Shatov as “an alien consciousness” (P4 545) who is going to isolate Amabel for life and will indoctrinate her with the notion that the Jews are “still the best Christians” (P4, 550). However, in a previous volume, in Deadlock (1921), Miriam fears the rise of anti-Semitism (P3, 167).

14Thus, readers and critics are left with the problems of Miriam’s generalizations and certain prejudiced responses and wonder whether the text and the writer support some of the bigoted discourses of the heroine. For this reason, in the following section, we will review Richardson’s correspondence during the Second World War trying to understand better the person upon which the protagonist is modeled.

3. Richardson’s letters during the Second World War and the still developing consciousness of mature Dorothy Richardson

  • 3 Peggy Kirkaldy was also a regular correspondent of the writer and artist Denton Welch, of Jean Rhys (...)
  • 4 Annie Winifred Ellerman (Bryher) was the daughter of Sir John Ellerman, a wealthy ship-owning famil (...)
  • 5 S.S. Koteliansky was a Russian immigrant who was a close friend of D.H. Lawrence’s and Katherine Ma (...)

15Dorothy Richardson moved to London in 1896. In 1917 she married the artist Alan Odle and, due to mainly financial constraints, the couple was continuously in and out of London. They spent the summers in London, and the autumns and winters at various lodgings on the north coast of Cornwall. This routine lasted until the beginning of the Second World War, when they finally settled down in Trevone. From September 1940 until November 1945, Dorothy Richardson and her husband lived in Zansizzy, a bungalow near Trevone which was actually their most spacious dwelling place and “their longest uninterrupted stay in one place” (Fromm 398). Physically disconnected from the larger world, correspondence to her was of crucial importance. During the war, Richardson’s correspondents included the intellectual Owen Wadsworth (Percy Beaumont Wadsworth); the young American writer Bernice Elliott; her younger sister Jessie Hale; the writer Claude Houghton; the poet and editor Henry Savage; the socialite Peggy Kirkaldy3; the novelist, poet, and editor Bryher4; the writer and literary critic John Cowper Powys, an admirer of Pilgrimage; the writer and illustrator John Austen; and S.S. Koteliansky, a translator and a publisher’s reader5. Richardson valued her correspondence and devoted nearly all the remaining time after doing the daily household shores to it. In 1944, she estimated that her yearly correspondence was an equivalent of three of her novels. In essence, Richardson had a chapter-volume of Pilgrimage published nearly every year starting from 1915 until 1921, and then practically one every two years until 1931. Clear Horizon appeared in 1935, and Dimple Hill in 1938 in the collected edition of Pilgrimage. During the Second World War, Richardson struggled to finish March Moonlight, the volume which, at the beginning, was not meant to be the last, but ended up as the unfinished thirteenth chapter-volume published posthumously in 1968. By the volume of her wartime correspondence, it could be said that letter writing displaced her fiction writing. However, the reasons for her inability to finish March Moonlight are more complex and multifaceted and will be reviewed more closely later in this section. The style of her correspondence matches the one of Pilgrimage; long and complex syntactical structures unconventionally punctuated; a sharp thought and tongue; even wittier and more sarcastic comments than those found in Pilgrimage. Her letters reveal a matching double of Pilgrimage’s protagonist, a mature double, who was still growing, developing, pondering, questioning, and nurturing what Fromm has named her “natural bent towards philosophy […] and the unifying principles of human and cosmic consciousness” (Fromm, xxv).

16Richardson’s understanding of the Second World War and her position towards Germany and the War itself are most graspable in the letters she sent to John Cowper Powys and Peggy Kirkaldy. However, they differ in style and manner due to the nature of her relationship with them. Richardson expresses strong disapproval of Hitler’s actions and condemns the War, the loss of human lives, the suffering and the pain it was causing. However, ‘simple’ condemnations should not be expected by a writer with such a deep and wide ‘consciousness’, inclined to questioning and examining social phenomena. Richardson displays curious sociological reasoning and wonders about inevitability of conflict and the War, the effects of the War, the (re)construction of post-war societies, the opposing capitalism and socialism, and the effects of the war and the possible impact to the collective cultural memory.

17In her letter to J.C. Powys from January 7, 1940 Richardson would write: “John, was there ever, in the world’s history a winter holding so much suffering, and worse, fear of suffering? Yet, who, if he had the power, & insight to match, would call off this titanic struggle?” (Fromm 393). Foreshadowing the sociological concept of the inevitability of conflict which would begin in the late 1950s, for instance with Lewis A. Coser’s The Functions of Social Conflict (1956) where he discusses the necessity of conflicts for building one group’s identity and cohesion, for achieving balance of power and establishing new rules, and perhaps under the impact of Karl Marx’s conflict theory, whose influence Richardson mentions on several occasions in her letters, Richardson wrote in a letter to Peggy Kirkaldy from 8 June 1944: “You still regard this unique war as futile? Tragic, it is indeed, as is all human life. But I do wonder whether you have asked yourself what, in 39, would have been your alternative” (Fromm 499). In her letter to Peggy Kirkaldy from 22 July 1941, Richardson further elaborates on the inevitability of the War, as the only possible reaction to Hitler’s actions:

But I can’t honestly say we lament the inevitable. Both of us feel [Richardson and her husband] we would rather be alive to-day than in any period of human history, fully realising that that is saying a good deal. We subscribe to the paradoxical though it may sound – but when was anything on earth not paradoxical? – to the quite woefully misunderstood & blindly satirised dictum: All’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds. (Fromm 422)

18Kirkaldy misunderstood the last phrase and accused Richardson of not being capable of recognizing “rampant evil”. Yet, it seems that Richardson wanted to stir Peggy Kirkaldy up, to provoke her to be open to various ideas surrounding her, at least listen to the radio and read the newspapers, instead of “putting your fingers in your ears & screaming & cursing” (qtd in Fromm 423). As it is evident in Pilgrimage, Richardson, like Miriam, not only scratches the surface but plunges deep into the essence of things, and encourages her much younger friend Kirkaldy to observe and to evaluate instead of loathing: “What is it, in yourself, or in anyone who loathes, or believes he loathes, the human spectacle that enables you to see & to judge? And why should you suppose this faculty absent even from the most wretched of human kind?” (Fromm 423).

19Richardson strongly believed that the War had demonstrated the inextinguishable human thirst for freedom. What amazed her is that mankind showed that they cannot be “coerced”:

Meanwhile, once again, as on innumerable other occasions in the course of our inevitably tragic history, we have discovered that mankind cannot be coerced. For free beings, blundering their way through tragedy to self-knowledge the world we brought upon ourselves is the best possible & everything is for the best. (Fromm 423)

20This perhaps romanticized attitude, though in a slightly less self-assured way, is exposed in an earlier letter to John Cowper Powys from January 27, 1940: “[…] this titanic struggle has a shining core: (whatever the motives in high places) the willingness of the people to endure all things & risk all for freedom. The refusal of the Englishman & the Frenchman to accept coercion” (Fromm 392). In this letter written at the beginning of the war, Richardson, through rhetorical questions, expresses her doubts that “a New Europe” could be built, either by preventing the war, or by making it. Revolutions, Richardson wrote “though accomplishing single ‘re-forms’, inevitably reproduce, in a worse form the tyranny they set to abolish”. She doubts that the war could result in a better world:

Agreed, that this is a capitalist war. Agreed, that it is a war to get, or keep, the upper hand. Agreed that the capitalistic allies stress money & that the Germans & the Russians stress imponderables, believe in the possibility of unanimity & in socialist New Jerusalem built by force. Both, equally exploit. Neither, at its best, can produce anything more than an improved civilization: baths, button-pressing, diluted, spoon-fed culture for every man. (Fromm 392)

21She expresses deep disillusionment, both in utopian idealism and capitalist bourgeoisie:

[…] all the experimental utopian colonies, would end as always these have done, in the emergence of the “strong man”, the feared & hated-by-the-other-men little local boss. Is it not the idealistic progressivists & evolutionists & perfectionists who are dismayed by the present unexampled horrors, to the point of “despairing of civilisations”? Yet upon what day in history has mankind not been plunged in misery? When has, or can, civilisation be anything but deplorable? Is it not the latest, the industrial bourgeois, in many ways the worst. Isolating him from Nature & from God? Perhaps the proletarian civ. will provide the last illuminating revelation of human bosses.

22In this letter to Powys, she expresses her disillusionment with more bitterness that arrogance which could be easily noticed in the previously stated letter to Kirkaldy. The same topic, and manner, reappears in another letter to Kirkaldy from 28 July 1941. Here, Richardson comments on Kirkaldy’s essay on “autocratic totalitarian state-socialism” and supports Kirkaldy’s ideas of “fair distribution, equal opportunities, various reforms”. However, Richardson compares the essence of Kirkaldy’s ideas to Hitler’s, describing them as grounded on “several vast ignorances, including ignorance of history, history as the drama of human development, & of the inability of the individual human creature to resist the corrupting influences of the possession of power over others”. (Fromm 423). Richardson continues to scorn Kirkaldy’s attitude of mere horror of the war and her ignorance, according to Richardson, of the inevitability of the conflict itself:

One more question. “Democracy” a state of mind rather than a system (though it is in process of trying to evolve decent club-rules) is on trial & guiltily aware of its own defect. What, had you been at the helm in ’39, would you have proposed as an alternative to refusing coercion by A.H.? We have always refused Dictators, whether in cassocks or robes, at all costs. The price of resistance is fearful. Prices generally are. (Fromm 423, 424)

23Regardless of the dispute between these two friends, these last lines however display one of the few constant opinions voiced by Richardson and her protagonist Miriam. Miriam’s guiding force, the goal of her pilgrimage, is freedom, refusal to be “coerced”, resistance to “oppressors” of any kind. Perhaps, one of the reasons why Richardson reacted in this way, subconsciously maybe, is because she identified with this fight, with this resistance and refusal to be coerced by anything and anybody. Her pilgrimage as an independent woman at the turn of the century is in essence a refusal of oppression, an attempt to liberate herself from the family burden, from the constraints of society and social expectations, from organized religions, from imposed and inherited narratives, from ready-made ideas, from romantic partners like Michael, Hypo, and Amabel and their real-life counterparts, who, she thought, would entrap her.

24In a letter from 25 September 1941, Richardson apologizes to Kirkaldy, and tries to settle the matter and calm things down, admitting part of the “guilt” but also stating the reason which sparked her scorn:

It was foolish of me, perhaps at my ripe age unpardonably foolish, to write off you while still, no doubt quite absurdly, resenting your cascades of scorn in regard to “All’s for the best.” […] I called it what it is [paradoxical saying], a misunderstood (usually) statement […] In no sense does it imply failure to recognise rampant evil, nor has it anything to do with those twin oddities “optimism” & “pessimism”.

We regard many things from different angles. Tolerance can help but is not always easy to exercise.

If it were, I should probably not have found myself resenting your congratulation upon our “delightful remoteness from reality.” (Fromm 426)

25What upset Richardson was Kirkaldy’s image of the life in rural England during the war. In addition to the “delightful remoteness from reality”, in a letter from 28 July 1941, Richardson refers to Kirkaldy’s “delicious remoteness”, another phrase Kirkaldy used to describe Richardson’s life in Cornwall. Richardson would try to explain what wartime Cornwall looked like, thus making her letters a valuable portrait of wartime existence through which we could also grasp further Richardson’s attitudes and constantly developing consciousness.

26In her letters to Kirkaldy and Bryher, Richardson provides vivid descriptions of what she calls “the tragedy of life”. She shows compassion and expresses concern for the suffering and the misfortune of all men, women, and children who inhabited the area during the war. Cornwall was full of refugees from the London blitz, “every inch booked up […] including beds in baths” (Fromm 466); of children put up in local families, “a consignment of infants under school age is hourly expected here, for billeting, poor lambs. I hope all these infants will remain safe” (Fromm 404); and of wives and children of the soldiers in the British Expeditionary Forces: “mere wraiths of what they were when they brought their children this way” (Fromm 403). A little later into the war, servicemen would be stationed in Cornwall as well, as Richardson explains to Kirkaldy: “We do not possess a barracks. We are barracks, we are aerodromes & merchant ships. We are also hospital” (Fromm 423). Further on, Cornwall would also become the place where American soldiers come to finish their trainings making the sky above them “hum & zoom all day” (Fromm 435). Richardson gives detailed accounts of the constant local air-raid warnings, the barricades, the identification procedures to a rifle (Fromm 406), the low flying, the attack on St. Ives airmen shelter “killing twenty-three boys” and how their deaths shattered them: “Everyone around is more than indignant. […] We feel it the more because we know so many of these boys” (Fromm 415). Richardson also recounts the difficult everyday life, the shortage of various supplies, paper, gas, cigarettes (Fromm 417), and later of rationed and unrationed food, and kitchen utensils (Fromm 448).

27In addition, her letters to Bryher abound with descriptions of Richardson’s domestic life, the cleaning and cooking, working in the garden, and not having time to work on March Moonlight. As Fromm explains in the foreword to the selection of Richardson’s correspondence during the Second World War titled “The 1940s: War and Peace”, Bryher was urging Richardson to continue writing and was helping Richardson financially. Bryher would also send Richardson everything she could and what Richardson needed, from a wringer to paper. Domestic chores took the majority of Richardson’s time and, as she constantly mentioned in her letters, she was very tired: “I’m molto, molto tired” (Fromm 417). Excessively tired at the end of the day, as she was in her late sixties and early seventies during the War, taking care of her household practically of her own, Richardson did not have time to work on her novel. However, she did find time to write letters which allowed her, as Richardson wrote, to have her whole life wrapped around her (Fromm 418). The letters written to Bryher in particular are full of witty comments, (dark) humour and sarcasm: “Lively down here. Alerts every few hours night & day” (Fromm 418). In Richardson’s letter to Bryher from 11 August 1942, she vividly outlined the difficulty in finding saucepans, ending the letter with an ironic transformation of James Thomson’s words “Rule Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves. Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.” (Costa 285):

Saucepans are not to be had, either here or in any adjacent place. Saucepans at the Santa Marina sale (to which I could not get down, let alone standing for hours in a seething mob) produced frantic bidding. […] The place has been bought by a speculator, a foreigner who is nabbing all that comes on the market. Hails from some outlandish place, Launceton or Penzance or somewhere. Stuck-up people, these townees. Even Padstonians are mostly undesirable. Trevoneers, to paraphrase Rose Macauley, never, never, never shall be slaves. (Fromm 448)

28Within less than a month, Bryher sent her two saucepans which Richardson even named: “Both Jemina & Sally, my two miraculous saucepans, have already been used & I can’t still quite believe in them. When they arrived, we set them on the breakfast table & gazed & gazed. Giggled, too, over their utility style & material” (Fromm 448).

29Domestic life takes up a considerable part of the majority of Richardson’s letters written during the war. The financial constraints and the difficult everyday life during the war have influenced Richardson and her husband’s attitude towards the war and its treatment in her correspondence. These unconventional and unusual representations of times of war, at first glance, reaffirm the occasional prejudiced, antisemitic, and even racist responses of her heroine Miriam Henderson in Pilgrimage. Lynette Felber, in her article “Richardson’s Letters” (i.e. a review of Fromm’s Selected letters of Dorothy Richardson) from 1996, notices a lack of content in Richardson’s correspondence during the Second World War and an elaboration of unimportant events: “Readers may be impatient with the slightness of content in some letters, particularly those written during wartime […] encomiums on saucepans and on the digestive benefits of bran and water” (Felber 1996). Further on, Felber comments on one of Odle’s letters written during the First World War: “Whimsically, Odle describes himself on his bed during a First World War raid nonchalantly reading Pride and Prejudice”. However, these comments actually miss the essence of Richardson and her husband’s characters and way of life, and misinterpret, or at least, project a limited image of Richardson’s attitude towards the Wars and her activities during the Second World War. As Fromm has noted, the letters of Richardson are social documents as well:

conveying as they do the very texture of her daily life in a changing world […] and it seems to me extremely important to retain as much of this humanizing dimension as possible – a dimension that most contemporary feminists have ignored. (Fromm xxv)

30Indeed, Richardson’s detailed descriptions of the daily domestic chores during the War are social documents of the wartimes, but even more so, they also point to the importance of the division of household chores and how housekeeping hinders women’s artistic creation. However, instead of recognizing this, Richardson’s letters, in this rare account of her correspondence, are being, unfairly, read as devoid of interest and lacking the ability to understand the gravity of the situation, a misunderstanding of Richardson’s actual position. In a letter to Bryher from 8 May 1944, Richardson writes: “I’m now convinced that the reason why women don’t turn out much in the way of “art” is the everlasting multiplicity of their preoccupations, let alone the endless doing of jobs, a multiplicity unknown to any kind of male” (Fromm 496). Moreover, Richardson was, by no means, disinterested in the current events, as Felber points out. For instance, in her letter to Kirkaldy from 17 February 1944, she asks her opinion on Rev. J. Reid Christie’s letter published in the Times, “Why we bomb Germany – Chance to Save the Rest of Europe”, showing awareness of and condemning the extermination of the Jews and “other undesirables”. She defends the bombing of Germany describing it as “the lesser evil”, as the only choice left “between two tragedies”:

Not a pacifist, he would never have proposed our sitting still while all the European Jews, communists, & other “undesirables” (from the totalitarian view-point) were systematically exterminated; to say nothing of the fiendish methods of getting rid of them, & nothing about the projected enslavement of the continent. (Fromm 488)

31Furthermore, through her letters written to Bryher, we learn about Richardson’s musings about her own infatuation (previous and current) with Germany and German culture. During the atrocities committed by fascist Germany, Richardson contemplates her attraction to “Germanic mysticism” (Fromm 443): “I begin more than ever to wonder whether my nostalgic affection for Germany has really anything to do with the Germans” (Fromm 427), which supports the reading of Germany in Pilgrimage by various critics as the “lost Eden”, a construct which enables the development of Miriam’s feminine consciousness.

32However, in the same letter, Richardson still expresses amazement at what she calls “Germanity” (Fromm 427), the German language, its “convolutions & involutions & the stodgy obstructiveness, indecency almost of its massed inflections. […] preposterous rhythm, [its] witchcraft” (Fromm 427, 428). Furthermore, in Miriam’s manner so to say, Richardson expresses intolerance to the Jewish accent in the German language, to their “peculiar, funny & pitiful, solecisms”. Moreover, the cockney accent of some of the children stationed in Trevone (Fromm 427) would also irritate her. Although, these comments could be understood as, at least, prejudiced, the reasons for such politically incorrect attitudes could be found in Richardson’s infatuation with words and language and how they sound. Even in Pilgrimage, Miriam is very often contemplating the musicality and the rhythm of languages such as English, German, French, Russian, of words, of phrases, of various accents and language variants. Thus, these prejudiced attitudes do not prevent Richardson from being involved in the community life, helping everybody as much as she could regardless of origin and background. For example, in the house where they lived, they were allotted two children for a while, “little cockneys from Shoreditch, both lovable” (Fromm 406). Furthermore, in a letter to Bernice Elliot from 1 October 1945, Richardson describes how she and her husband shared the box of chocolates Elliot had sent with a little cockney boy and gave them some for his parents too (Fromm 529). Richardson was also helping the British Expeditionary Force wives through their difficult times “as far as possible, unobtrusively about, helping them to pass the hours, infinitesimally distracting them from their one preoccupation”; she was doing the clerical work for a distraught farmer (Fromm 422); she and her husband served as “everybody’s errand-boy, & collector” (Fromm 405) for pigs and chicken feed; they befriended soldiers, British and American, providing them “a kind of home to come to” (Fromm 494); Richardson was also teaching German to one American soldier to help him prepare for a “special mission” (Fromm 520); They grieved with the wives waiting for their husbands to reach England (Fromm 403) and rejoiced at and celebrated the arrival of their first prisoner at the end of the war (Fromm 519).

33What started as having their “noses above water” (Fromm 395) turned into a rich community wartime “life in [their] tea-cup” (Fromm 447). Richardson was bewildered by the solidarity in the community which accepted the refugees and the soldiers: “We are positively stiff with solidarity – thousands, & more to come” (Fromm 426) and accounted for the “well-off women” who were working as gardeners, and all sorts of other things, giving their wages to the Red Cross (Fromm 404) and the blood-transfusion station “to which most of the inhabitants have offered their pint” (Fromm 427).

34At the very beginning of the War, in a letter to Powys, Richardson strongly doubts the possibility of change after the war. She is more than skeptical towards the beliefs that “When this time is over, a new people will be born” (Fromm 392). She feared that nothing would change, that the future generations, even those “who are now very young, will know nothing of this most profitable experience”. She was skeptical that the war would leave any impact either on the collective cultural consciousness and memory, or that it would illuminate some of the defects of the current societies: “Nor need we expect aught from present emotions, conscience-awakening and resolutions born of the light now playing over our past behaviour” (Fromm 392).

35However, Richardson’s wartime experience in Cornwall persuaded her of the very opposite. The war would not only impact greatly her personal life, even more than she could ever have imagined at the beginning; it would also impact the destiny of Pilgrimage which she would be unable to finish due to the painstaking wartime housekeeping (Fromm 534), in which she nonetheless found pleasure. Even more so, this wartime experience would influence her prewar opinions and beliefs enabling a further development of her pulsating and vibrant consciousness:

It does indeed seem, in all manner of ways, a turning-point in history that we now face, & the opening distance is full of challenge. Amidst all the agonies & all the overwhelming difficulties, one question perpetually echoes to & fro: is humanity at last prepared to become a single family?” (Fromm 529)

36Richardson was persuaded that the results of the war would change the course of history and that it had already brought the “dawning of awareness”. In her letter to Powys from 29 Ocotber 1941, she had already seen the possibility of “enormous change” after the war. In her ironic manner she wrote about the possibility of understanding the value of the working-class “men & women”: “And oh I rejoice almost to the point, quite to the point of Heiling Hitler for bringing about world-wide knowledge of the meaning of “the workers” who, together with their indispensable works, have always been taken for granted & forgotten” (Fromm 431). In the letter to Kirkaldy from 17 February 1944 she also wrote about the unveiling of the English “bases of [our] “prosperity” and “security”” by the war: “As a direct result of the present tragedy, most of our dreadful truths are now being considered & debated, & our own dealings with them will take us a step forward on our long pilgrimage. A small step, maybe, with further tragedies ahead. But when has the final scaling of a mountain been easier than the initial climb?” (Fromm 489).

37The end of the war, along with joy, brought also a feeling of loss to Richardson. Richardson had grown attached to the community. The wartime life for her had not been easy, but it had been “fantastically full”. As she accounts in a letter to Powys from 15 August 1944, she and her husband had made so many friends among the locals, the refugees from London and some soldiers. In the letters written after the capitulation of Germany, from 15 May to 1 October, 1945 to her regular correspondents like Bryher and Jessie Hale, she emotionally describes “people gathering, waiting, separating”, the “break-up of community, the sadness of farewell to a very rich life”. Those people had become “extensions of one’s life”. The end of the war felt like “convalescence after a long illness” (Fromm 523) and it was difficult for them to realize it, to “take it in”, to “rejoice” (Fromm 526). In the above-mentioned letter to Powys, Richardson summarized the wartime period and the impact it had on her life and in world’s history in the following manner:

What an AGE it has been, the turning of this most momentous hairpin-bend in human history, & at the same time, just one brief single moment, or gap in time, since ’39. Never have A.[lain] & I been so long seated in one place; […] Yet we feel that if to-morrow this endless moment ended, or indeed whenever it does end, it will shrink to nothing, close up, leaving visible only a few single features. But its results will weave the history of the future. (Fromm 503, 504)


38About Pilgrimage, Bryher would write that it is “the best history yet written of the slow progression from the Victorian period to the modern age” (Bryher 209). In the same manner, Richardson’s correspondence during the Second World War writes the gradual progression from prewar to postwar concepts and understanding of the world. Whereas in Pilgrimage this progression takes place in the bustling turn-of-the century London under the vivacious and pulsating eye and consciousness of young Miriam, this new turn in human history is recorded through the vibrant wartime life in rural Cornwall and the still expanding consciousness of mature Richardson. The insight into Richardson’s wartime correspondence undoubtedly exposes the writer’s condemnation of Fascism and antisemitism. However, it does not provide straightforward answers to the many questions her protagonist’s developing consciousness asks, very often based on stereotypical and prejudiced premises, these questions do shed light on Richardson’s singularity and the importance of her recording of change. Through her correspondence, a compassionate, aware, and fully alive woman is revealed: a Richardson who is still changing, (re)examining, learning about herself and the world. Her letters unveil an overflowing and complex personality. Richardson is sociable and aloof; amiable and sarcastic; discerning and purblind; modern and stuck in the past; attuned to the new developments and deaf at the same time. The changes Richardson’s consciousness undergoes move to and fro. She is open to new possibilities, anticipates future tendencies, keeps an open-mind to new narratives, but sometimes goes back to her old, late-Victorian generalizations. Even forty years later, Richardson will still be “classifying people with [her] ears” (P3 372) as Hypo warns Miriam not to do in Revolving Lights (1923) whose action takes place in 1903. However, Richardson unequivocally condemns fascist German wartime atrocities, is moved by human tragedy, is involved in community life and tries to provide help as much as she can to those in need. Horrified by the war, she deplores the loss of human life and shows concern for others while developing a belief in a better world to come based on solidarity and growing social awareness.

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Bryher, Winifred. “Dawn’s Left Hand by Dorothy M. Richardson”. Close Up, vol. 3, no 4, December 1931, cit. in J. Donald, A. Friedberg, L. Marcus, eds. Close Up 1927-33: Cinema and Modernism. Cassey, 1998.

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1 See Accessed 30 January 2019.

2 Hereafter the multivolume Pilgrimage is referred to by P and the volume number, for instance P1.

3 Peggy Kirkaldy was also a regular correspondent of the writer and artist Denton Welch, of Jean Rhys, etc. Gloria Fromm describes her as “the representative ‘twenties’ woman, gifted and thwarted by her own conflicted impulses, who endeared herself to Richardson as a ‘worldly, ribald, gallant little Pagan’” (Fromm, XX).

4 Annie Winifred Ellerman (Bryher) was the daughter of Sir John Ellerman, a wealthy ship-owning family. In the 1920s, she was one of the famous figures of the international artistic milieu in Paris. She used her fortune to help struggling writers. During WWII she helped to evacuate Jews from Germany. Together with her partner Hilda Doolittle and Kenneth Macpherson, Bryher established the film magazine Close Up to which Richardson contributed with her regular column “Continuous Performance”. Bryher was particularly fond of Richardson and praised Pilgrimage. She played an important role in Richardson’s life and helped Richardson financially on many occasions.

5 S.S. Koteliansky was a Russian immigrant who was a close friend of D.H. Lawrence’s and Katherine Mansfield’s. He arranged for the omnibus edition of Pilgrimage in 1938.

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Electronic reference

Ivana TRAJANOSKA, « Dorothy Richardson’s Correspondence during the Second World War and the Development of Feminine Consciousness in Pilgrimage », E-rea [Online], 17.2 | 2020, Online since 15 June 2020, connection on 13 August 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author


University American College Skopje
Ivana Trajanoska is an assistant professor at University American College Skopje (North Macedonia) where she has been teaching since 2008. Her research is focused on the work of Dorothy Richardson, modernist literature, and musico-literary studies. She has published widely, including articles some on aspects of intermediality in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage.

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