Rendering The Texture Of A Woman’s Consciousness: A Conversation With Louisa Treger, Author Of The…
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Virginia Woolf credited her with creating “the psychological sentence of the feminine gender.” According to May Sinclair, she invented “stream of consciousness” in her groundbreaking, critically-lauded 12-volume novel Pilgrimage, which is essentially about a young woman’s thoughts (published just before A Remembrance of Things Past). And yet the writer Dorothy Richardson died obscure and in poverty, Pilgrimage forgotten by all but about 14 Modernist academics.
I discovered the contemporary novelist Louisa Treger, one of these 14 other Richardson fans, via Twitter of all places. I’d written an essay about Dorothy Richardson and a few of my more Modernist Tweeps pointed out that Treger was publishing a novel about her. (See, Twitter is good for something other than procrastinating novel revisions!) Treger’s novel, The Lodger, is a sensitive, sensual, and beautifully-written reimagining of Dorothy’s overlapping affairs with the married writer HG Wells and the young suffragist Veronica Leslie-Jones. After reading this stunning debut novel I was dying to meet Treger and to talk Richardson over tea. But as she lives in London, and I live New York, this Q&A had to suffice.
Amy Shearn: I’m always curious about novelized biographies — it seems like such a challenging form. What made you want to write a novelization of Dorothy Richardson’s life, rather than a straight biography or a novel inspired by her work?
Louisa Treger: I love biographical fiction, because there is an interesting framework of facts on which to hang the story, yet enough wiggle room to imagine and create. I was particularly interested in the emotional lives of these characters, and to explore this aspect, I wanted to make use of the extra licence fiction affords. What did Dorothy feel like betraying her oldest friend (HG Wells’s wife, Jane) by sleeping with her husband? What turmoil accompanied the realisation she was bisexual at a time when homosexual acts were punishable by law and by social ostracism?
AS: Like me, you first discovered Dorothy Richardson while researching Virginia Woolf, who considered the now-forgotten Richardson an innovator of modernism. What made you actually seek out her novel Pilgrimage, and what struck you most about her writing?
Her aim, in her words, was to “produce a feminine equivalent of the current masculine realism.”
LT: I sought out Pilgrimage because it seemed Dorothy Richardson was someone little-known, who had tried to do something extraordinary. It was her originality and courage that struck me the most. Her aim, in her words, was to “produce a feminine equivalent of the current masculine realism.” She was fearless about smashing narrative conventions like plot, structure and narrator, and she created a new, fluid way of writing that rendered the texture of a woman’s consciousness as it records life’s impressions; life’s minute to minute quality.
Dorothy’s desire to fix experience in words as vividly as it is lived particularly resonated with me. As she says in The Lodger: ‘How could she catch that moment; how to make the words come alive on paper, exactly as they were lived, directly from the center of consciousness?’ That’s what I am striving for all the time.
AS: Real talk: Did you read all of Pilgrimage, and how long did it take you? (My confession is that I’ve been reading it for like ten years, because while I love it so much, I can only take so much at a time, particularly when my reading time is at night and I’m tired.)
LT: I did get to the end of Pilgrimage! I read it while I was writing a PhD on Dorothy; it probably took me a year! I too love her writing, but am only able to digest it in small bites. The later volumes, in particular, are challenging. The writing becomes increasingly introspective, complex and experimental.
AS: Occasionally this novel nods to Dorothy’s introspective, revelatory way of writing, like in the line “Dorothy was beginning to realize that one’s inmost self was lost and not found through close relationships.” But for the most part your prose is a lot more traditional than Dorothy’s. What was behind that decision? Do you feel like you understand why she wrote the way she did?
LT: I do feel I understand Dorothy’s desire to create a new way of writing that would imitate the movement of the female mind. However, while this was brave and original, it also makes for challenging reading. Pilgrimage is deliberately plotless, because plot was one of the narrative conventions Dorothy rejected. None of the usual threads of structure or characterization are given; we aren’t told anything that happens outside the protagonist’s mind. And it seemed to me these challenges are part of the reason Dorothy’s work isn’t better known. I wanted to tell her story, but it seemed important to write it in a way that was more accessible than Pilgrimage. And so I rejected stylistic innovations in favor of traditional storytelling.
AS: Why did you choose to write about this particular episode in her life? And: how did you give yourself permission to take such liberties with her story? For example, her love affair with Veronica is written in such a lush, erotic, and detailed way (they were some of my favorite passages of the book — you managed to make modernists really sexy!), but as you note in your afterword in Dorothy’s own writing the sexual nature of this relationship was only hinted at.
I was intrigued by the way Wells helped Dorothy find her voice as a writer — partly in opposition to his views.
LT: Perhaps, before I answer this question, I should describe the episode! My novel covers a brief, dramatic period in Dorothy’s life, during which she falls in love with HG Wells, explores her sexuality and independence, rejecting the conventions and restrictions of the age, and finds her voice as a writer. I chose it because it was one of the most eventful periods in Dorothy’s life. It was full of pivotal encounters that shaped everything that came after. 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 Wells helped Dorothy find her voice as a writer — partly in opposition to his views.
As for taking liberties with Dorothy’s story, I thought of it as imagining and coloring in episodes that Dorothy was reticent about. This is where the extra license afforded by biographical fiction came in: I gave full reign to my imagination! For me, it was the most engrossing part of depicting Dorothy’s life.
AS: Do you think Dorothy would have fared better in today’s literary world? Given the love and patience people seem to have for writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante?
LT: I don’t think any of the big publishing imprints would take Dorothy on today! I hope that a small literary imprint would fall in love with her writing and publish her. I still don’t think she has mainstream appeal: I can see her attracting a small band of devoted followers, which is pretty much what she did in her day.
AS: At one point in the book, Dorothy and HG Wells are having a discussion about literature. She says, “You know the huge difference between you and me?…To me, literature is an end in itself, a thing of beauty and wonder. To you, it’s a vehicle, a tool. It has a purpose.” Wells responds, “Of course it does. A book without a purpose is simply the writer’s impertinence.” Which side of this argument is Louisa Treger on?
LT: I am somewhere in the middle, but closer to Dorothy. It’s fine for a book to have a message, so long as it isn’t at the expense of a great story and strong, breathing characters one can identify with.
AS: Later in the book, Dorothy muses, “The reason women didn’t produce much ‘art’ was because they were pulled in different directions, torn and scattered by the unending multiplicity of their preoccupations and tasks, unable to do any one thing properly. It was a state of being unknown to men. Art demands what present-day society won’t give to women, she decided.” Do you think this has changed in the 100 years since? Will it ever?
…I do think there’s a physiological thread binding women to children that does not exist in men — mothers are rarely entirely free from their multiplicity of preoccupations.
LT: Women’s lot has improved in certain ways: we have more freedom now, more choices. But the pressures Dorothy describes certainly resonate with my life! This is partly a question of economics: we wouldn’t survive on what I earn from writing. For this reason, my husband’s work comes first, and I am the one who holds everything together on the home front. I don’t always have as much time as I’d like for writing, and there is a certain amount of fitting my work in around the family’s schedule. Although I wouldn’t trade places with anyone, there are parallels between my life and Dorothy’s. I believe that if a woman is the breadwinner in the family, she will focus more on her work, and either have a partner or paid help to take care of domestic life. However, I do think there’s a physiological thread binding women to children that does not exist in men — mothers are rarely entirely free from their multiplicity of preoccupations.
AS: Some time after this bohemian episode in the real Dorothy Richardson’s life, despite carefully constructing an independent life of her own (a topic explored in Pilgrimage), she married a man she ended up taking care of and supporting financially. Why do you think she would have done this? Did their partnership make her creative life easier or more difficult?
LT: When Dorothy and Alan met, he was desperately ill with tuberculosis. Dorothy married him reluctantly, believing he had only six months to live.
Ironically, Alan survived for many years and the marriage seems to have been a success. Alan was a strange combination of dependence and independence. In practical matters, he was as helpless as an infant. But in every other respect, he was a self-contained being, content to work single-mindedly on his stark black and white drawings and to lead his own interior life, which left Dorothy’s untouched.
Although Dorothy was able to retain her independent creative life, she took on the practical burden of looking after Alan. Not only was his health poor, but she had to manage all their expenditure and practical planning, as Alan was incapable of dealing with this side of life. She did all the housework and cooking as well. Alan’s drawings brought in a pittance, so Dorothy supported them both by taking on extra journalism. She blamed her failure to gain lasting recognition on the fact she couldn’t give her fiction single-minded attention. There is some truth in this, and it certainly gave Dorothy a convenient reason for rationalizing her lack of success. However, I do not believe it was the whole story, as I explained earlier when discussing the challenges Dorothy’s work poses.
AS: You are so diplomatic about how boring her writing can be! I love it. You’re very nice. I mean, I love her too, but I do know what you mean about the “challenges.”
One more question, mostly because I have young children and am always seeking this answer: You have three children. How do you manage to write? How does parenthood affect your writing?
LT: I was unable to write when my children were young — I admire anyone who does! I was working on a novel during my first pregnancy, and I could feel my brain turning to mush and the prose drying up as the pregnancy progressed. It was a strange and rather alarming sensation, but I guess my creative energies were being diverted in a different direction! I had twins and then a third child in quick succession, so their early years were fairly chaotic and everything revolved around them.
Once the children were in school and I had an allocated span of free hours every day, I went back to writing. Of course, there are still days when everything falls apart, like when a child is ill.
When writing takes over, I am scared of missing something important in the real world.
The fact there is finite time to write probably makes me more focused during working hours. While immersed in a story, I often feel guilty because I become preoccupied with it, and it takes me away from my family. Sometimes, my characters talk in my head so loudly that I don’t hear what my children are saying to me. When writing takes over, I am scared of missing something important in the real world. I might leave a child uncollected at school, or — worse still — not see the emotional needs of my nearest and dearest. I haven’t burnt the house down — yet — but I make scores of silly slips, like letting baths overflow, or forgetting to put dinner in the oven.
Being a parent changes your consciousness, so my writing has probably changed. I would like to say it’s richer and deeper now, but it may be scattered and woolly!