Dorothy Richardson in Abingdon

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I happened to see on Twitter that the Abingdon County Hall Museum, just a few miles from Oxford, was holding a week-long exhibition on the life and work of Dorothy Richardson. I’ve got a great dissertation student working on Dorothy Richardson this year, so I decided that this counted as teaching prep. I left my (almost-finished) thesis behind for the mid-week trip to Abingdon.

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My partner used to work at Abingdon Museum, and loved it, so he was very pleased to have the excuse to visit again. ‘Dorothy Richardson? Yeah, sure, I might read her some time…’ He was half-joking; he reads everything, and enjoyed Elizabeth von Arnim and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, but Richardson’s Pilgrimage consists of thirteen novels in four volumes – a hefty commitment.

Dorothy Richardson was born in Abingdon in 1873. Though the family left for West Sussex in 1880, Abingdon remains a presence in Pilgrimage. Reimagined as ‘Babington’, it provides the protagonist Miriam’s earliest memory:

…the moment she had just lived was the same, it was exactly the same as the first one she could remember, the moment of standing, alone, in bright sunlight on a narrow gravel path in the garden at Babington between two banks of flowers, the flowers level with her face, and large bees swinging slowly to and fro before her face from bank to bank… (Dorothy Richardson, The Tunnel)

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Detail from the lovely Dorothy Richardson comic which the museum assistant gave us. Three large bees.

As well as emphasising Richardson’s connections with Abingdon, the exhibition positioned her deftly within a wider modernist context. It displayed a copy of The Little Review from 1919, in which Richardson’s Interim (the fifth novel in Pilgrimage) was serialised alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses:

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The exhibition trod a lovely line between establishing Richardson as a serious, significant writer – my partner exclaimed halfway through, all note of joking gone, ‘She was a really important writer, wasn’t she?!’ – and making space for Richardson’s personality and moments of play. I was enchanted by this letter to Bryher:

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I am drunk but not with Fine. Though an enormous one stands in sealed magnificence on the table

I shall never use a pen again,

it’s so exciting tomake mistakes in sp

elling and in spacing, My literary style will change completely .giving me yet another namesake.

And no Richardson exhibition would be complete without a display of the famously-awful covers which Pilgrimage has shouldered over the years…

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Look at those sleeves!

Though I still think my copy – whose repellant cover, thankfully, came off in my hand – is the worst of all…

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(Even better is its description of Pointed Roofs, which you can’t quite see: ‘filled with the intrigues and hidden passions of a German girl’s school, where young Englishwoman Miriam Henderson has come to teach, and where she must learn what it is to be a stranger and afraid in a world of new emotions and vulnerability…’ Some people who bought this book will have been very disappointed.)

Cities and towns can make disappointingly little of their famous women writers – I’d like to see a bit more Stevie Smith featured in Hull (and perhaps a little less Philip Larkin…) – so it was fantastic to see Abingdon celebrating Dorothy Richardson. The exhibition is on for one more day, until the 24th – still time to pop over if you’re in the area!

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