‘Stream of Consciousness’, Drama, and Reality

What is really going on in May Sinclair’s review of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage?

By Rebecca Bowler

In April 1918, May Sinclair reviewed ‘The Novels of Dorothy Richardson’ in the literary magazine The Egoist. At that point, there were only three novels in the Pilgrimage series (there were to be thirteen in total), but those three had, Sinclair claimed, exhibited a ‘startling “newness”’:1 an originality of method, and a certain kind of psychological realism:

In this series there is no drama, no situation, no set scene.  Nothing happens.  It is just life going on and on.  It is Miriam Henderson’s stream of consciousness going on and on […] In identifying herself with this life, which is Miriam’s stream of consciousness, Miss Richardson produces her effect of being the first, of getting closer to reality than any of our novelists who are trying so desperately to get close.2

The phrase ‘stream of consciousness’ had never before been applied to a work of literature, and the metaphor was to catch on. May Sinclair had taken the idea from contemporary psychology. It is usually attributed to William James, who in his Principles of Psychology (1890) dismisses metaphors that compare thought to something jointed or ‘chopped up in bits’, and insists that consciousness instead is a flowing thing like a river or a stream: ‘let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life’.3 However, Sinclair may not have borrowed the idea directly from James. As Suzanne Raitt points out, the phrase was widely used in the early twentieth century, with many of the texts Sinclair references in both Mary Olivier and A Defence of Idealism using the phrase ‘as a matter of course’.4 What Sinclair did do was link the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’ with the emergent psychological novel, and the label has been a feature of discourse about modernism ever since.

Dorothy Richardson herself refused to embrace the term ‘stream of consciousness’ as representative of her own work, or even as an adequate metaphor for consciousness itself, saying that: ‘amongst the company of useful labels devised to meet the exigencies of literary criticism it stands alone, isolated by its perfect imbecility’. Consciousness, she insisted, although seeming stream-like when ‘superficially regarded’, is actually a still point. One’s consciousness, argued Richardson, ‘sits stiller than a tree’.5

But Richardson did agree with Sinclair’s assessment of her novels as void of drama (‘there is no drama, no situation, no set scene.  Nothing happens’). She emphasises this herself, as late as 1952, in a letter to a critic, and extends it to include all the writers to whom the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’ has been applied:

This, I feel, was a natural development from the move away from ‘Romance’ to ‘Realism’ (the latter being a critical reaction to the former).  It dealt directly with reality.  Hence the absence of either ‘plot’, ‘climax’ or ‘conclusion’.  All the writers concerned would agree with Goethe that drama is for the stage.6

This is a rather idiosyncratic definition of realism, and refers as much to the ‘reality’ that Sinclair claimed Richardson had got so close to as to the realism of George Eliot, Balzac and Bennett. Both Richardson and Sinclair agree that Pilgrimage rejects the dramatic in order to focus on the ‘real’: on life as it is lived. In fact, the reason why Sinclair draws attention to Miriam’s consciousness in the first place is to demonstrate how the rendering of its perceptions, in all their fragmentation, gives Richardson’s novels a certain fidelity to experience:

All that we know of reality at first hand is given to us through contacts in which those interesting distinctions are lost. Reality is thick and deep, too thick and too deep, and at the same time too fluid to be cut with any convenient carving-knife. The novelist who would be close to reality must confine himself to this knowledge first hand.7

Sinclair goes on:

[Richardson] must not know or divine anything that Miriam does not know or divine; she must not see anything that Miriam does not see […] Miss Richardson has only imposed on herself the conditions that life imposes on us all.8

The lack of authorial interference, the narration of consciousness, and the modernist fragmentation are all highlighted. Pilgrimage’s significance, for Sinclair, lies in the way these techniques recreate the ‘conditions that life imposes’. Miriam’s ‘stream of consciousness’, however, is not the point here. May Sinclair is after bigger game. The limitations and the opportunities offered by narrating a novel entirely through the character’s consciousness in this way, are, above all, the best way of getting close to reality. Reality, Sinclair intimates, is what all modern novelists are striving for.

What the word ‘reality’ meant to May Sinclair is difficult now to decode. If life and the novel are similar in the conditions that they impose, then even in life ‘reality’ lies beyond the grasp of the mind: it is in fact the mind that interposes between the self and reality. It seems to be reality that Sinclair refers to when she comments on the presence, in Pilgrimage, of ‘what really matters’.9 She does not, however, say what this is. Instead she quotes three long passages from Pilgrimage: one from Pointed Roofs and two from Honeycomb. Here is a clipping from the original page:

 Pilgrimage and Reality

In the first passage, the ‘external world’ is what matters: its majesty and importance make people and conversation seem ‘incidental’. In the second, the thing that matters is ‘light’, and in the third it is ‘something’ which lies beneath the chatter of the world, and which happiness reveals. This ‘something’; this ‘light’, is reality. It is reality which is known ‘only at moments’, but which is nevertheless ‘always there, waiting and looking on’.

When these passages in the 1918 review are read alongside Sinclair’s 1919 novel Mary Olivier, the importance of this conception of reality to Sinclair’s thought perhaps becomes more apparent. At the very end of the novel, Mary has a sudden epiphany. She becomes aware of what reality is. She thinks:

It had come to her when she was a child in brilliant, clear flashes […] Why, since it could happen when you were young – reality breaking through, if only in flashes coming and going, going altogether and forgotten – why had you to wait so long before you could remember it and be aware of it as one continuous, shining background? She had never been aware of it before; she had only thought about and about it, about Substance, the Thing-in-itself, Reality, God. Thinking was not being aware.10

Mary’s philosophical study has given her names to describe reality, but it has made her forget to notice it. Sinclair had played with this idea before: as early as The Divine Fire, she shows the young Savage Keith Rickman being persuaded he has to choose between ‘life’ (‘the fugitive actuality’), and the ivory-tower of his genius.11 The young Mary Olivier’s reality is also ‘fugitive’, coming only in ‘flashes’, but maturity enables a clear sight, much as Richardson’s reality had ‘come to the surface and was with her all the time’.

This then is the key to Sinclair’s enthusiasm about Richardson’s work. Mary’s sudden epiphany in Mary Olivier that reality is actually a ‘shining’ and accessible background to life is the result of many years of speculation about reality. The writing of  A Defence of Idealism, in 1917, and the review of Pilgrimage in 1918 were both products of this thinking, and stepping stones on the path to her first successful portrayal of this in fiction: Mary Olivier’s ‘merging of the stuff of consciousness with the stuff of the world’.12



Published July 2013.


1 May Sinclair, ‘The Novels of Dorothy Richardson’ in The Egoist, Vol. 5, No. 4, (April 1908), p. 57.

2 The Egoist, p. 58.

3 William James, ‘The Stream of Thought’ [1890] in The Principles of Psychology Vol. I ed. by Fredson Bowers, Frederick H. Burkhardt and Ignas K. Skrupskelis (London: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 233.

4 Suzanne Raitt, May Sinclair: A Modern Victorian (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), p. 219.

5 From an ‘autobiographical sketch’ in Authors Today and Yesterday, ed. by Stanley J. Kunitz (New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1934), pp. 562-564, p. 562.

6 Letter to Shiv K Kumar, 10/08/1952, box four, Dorothy Richardson Collection. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

7 The Egoist, p. 57.

8 The Egoist, p. 58.

9 Ibid.

10 May Sinclair, Mary Olivier: A Life (London: Virago Press, 1980), pp. 377-8.

11 May Sinclair, The Divine Fire (Toronto: William Briggs, 1904), p. 40.

12 Raitt, p. 234.


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