Dorothy Richardson.

I recently read about the long-forgotten novelist Dorothy Richardson and her “sequence of 13 semi-autobiographical novels published between 1915 and 1967” (to quote the Wikipedia page), and my wife and I agreed it sounded like something worth trying for our nighttime reading. We’ve gotten well into Pointed Roofs, the first of the novels, and it’s amazing: a brilliantly written exploration of the mental world of a teenage English girl off to Germany to teach. Anyone who enjoys Virginia Woolf should like Richardson (and in fact Woolf was a fan). The problem, of course, was that modernist fiction has always been a hard sell, and the mental world of women even more so. At any rate, here are a couple passages of linguistic interest:

It gratified her to discover that she could, at the end of this one day, understand or at the worst gather the drift of, all she heard, both of German and French. Mademoiselle had exclaimed at her French—les mots si bien choisis—un accent sans faute—it must be ear. She must have a very good ear. And her English was all right—at least, if she chose…. Pater had always been worrying about slang and careless pronunciation. None of them ever said “cut in half” or “very unique” or “ho’sale” or “phodygraff.” She was awfully slangy herself—she and Harriett were, in their thoughts as well as their words—but she had no provincialisms, no Londonisms—she could be the purest Oxford English. There was something at any rate to give her German girls…. She could say, “There are no rules for English pronunciation, but what is usual at the University of Oxford is decisive for cultured people”—“decisive for cultured people.” She must remember that for the class. […]

“Oh, I am haypie,” Emma was saying, with adoring eyes on Miriam and her two arms outflung on the table. Miriam recoiled. This would not do—they must not all talk at once and go on like this. Minna’s whole face was aflame. She sat up stiffly—adjusted her pince-nez—and desperately ordered the reading to begin again—at Minna. They all subsided and Minna’s careful husky voice came from her still blissfully-smiling face. The others sat back and attended. Miriam watched Minna judicially, and hoped she looked like a teacher. She knew her pince-nez disguised her and none of these girls knew she was only seventeen and a half. “Sorrowg,” Minna was saying, hesitating. Miriam had not heard the preceding word. “Once more the whole sentence,” she said, with quiet gravity, and then as Minna reached the word “thorough” she corrected and spent five minutes showing her how to get over the redoubtable “th.” They all experimented and exclaimed. They had never been shown that it was just a matter of getting the tongue between the teeth. Miriam herself had only just discovered it. She speculated as to how long it would take for her to deliver them up to Fräulein Pfaff with this notorious stumbling-block removed. She was astonished herself at the mechanical simplicity of the cure. How stupid people must be not to discover these things.


  1. Phodygraff is evidently a now-archaic American pronunciation, as the d confirms. It took me a while to figure out ho’sale as wholesale.

  2. What the hell’s wrong with ‘cut in half’? Halves? There were lots of books using it between 1800 and 1860 (for example).

    She seems to have been quite bohemian in a Bloomsbury sort of way.

    Phodygraff is evidently a now-archaic American pronunciation
    John Cooper Powys, who knew and wrote about her, lived in America for 25 years. She may have met Americans.

  3. What the hell’s wrong with ‘cut in half’?

    That struck me too. Of course actual usage is irrelevant to peevers; I checked Fowler and Garner and found nothing relevant, but the OED (1st ed.) has under phrases “In half or halves: into two (more or less) equal parts,” and one of the quotes has “cut in halves,” so I suspect that was the issue.

  4. AJP Crown: What the hell’s wrong with ‘cut in half’? Halves?

    Apparently. There are quite a few more results for that time period if you search “cut in halves” or “cut into halves”.

  5. My guess is that some peever noticed that we don’t say “cut in third,” only “cut in thirds,” and likewise for smaller fractions. Therefore, according to ‘logic,’ we shouldn’t say “cut in half” either.

  6. Stu Clayton says

    “On the home stretch, Simpson’s Toenail has just cut in third ahead of Whimsy”.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    Therefore, according to ‘logic,’ we shouldn’t say “cut in half” either.

    The scare quotes around logic make a good point. People often say “logically” where only “to be consistent” makes sense. Here it’s a matter of consistent use of plural forms. Is consistency a hobgoblin of little minds ? If foolish, yes.

    Consistency is important in dough with which to bake proper bread, but there is no logic in a loaf.

  8. Thank you for this. I’m perfectly mortified never to have heard of her and I’m going to add her to the queue immediately. Based on the excerpt she looks to be brilliant and I’m eager to begin reading.

  9. The OED database shows 26 entries containing the phrase “cut in half.”

  10. And if we sort the OED’s “cut in half” examples by date, we find e.g. “I had my rein arm cut in half by a native sabre” from all the way back in 1867 (rein, noun, compound 2). There, “cut in halves” wouldn’t be remotely idiomatic.

  11. “Cut in half”/”halves”, fair enough, but this is the bit that brought me up short:

    “Sorrowg,” Minna was saying, hesitating. Miriam had not heard the preceding word. “Once more the whole sentence,” she said, with quiet gravity, and then as Minna reached the word “thorough” she corrected and spent five minutes showing her how to get over the redoubtable “th.”

    What about the g at the end? Do Americans pronounce “thorough” with an audible g?

  12. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I don’t think this has to do with Americans – she’s trying to teach German girls English pronunciation, and one of them has tripped up on the silent ‘gh’.

  13. John Cowan says

    By no means. This word has never had a /g/ in it: the original sound was /x/, which was either lost (after a vowel) or changed to /f/. There are non-standard varieties that say “thruff”, but none of them survived in the New World.

  14. In my experience, Americans are likely to say thurr-O while Englanders say thurr-A (or schwa).

  15. I grew up with “thurra” but was adjured to say “thurro.” Another example–I seem to keep harping on this–of a usage that’s high-register in Britain and low-register in America. Common element: Southern.

  16. I expect that Miriam would have said “cut in two.”

  17. I thought that too, but you can cut something in two without the parts being equal: cut in half/halves is more precise and would appeal to a peever.

  18. Another example–I seem to keep harping on this–of a usage that’s high-register in Britain and low-register in America.
    Huh, Roger C. Harp away. I’ve noticed it a couple of times (I can’t remember them at the moment).

    Common element: Southern.
    Makes some sense, but what about Mawl-brə vs Marlbro for Marlborough? Surely Marl-bro is (originally) Southern? Other bros are from all over, I suppose. Teterboro Airport, for example, or the five NY boros that always sounded to me like the five New York donkeys.

  19. Thank you for this. I’m perfectly mortified never to have heard of her and I’m going to add her to the queue immediately. Based on the excerpt she looks to be brilliant and I’m eager to begin reading.

    Nothing makes me happier than when people take me up on my book recommendations; I hope you enjoy her!

  20. I once saw a seminar where the speaker consistently pronounced Rayleigh as [ralɛg] or [ralɛgh]. He may have been from India.

  21. @Rodger C, AJP Crown: For a possible reverse example, some author who I was reading a while ago suggested that the use of /iː/ in the first syllable of words like deliver was high in the US but low in Britain. (As an American I guess I’d tentatively agree, although I’ve just contented myself with /ǝ/ and not given much thought to the occasional different usage.)

    @Y: I’ll never forget the English Lit TA who told us that Oscar Wilde was imprisoned at “Reeding Goal” (Reading Gaol).

  22. Cut in halves doesnt sound wrong even today. Rein arm cut in halves is ridiculous bc you’re left with only half. On the other side, noone would say let’s go half on the bill. It has to be let’s go halves bc both halves are in focus. Not that i think it’s an enforceable rule, but as with many ‘peeves’, there’s an underlying logic to a half/halves distinction, and something lost. Though many times the peevers have lost the thread and press blindly for the rule. But antipeevers are just a subset of peevers.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    the use of /iː/ in the first syllable of words like deliver was high in the US but low in Britain

    I have a minimal pair, /di:’lɪvəɹ/ “remove the liver”, /dɪ’lɪvəɹ/ “free.”

    There is a subtle but quite definite difference in usage.

  24. John W Brewer says

    “Deeliver” in AmEng doesn’t sound “high” to my ear. It sounds … well if I were being polite I’d say it sounds regional rather than low. Probably the same vaguely Southern thing that leads to putting the stress in “insurance” on the first syllable rather than the second. Getting recordings of people from lots of different regional and class backgrounds reciting the Lord’s Prayer (a text that is both fairly high-register but also known by heart and thus said with less self-consciousness than a lot of high-register texts) might get you an interesting dataset of varying pronunciations of “deliver.”

    Most Americans probably have traditionally had occasion to say “Marlboro” out loud rather more frequently than “Marlborough,” and come to think of of probably say “Marlboros” more often than singular “Marlboro.” You’d think the -o and the -ough versions might be homophonous by default except that if the latter comes up in a context like “Duke of” that may lead to a more self-consciously posh pronunctiation than contexts like “gimme a pack of” would.

  25. Pronouncing Irish placenames, part 2 in an occasional series:

    the ending -ow (in e.g. Mallow, Tullow, Carlow) as an anglicisation of the Irish -ach was formerly pronounced schwa, but is now prescriptively GOAT, I guess by hypercorrection/analogy.

  26. I thought that too, but you can cut something in two without the parts being equal: cut in half/halves is more precise and would appeal to a peever.

    The use of “cut in half” for an arm sounds wrong for exactly this reason; if you sever an arm at the elbow, I wouldn’t say that it’s been cut in half. Cut in two sounds wrong as well because you aren’t left with two separate pieces; one of them is still attached to your shoulder. I would only use “cut in two” or “cut in half” for an already-detached arm; something like “the statue was dismantled for transport, with the extended left arm cut in half to allow it to fit into the container”. The other use of “cut in half” is “reduced 50%” – I suspect bleed over from “cut by half”, which fits with “cut by a third”, “cut by three quarters” and so on.

  27. PlasticPaddy says

    I suspect those placenames are affected by Wicklow, which has a historic right to its “o”, unlike your examples and despite the fact it is Wickla in some Dublin accents.

  28. J.W. Brewer says

    An elegant way to avoid peeves about “cut in half” versus “cut in halves” might be “cut in twain,” but alas the google n-gram viewer suggests that alternative suffered a decline in popularity over the course of the 20th century (much of the same time frame in which the frequency-of-use lead of “half” over “halves” moved from “significant” to “overwhelming”).

  29. I was going to suggest “cleave in twain,” which sounds like the right epic tone if the item being split is really an arm. Then again, my diction is not especially typical, to the extent that I managed to get two rejection letters today, faulting my literary voice. (It’s pretty demoralizing, and leaves me wondering whether I will ever actually get my novels published.)

  30. I think “cleave in twain” suggest splitting lengthwise, which is not what is usually meant.

  31. J.W. Brewer says

    Maybe “sunder in twain”? Or is that redundant? “Cut asunder”? I definitely had the thought that “in twain” would go better with a verb in a different register than “cut” occupies, but not being certain of the optimal candidate simply ran the comparative query in the n gram viewer with “cut in twain” against “cut in half” and “cut in halves.”

  32. John Cowan says

    So people don’t still shout “Who blew up Malla Bridge”? Well, things change.

  33. Then there’s the dialectal (and confusing) “cut half in two,” which was roundly condemned in my childhood.

  34. Toward the beginning of chapter 2 of Painted Roofs, Miriam, confronted by “the pale polite stewardess” aboard her channel-crossing packet, says, “I had better have a lemon, cut in two.”

  35. Excellent find!

    I’m liking the novel more and more the farther I read; it seems amazingly modern for 1915, and I’m very much looking forward to reading the sequels. I’m also getting madder and madder at how little recognition she got.

  36. I would like to read it.

    it seems amazingly modern for 1915
    What do you mean by this, Language?

    Half cut, meaning drunk, is a phrase I’d never dream of using (I’d probably say “pissed”). It seems dated.

  37. What do you mean by this, Language?

    I don’t know, it’s just something I’ve been feeling. I said it to my wife and she also wasn’t sure what I meant but thought she agreed. If you give it a try, see what you think. All I can say is that if I’d picked it up without knowing when it came out, I would have guessed at least a decade later.

  38. I’ll give it a whirl. I can compare and contrast its date with Howard’s End which I received as a dvd in the mail today from our mutual benefactor.

  39. I tried reading Howard’s End after I had seen the movie, and I eventually gave up, because it was too similar to the film. The written version provided a great deal of additional detail and background (which I enjoyed), but the key scenes in the novel were always exactly the way Merchant and Ivory staged them.

  40. Among the popular “serious” novelists of the 1900s were were DH Lawrence, HG Wells, Kipling, Chesterton, and those of the preceding two decades were Hardy, Meredith, Gissing, Henry James.

    These novelists wrote with a strong authorial voice – a narrator who observes, passes judgment, foreshadows.

    From the first sentence of Meredith’s The Egoist (1879): “Comedy is a game played to throw reflections upon social life, and it deals with human nature in the drawing-room of civilized men and women, where we have no dust of the struggling outer world, no mire, no violent crashes, to make the correctness of the representation convincing.”

    The first sentence of James’ The Portrait of a Lady (1880): “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”

    From Chapter 2 of Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles (1891):
    “The village of Marlott lay amid the north-eastern undulations of the beautiful Vale of Blakemore… It is a vale whose acquaintance is best made by viewing it from the summits of the hills that surround it—except perhaps during the droughts of summer. An unguided ramble into its recesses in bad weather is apt to engender dissatisfaction with its narrow, tortuous, and miry ways.”

    Who is speaking these words? The narrator is. Who is he addressing? The reader, directly.

    This is HG Wells, from the first page of Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul (1905): “Pornick, the haberdasher, I may say at once, was, according to old Kipps, a “blaring jackass”; he was a teetotaller, a “nyar, nyar, ‘im-singing Methodis’,” and altogether distasteful and detrimental, he and his together, to true Kipps ideals, so far as little Kipps could gather them.”

    From the first page of Kipling’s Kim (1901): “There was some justification for Kim—he had kicked Lala Dinanath’s boy off the trunnions—since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English. Though he was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white—a poor white of the very poorest.”

    The first page of Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913):
    Hell Row was a block of thatched, bulging cottages that stood by the brook-side on Greenhill Lane. There lived the colliers who worked in the little gin-pits two fields away. The brook ran under the alder-trees, scarcely soiled by these small mines, whose coal was drawn to the surface by donkeys that plodded wearily in a circle round a gin. And all over the countryside were these same pits, some of which had been worked in the time of Charles II, the few colliers and the donkeys burrowing down like ants into the earth, making queer mounds and little black places among the corn-fields and the meadows…”

    The diction of Lawrence and Kipling and Wells is less elevated but it is still written with the conceit that the novel is a story that is being told by the author to the reader.

    Painted Roofs has no narrator. There is no avuncular old fellow to paint a vista for you, to tell you what to think and how to feel, to assure you that the characters will be safe or to subtly warn you that you will find yourself mourning for one or two of them soon enough. The reader sees what Miriam sees, knows no more than Miriam knows, is privy to the feelings of Miriam but no one else, except as Miriam perceives them.

    Nathaniel Hawthorne once described Anthony Trollope’s novels as being “as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were made a show of.” That’s the Victorian method in a nutshell. Richardson is nothing like that.

    In that sense it’s modern. We associate the style with Joyce and Woolf, but Woolf’s first novel was published in the same year as Painted Roofs – 1915 – and Joyce’s first was a year later, in 1916. So Richardson wouldn’t have invented it – but she was an early proponent.

  41. Thanks, that’s an excellent analysis with great examples.

  42. This isn’t the Merchant-Ivory version, it’s the 2017 BBC tv series. It’s supposed to be really good: “one of the best series, (certainly the best screen adaptation, better than the book) I’ve ever seen,” according to the person who gave it to me – ok, it was Jamessal.

  43. Bloix: That strong authorial voice was being subverted by a few respected “serious” novelists in the nineteenth century, not just from the second decade of the twentieth. The opening of one of the best-known novels of the mid-nineteenth century, in a narrative voice that’s amorphous, immature and ignorant:

    Nous étions à l’étude, quand le Proviseur entra, suivi d’un nouveau habillé en bourgeois et d’un garçon de classe qui portait un grand pupitre. Ceux qui dormaient se réveillèrent, et chacun se leva comme surpris dans son travail.
    Le Proviseur nous fit signe de nous rasseoir ; puis, se tournant vers le maître d’études :
    — Monsieur Roger, lui dit-il à demi-voix, voici un élève que je vous recommande, il entre en cinquième. Si son travail et sa conduite sont méritoires, il passera dans les grands, où l’appelle son âge.

    In this case the narrative voice soon reverts to the traditional; but Flaubert has made his point. A few decades later, after further Continental and Brazilian subversion, Conrad and his colleague Hueffer were deploying their unreliable, uninformed narrators. Even Kipling helped to subvert the tottering foundations (Mrs Bathurst, 1904). Of course these are still stories “told by the author to the reader”, but the author is now frail and imperfect, like Richardson’s me.

  44. Our Dorothy develops a taste for oxymorons. From the early pages of Backwater, the second book of the series:

    The darkness brimmed in from the window on her right. She could touch the rose-leaves on the sill and listen to the dewy stillness of the garden.

    However well they got to know each other they would always be strangers.

    “They seem to have begun,” shouted Bennett in a whisper as Harriett and her fiance swung easily circling into the room…

    “You are like an expressive metronome.”

    At the end of her playing she stood up faintly dizzy, and held out toward Max Sonnenheim’s familiar strangeness hands heavy with happiness…

  45. Pointed Roofs is, along with the following five books of the Pilgrimage sequence, available on Project Gutenberg, in case anyone would like to read it as a free ebook or dip into it a bit more before obtaining a physical copy.


  1. […] Hat looks at the overlooked modernist fiction of Dorothy […]

Speak Your Mind