The Lodger by Louisa Treger
When I mentioned my posts about Dorothy Richardson (here and here) on Twitter last month, I was contacted by author Louisa Treger, a fellow Richardson enthusiast. Louisa is of course the author of “The Lodger”, a novel based on sections of Richardson’s life which has had a part in spearheading the reawakened interest in the author; and she was kind enough to arrange a beautiful review copy of her book for me. Despite my normal reservations about fiction based on real historical figures, I was keen to read “The Lodger”, as I felt sure that someone who cared as much about Richardson and her work as Louisa obviously does would make a good job of fictionalising her life – and indeed she does!
The book opens with our protagonist, Dorothy, arriving at the house of Herbert and Jane Wells for a visit. Jane (or to give her her real name, Amy Catherine) is an old school friend of Dorothy’s, but much water has passed under the bridge since their school days: Dorothy has had to deal with the loss of her mother and the poverty of her family, while Jane has endured the disapproval of *her* family because of her liaison with, and eventual marriage to, Wells. Dorothy is now living in an attic room in London, working at a dental surgery and relishing her independence, while Jane is comfortably off in her married life, but suffering agonies of jealousy because of her husband’s constant affairs.
We follow Dorothy as she encounters Wells; the meeting of minds they have, and eventually the meeting of bodies; and the relationships Dorothy has with her fellow boarders, and in particular a young Russian student, Benjamin, and a young woman, Veronica. Dorothy loves Bertie, but his love is more physical and detached, and it isn’t until she falls pregnant that Dorothy feels she has any hold over him. However, Veronica has awaked feelings in Dorothy which were hidden and the latter feels torn between her two lovers. With Veronica throwing herself into the Suffrage movement and Dorothy’s pregnancy not progressing well, the scene is set for a dramatic climax.
This is of course a novel; the cover even signals this under the title; and Louisa Treger has in effect taken facts from Dorothy Richardson’s life and woven them into a fascinating tale. The affair with Wells happened; there was a close friendship with Veronica; and during this period Richardson began to write. As Treger acknowledges, she’s compressed the relationship with Wells from years into months and by doing so produced a snapshot of Richardson’s life which is illuminating and engaging.
She…was immediately pierced by the beauty of London at night. There was a new moon rising, peering out between clouds, its frail radiance mingling with the misty darkness along the quiet roads, the haloes of lamplight at intervals on the pavement. At last, she was anonymous and free in London. Who could want anything more from life….?
One of the strongest things in the novel is the sense of the city of London and its importance to Richardson. Treger vividly brings alive the capital of the time, revealing the ambivalence it produces; Dorothy loves the city as it has given her freedom but finds it exhausting and draining as well. In the metropolis she has found her independence at last, with that all-important ‘room of one’s own’, in which she revels. However, the flipside of the coin is struggling to live on the bread line, coping with low wages, near poverty and bad nutrition through lack of proper food. It’s a fine line many young women are walking and often ends tragically, when the women can no longer cope.
St. Pancras clock struck ten. Mary-Lou was part of a growing army of outwardly confident young female office workers in the city. But their independence came at a price. Dorothy understood very well the precipice edge the girl had walked, the constant pressure of keeping everything going.
There’s also some fascinating writing about the Suffragette movement, a cause which Veronica has embraced. After a march which ends in violence against the women protesters, Veronica is imprisoned in Holloway; and the violence meted out at the march, as well as the details of the force feeding she receives in prison, are still shocking. And Treger wonderfully captures parts of Richardson’s life which will be familiar to any reader of “Pilgrimage”, such as the delirious feeling of freedom she experiences when she discovers cycling.
It’s probably not revealing too much to acknowledge that one of the most powerful parts of the book is when Dorothy miscarries, and the devastating effects of losing the child are handled sensitively. The physical side of the affairs is dealt with more candidly than Richardson would ever have written, and of course we don’t actually *know* (I believe) if the relationship between Dorothy and Victoria ever progressed further that a close emotional friendship. Certainly, DR’s relationships were unconventional and it’s a fair assumption to make that they might have crossed over into the physical.
Dorothy was beginning to realize that one’s inmost self was lost and not found through close relationships.
The underlying message of the book seems to be that Richardson needed solitude and independence to work; it was only by retaining her whole self that she could give herself to her writing, and the book ends with her looking forward with hope to a new kind of relationship, with a man who has enough sense of his own self not to demand too much of her. Certainly, the section of the book where DR is starting to write and pondering the kind of form she wants her work to take is impressive and reflects Treger’s real empathy with, and understanding of, Richardson’s work.
Something at the core of life steadied and clarified. She wrote because she had to; it was salvation, as essential as breathing. For the sake of her writing, she needed to free herself from those who would shape and possess her. It was for this she had smashed her way to a clear horizon.
“The Lodger” is eminently readable and Treger certainly can write well with some lovely turns of phrase; for example, she describes Wells’ constant talking thus: “Words seemed to stream off the ends of his mustache and tumble down his waistcoat.” If I had any reservations at all, I did personally find some of the love scenes a little over-intense. Also I would have liked the book to be longer; the characters could have been developed and fleshed out even more and we would have had longer to spend in DR’s company But this is a minor quibble, and the supporting cast in the book *are* real and alive. The female characters are particularly strongly drawn, and Richardson’s sympathy with, and anger on behalf of, other women is reflected in a number of encounters and relationships within the book; her affinity with her landlady Mrs. Baker, a kind of substitute mother figure, is particularly poignant.
In “The Lodger” Louisa Treger has taken the facts of Dorothy Richardson’s life and used them as the basis on which to build a fascinating tale of a pioneering woman writer. In its own right, as a story of how women lived and coped in the early part of the 20th century, it’s a powerful and engrossing read; and if, by drawing on Dorothy Richardson’s life, “The Lodger” does anything to help bring more readers to that pioneering author, then Treger’s achievement will be even greater.
(Many thanks to Louisa for kindly arranging the review copy – you can visit her website here)