The first biographical novel about Dorothy Richardson, peer of Virginia Woolf, lover of H.G. Wells, and central figure in the emergence of modernist fiction
Dorothy exists just above the poverty line, doing secretarial work at a dentist’s surgery and living in a seedy boarding house in Bloomsbury, when she is invited to spend the weekend with a childhood friend. Jane recently married a writer who is hovering on the brink of fame. His name is H.G. Wells, or Bertie as he is known to friends.
Bertie appears unremarkable at first. But then Dorothy notices his grey-blue eyes taking her in, openly signalling approval. He tells her he and Jane have an agreement which allows them the freedom to take lovers, although Dorothy is not convinced her friend is happy with this arrangement.
Not wanting to betray Jane, yet unable to draw back, Dorothy free-falls into an affair with Bertie. Then a new boarder arrives at the house—striking unconventional Veronica Leslie-Jones, determined to live life on her own terms—and Dorothy finds herself caught between Veronica and Bertie. Amidst the personal dramas and wreckage of the militant suffragette movement, Dorothy finds her voice as a writer.
The Lodger is a beautifully intimate novel that is at once an introduction to one of the most important writers of the 20th century and a compelling story of one woman tormented by unconventional desires.
The Lodger tackles one of modern literature’s forgotten women – Dorothy Richardson, who was once mentioned in the same breath as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, but was subsequently relegated into the dusty tomes of obscurity. She pioneered the stream-of-consciousness style of writing, favoured by many modernists, and is perhaps most well known for having an affair with HG Wells, referred to as ‘Bertie’ in this book.
I, however, was more fascinated by other aspects of Dorothy’s life – specifically, how she lived in poverty for a large portion of her life, and still managed to write, while her contemporaries came from wealth or were kept in money by benefactors. Secondly, her bisexuality is another point of interest, and she ends up having a relationship with fellow woman in her boarding house, named Veronica. As the author pointed out in a talk I went to, Dorothy is very coy in her writings about this, and simply says that they spent the night together – but for a woman living in early 20th century London, I think it was still fairly groundbreaking.
The historical background to the novel is interesting as well – the suffragette movement is prominent in the last section of the book, and the author does a good job portraying the sheer violence directed towards the women, on behalf of both the policemen and spectators. I think we forget that it wasn’t just sweetly waving banners and chanting protest slogans here – women were beaten, imprisoned in horrifying conditions, and brutally force-fed, which sometimes led to long-term physical damage of their throats.
My one complaint is that some of the prose felt like it wouldn’t be out of place in a historical romance book, but that does come down to personal preference.
Overall, an exploration of the early adult years of one of literature’s forgotten heroines, which provides an interesting look at the somewhat eccentric characters Dorothy surrounded herself with, the extenuating circumstances in which she found herself, and the genesis of her writing career.
Review copy provided by Pan Macmillan in exchange for an honest review.