restricted access The Pilgrimage of Dorothy Richardson (review)
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 864-866

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Joanne Winning. The Pilgrimage of Dorothy Richardson. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2000. viii + 230 pp.

It is a shame that Joanne Winning's The Pilgrimage of Dorothy Richardson is not called "The Lesbian Pilgrimage of Dorothy Richardson," for the book's flat-footed title and visually uncompelling cover (an uninspired treatment of the unphotogenic Richardson) does little to advertise its theoretically compelling and groundbreaking content. This is a provocative and sophisticated analysis that should be read by anyone interested in modernist cultural studies, queer theory, women's literature, or lesbian sexuality. Winning demonstrates how Richardson not only merits our attention—itself a contribution given the fact that Richardson's thirteen-volume opus, Pilgrimage, is currently out of print in the United States—but is central to any contemporary understanding of lesbian modernist aesthetics. A strength of Winning's study is that she regards Richardson as part of a larger group of lesbian modernist practitioners, rather than as the oddball experimentalist who foregrounds a heterosexual narrative. She approaches Pilgrimage as a "test case" that reveals the complexity and plurality of both the term "lesbian" and our preconceptions about modernism itself (9). Utilizing the insights of poststructuralism while adhering to careful historical contextualization, Winning's approach serves as a corrective to those earlier critics who have either dismissed the novel's lesbianism altogether or have grudgingly conceded that traces of female homoeroticism are detectable, but fail to pursue them interpretively. [End Page 864]

By arguing that lesbian desire is the "thematic structuring device throughout the whole of Pilgrimage" (10), Winning invites us to reevaluate and extend our notion of what lesbian desire and identity look like in the modernist period, while simultaneously giving Richardson criticism a shot in the arm by drawing our attention to what, on the surface, is seemingly absent or otherwise occluded in the novel. One crucial way that Winning does this is by linking the "densely coded notion of silence" that pervades Pilgrimage with lesbian sexuality (135), counteracting earlier readings that remain blind to Richardson's embrace of silence as erotically charged. Winning has little patience for identity politics or for those who seek to authenticate Richardson's own sexual identity (chapter 1 beautifully addresses the problematic topic of the author's sexuality), choosing instead to foreground the novel's encryption of lesbian desire through its intricate "system of signification, disavowal, and dissimulation" (12). While Winning addresses the problem of locating a lesbian subject within the context of what many have presumed to be Pilgrimage's status as an autobiographical life history, she is ultimately more interested in moving the critical discussion beyond Richardson's own disavowals of sexual identity and focusing instead upon the lesbian subjectivity of the novel's fictional heroine, Miriam Henderson. In chapter 5, she painstakingly compares the published text of March Moonlight with manuscript drafts from the Beinecke to reveal how Richardson's textual evasions encode and conceal lesbian desire. In Winning's hands, Pilgrimage becomes an extended argument about the problem of representing Miriam's lesbianism during a period in which female sexuality (both homosexual and heterosexual) was largely pathologized; as a result, Winning argues, Richardson averts what were culturally perceived to be the problematic excesses of lesbian eroticism by rendering the homoerotic through the strategic use of heterosexual guises, substitution, indirection, and displacement.

Winning's particular achievement in this study is to demonstrate how Miriam's oscillation between gender identities and homo/heterosexuality is informed by psychoanalytic understandings of female homosexuality that were contemporary with the writing of Pilgrimage. She persuasively argues that Pilgrimage requires the tactics of "archaeological excavation" (51)—that is, keen attention to the dominant discourses concerning women in 1891-1912 (the time frame of the novel), as well as awareness that Richardson was heavily influenced by psychoanalytic models of female and lesbian development during the years 1912-46, when she was actually writing her text. Through the examination of this complicated "temporal loop," Winning demonstrates how Richardson "inlays dominant discourse[s] within the text of Miriam's emerging consciousness...