Dr. Rebecca Bowler on Modernist Women Writers

Pictured: Bowler at Kreipe’s in Hanover, which is the cafe/patisserie Miriam and the girls go to in Dorothy Richardson’s Pointed Roofs: “Three cups of thick-looking chocolate, each supporting a little hillock of solid cream arrived at her table. Clara ordered cakes. At the first sip, taken with lips that slid helplessly on the surprisingly thick rim of her cup Miriam renounced all the beverages she had ever known as unworthy.”


FM: When I first became interested in the idea of lost Modernists, it was because of May Sinclair and Dorothy Richardson, both of whom your work has focused on. Actually, your work on Richardson, specifically, piqued my interest most and made me pick up Pilgrimage: Pointed Roofs. You’re a co-founder of the May Sinclair Society, General Editor of the Edinburgh Critical Editions of the Works of May Sinclair, a Dorothy Richardson Editions alumni, and much more. So, I have to ask you to tell everyone about your amazing work!
: I am so glad that my work made you pick up Richardson! I first came across Richardson when I was working on Virginia Woolf, during my Masters. I read Deborah Longworth’s book Theorists of the Modernist Novel (published as Deborah Parsons) and was astonished by some of the block quotations she included from Pilgrimage. I thought “this looks like my kind of book” and ordered the first two volumes – I didn’t want to commit to all four immediately because I was skint, but obviously I bought volumes three and four very quickly after I’d read the first two. It was a lucky coincidence that the Richardson Society was just getting going at that time, so my first ever conference was the Pointed Roofs conference in London in 2009. In my work for my thesis, I’d won a little bit of funding to visit the archives at the Beinecke, Yale University, so I was drawing on the letters and manuscripts a good deal in my work. When the Richardson editions won funding and they were hiring an RA, then, I was in a really good position to apply. It turns out I love that level of archival work and I love textual editing. You need a special kind of patience and an eye for detail – I find it soothing.

I came across May Sinclair’s work via the infamous “stream of consciousness” review in The Egoist in 1918, where she says of Pilgrimage that it is just “Miriam’s stream of consciousness going on and on.” I read Mary Olivier first, I think, because I had read somewhere that that is the novel in which she experiments most extensively with consciousness, and is clearly under the influence of Richardson (among others). I talked to Jackie Jones of EUP at a conference and she said, “have you considered doing an edition of Sinclair?” I hadn’t… but then I started to give it some serious thought. I teamed up with Claire Drewery at that point, and we set up the Sinclair Society, started planning our first conference, developed ambitious plans for the Editions, and ate a lot of Chinese food together…

FM: I love that three of the four main individuals in your work Literary Impressionism: Vision and Memory in Dorothy Richardson, Ford Madox Ford, H.D. and May Sinclair are women. Today, I feel that when memory is brought up in terms of Modernism, we immediately jump to Proust or Joyce. What made you tie these four writers together in terms of literary impressionism?

Literary Impressionism: Vision and Memory in Dorothy Richardson, Ford Madox Ford, H.D. and May Sinclair by Rebecca Bowler

RB: Ford Madox Ford is obviously a critical touchstone when it comes to literary impressionism, mainly because he wrote “Some Speculations I + II” and “On Impressionism” in which he worked towards a definition of the term – albeit in a typically Fordian winding fashion. Quite a lot has been done, then, on Fordian impressionism, and the ways in which perception fleetingly is registered, then later impressed in his work. But when I was reading about Ford, I was also absolutely immersed in Richardson and I saw that she was doing something very similar. I was later reading H.D.’s fiction for another project and Sinclair’s fiction out of interest, and saw that those writers, too, were experimenting with perception and the impress of the impression – then, too, they were playing with the idea, in their different ways, that the distance of time between the registering of the impression and coming to writing might change that impression again. There is so much in each of these writers about memory. Sinclair, Richardson and H.D. are also very keen to explore the implications of their memory work within the texts themselves: all three have their narrators reflect, self-consciously, on what they are doing to their immediate perceptions as they encode them and later try to recall them. Their characters explicitly lament that they can’t capture the fleeting first impression and that memories change and reorder themselves.

I talk about Proust a little in the conclusion to my book! Mainly, though, I talk about the ways in which Richardson read Proust: “forwards, backwards, upside down.”

FM: Let’s focus on Dorothy Richardson for a minute. May Sinclair famously coined the term “stream of consciousness” upon reviewing Richardson’s work, so it’s only apt for you to add your thoughts on this! What are the main similarities and differences, for that matter, that you see between stream of consciousness narration in Richardson’s works opposed to Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and others? How do we see these writers adding to and/or changing Richardson’s stylistic foundation of prose?

May Sinclair: Re-Thinking Bodies and Minds by Rebecca Bowler and Claire Drewery

RB: Dorothy Richardson hated the phrase “stream of consciousness” because she didn’t see consciousness as linear. Even Sinclair, who had borrowed the phrase from psychology (not necessarily William James – he wasn’t the first to use it in that sense) elsewhere, says that she thinks the term is limiting both as a descriptor of consciousness and of prose style. All the writers who came to be labelled “stream of consciousness” had very different techniques, so I tend to think of the phrase as a loose umbrella term. Richardson, in Pilgrimage, saw herself as following a Jamesian model of the third-person ‘monocular’ narrator, like Strether in The Ambassadors–the narrator can only reflect on what they can see and can only know what makes itself known to them. Most of Pilgrimage is in the third-person, like The Ambassadors, with occasional slippage into second person. Sinclair adopts that third-person limited narration for Mary Olivier and some of her later novels, too. She switches in and out of second person, as well, perhaps more often than Richardson does. But for both writers – for Richardson in Pilgrimage and Sinclair in Mary Olivier, at least – the point is that you have this one single narrator and their one single consciousness (be that a stream or a fountain or a tree or whatever metaphor you like). What Joyce does in some of the stories in Dubliners is perhaps similar. But in Ulysses you get access to a few different consciousnesses, and you don’t necessarily have any consistent view from the inside. “Proteus” perhaps is similar to Richardson and Sinclair, but “Aeolus” is something different altogether. Molly Bloom’s monologue at the end is another thing altogether! Then again Woolf, in all her novels, experiments with portraying consciousness in very different ways. Mrs Dalloway has a kind of hovering narrator who dips in or skims the surface of the consciousness of each of the characters in turn, then hops out again. You can’t break the narrative of Mrs Dalloway down very easily, to be able to say, “this is definitely Clarissa’s thought and this is definitely Hugh’s thought and this is definitely the narrator.” It’s an admixture. And I’m not even going to try to say how this works in The Waves! Again, very different to being confined to Miriam Henderson’s mind and her mind alone, as you are in Pilgrimage.

FM: Which lost Modernist do you wish wasn’t so lost and why?
: Whether she’s a modernist or not is up for debate (Alison Donnell has a very good article on that) but Una Marson. She was a Jamaican writer who lived in London for a while in the 1930s and worked for the BBC as well as writing some fantastic poetry. The reason why I think of her is because I set her Selected Poems (Caribbean Modern Classics) on my second year “Twentieth Century British Fiction and Poetry” module this year, and the seventy-five students on the module have, it seems, bought every copy of the Selected Poems that was available on the internet. We have bought them all!

So Marson isn’t lost in that she is in print, but she’s not enough in demand (or wasn’t until this year) that the press can justify big print runs. Some of her poetry, though, is really contemporary sounding – particularly the urban dialect poetry in The Moth and the Star (1934): “I gwine tell you ’bout de English / And I aint gwine tell no lie, / ’Cause I come quite here to Englan’ / Fe see wid me own eye.” That’s from “Quashie Comes to London.’ We’re reading some Linton Kwesei Johnson later in the semester and I’m excited to see what the students make of the parallels between the two.

FM: Your favorite Modernist writer and favorite Modernist text?
RB: Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. I know, I know, but there’s something to be said for first love.



About Dr. Rebecca Bowler
Rebecca Bowler is a Lecturer in Twentieth-Century English Literature at Keele University. Her PhD was on Dorothy Richardson, perception and the literary impression, and she worked for several years as Research Associate on the Dorothy Richardson Scholarly Editions project, mainly editing Richardson’s extensive correspondence. Her book, Literary Impressionism: Vision and Memory in Dorothy Richardson, Ford Madox Ford, H.D. and May Sinclair was published in 2016. A co-edited volume on Sinclair was published in 2017. Now she is co-General Editor on the Edinburgh Critical Editions of the Works of May Sinclair, which will be publishing Sinclair’s work in twenty-eight volumes. She is also working towards a second monograph on early twentieth century nutritional science and cultures of the body, tentatively entitled Modernist Wellness.

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