Dorothy Richardson is existing just above the poverty line, doing secretarial work at a dentist’s office and living in a seedy boarding house in Bloomsbury, when she is invited to spend the weekend with a childhood friend. Jane has recently married a writer who is hovering on the brink of fame. His name is H.G. Wells, or Bertie, as they call him. Bertie appears unremarkable at first. But then Dorothy notices his grey-blue eyes taking her in, openly signalling approval. He tells her he and Jane have an agreement which allows them the freedom to take lovers, although Dorothy can tell her friend would not be happy with that arrangement. Not wanting to betray Jane, yet unable to draw back Dorothy free-falls into an affair with Bertie. Then a new boarder arrives at the house- beautiful Veronica Leslie-Jones- and Dorothy finds herself caught between Veronica and Bertie. Amidst the personal dramas and wreckage of a militant suffragette march, Dorothy finds her voice as a writer.
When I’m approached to read and review a book, I always consider it carefully. First of all, am I already aware of the book? There’s certainly been a growing buzz among readers, tweeters and bloggers about this one. Then there’s the question of whether it appeals – will I enjoy it? Some of you might not know that I was an English Literature graduate who no longer reads classics but has gone over to the dark side of chick lit, thrillers and other popular literature. But there was a time when I was an enthusiast for nineteenth and early twentieth century literature, particularly written by or about women, so I found the whole premise of this novel very enticing. My thanks to Alice and Helen of Four Coleman Getty for arranging a copy for me.
The Lodger by Louisa Treger was published by St Martin’s Press (Thomas Dunne Books) on 1st June, in hardcover and for kindle – and I’m delighted to report that it exceeded even my eager expectations. My thoughts follow below, but first I’d like to welcome Louisa to Being Anne to tell us a little more about her remarkable book.
Hello Louisa, and welcome to Being Anne! You might like to start by introducing yourself
Thank you very much for having me; I’m thrilled to be here!
I live in London with my husband, three children and dog. I started out as a classical violinist and worked as a freelance orchestral player and teacher, before turning to writing. The Lodger is my first novel.
I thought The Lodger was quite wonderful – a totally mesmerising story. Would you like to say a little more about where the inspiration came from?
I discovered Dorothy Richardson, the writer whose life the book is based on, by accident. I was researching Virginia Woolf in the University of London Library and I found a review by Virginia of one of Dorothy’s novels. In it, Virginia credited her with creating “a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender.” I thought this sounded interesting and decided to find out more. I became fascinated by Dorothy’s books and her life: she was highly unconventional in both. She couldn’t settle down and conform to any of the limited roles available to women, but smashed just about every boundary and taboo going – social, sexual and literary. The more I learnt about her, the more strongly I felt that her story should be told.
The research needed for a book like this must have been immense. What did it involve?
Before I even thought of writing a novel about Dorothy, I did a PhD thesis on her, so most of my research was completed at an early stage in the British Library. I also spent a lot of time walking around Bloomsbury, where the novel is set, to absorb its atmosphere. My most exciting moment was being given a first edition of one of Dorothy’s books as a gift and finding a handwritten piece of paper inside. It turned out to be notes she had written for a novel. It was quite thrilling to hold what she once held; it made me feel very close to her.
And then, having done your research, you decided to change some of the chronology. That must have been a difficult decision.
The most significant thing I changed was the time span of Dorothy’s friendship with H.G. Wells. In reality, this developed into a love affair over a ten year period, but I felt that such a slow burn would have been hard to write about. And so, I decided to fast-forward and make him seduce her during one spring. I did feel that I was taking liberties by doing this, but the need for narrative impetus was the most important consideration.
Have H.G. Wells scholars given you a hard time? He’s not particularly sympathetically portrayed…
Actually, H.G. Wells scholars have been very quiet about my portrayal of him! I have had quite a few comments from readers saying that they found his treatment of women hard to take. Actually, I developed something of a crush on Wells while writing The Lodger – I’m not sure what that says about me!! He was such a complex and compelling man, not conventionally handsome, yet irresistible to women because of his intellect and the way he made them feel he was interested in their thoughts as well as their bodies. I found him flawed, but not totally unsympathetic…
The relationship between Dorothy and Veronica Leslie-Jones is quite beautifully drawn – was it difficult to write?
The feelings of being in love weren’t that difficult to portray, because we’ve all been there, haven’t we? What was harder to imagine was what being gay must have been like at a time when homosexual acts were punishable by the law and by social ostracism. It was challenging, yet fascinating!
I’m guessing you’ve read Dorothy Richardson’s work, and I see the books are to be republished soon. Innovative at the time, but do you think they’ll they have any appeal for today’s readers?
I have read Dorothy Richardson’s work. I love it, and at the same time, I find her stream of consciousness prose demanding. To be honest, I don’t think she will have mainstream appeal, but I can see her attracting a small band of devoted followers. Fans of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante will probably like her.
So – from classical violinist to novelist. How difficult was that? Did you undertake any writing courses? Or have a mentor?
Actually, music was fantastic training for being a writer because it taught me the discipline to glue my butt to a chair and spend hours alone, honing my craft. There are numerous parallels between music and writing, including rhythm, colour, tone, and the ability to blend many voices, or make a single voice stand out. Just as an extra beat throws a piece of music off balance, so a surplus word can destabilize a sentence.
I would have loved to have done a creative writing course, but by the time I started writing fiction seriously, I had three small children. Doing any kind of course was impossible! My mentors are my wonderful editor at St Martin’s Press, Jennifer Letwack, and my equally fabulous literary agent, Kevan Lyon.
And can you tell me a little about your journey to publication?
I decided to follow the traditional path to publication. There are pros and cons to traditional and indie routes; it was personal choice. The journey was long and hard. I had rejection letters from agents and publishers, tears were shed and manuscripts ripped up. Several times, I was on the point of giving up, but there was always one more idea to try, one more story. In the end, I kept going because I had to, because writing is part of who I am, necessary as breathing. I’m a living example that persistence pays off! When I eventually received an offer from St Martin’s Press, it was one of the most thrilling moments of my life.
To write so wonderfully, you must also be a reader. Any recent books read that you’d recommend?
I am addicted to reading! A good friend recently introduced me to John Steinbeck and I devoured ‘Cannery Row’ and ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ I also loved ‘A Place Called Winter’, by Patrick Gale.
And I can’t let you go without asking about the difficult second novel! How’s it going – and can you share anything about it?
I have a complete first draft, which I am in the process of editing. It’s about a girl who was part of the Kinderstransport – the rescue mission that brought thousands of refugee Jewish children from Nazi occupied Europe to safety in England. They left their families to go to the care of strangers, in a foreign country whose language they only had the barest grasp of. They didn’t know what would happen to them, or if they would see their parents again. The novel describes how the girl and her descendants adjust to English life.
Thank you Louisa, another subject I find absolutely fascinating – I can hardly wait!
My opening comments might just have given you the wrong impression. To enjoy this book as I did, you certainly don’t need to be passionate or knowledgable about early C20th literature. It’s a wonderful read, dealing in a really original way with forbidden love, struggling with expectations and guilt, and the way in which creativity can be born through experience of heartbreak, set against a vivid historical background.
Dorothy is a magnificent heroine – frail and human, but brave in following her heart, in crossing the boundaries of the expectations of women of her time. She becomes a lover of both H.G. Wells – a wonderfully drawn character, mildly repulsive and morally repugnant, but quite fascinating – and of Veronica Leslie-Jones. Both relationships are described exceptionally beautifully – this is a book which gives you a physical ache as you turn the pages.
The author shows considerable bravery too in her unflinching descriptions of Dorothy’s passionate awakening – her detailed descriptions and the way she describes feelings are unutterably beautiful. The subject matter might be what first attracts you to this wonderful book, but it’s the effortless beauty of the writing – every word carefully chosen – that keeps you enthralled. As I read, I marked so many passages I wanted to quote and return to, but this will give you a flavour:
He said the sight of her made him wish he could paint. At the very least, he’d like to record every detail of her in poetry. He compared the curves of her torso to the stem of a plant, or to a cresting wave in the ocean. In the whorls of her ears he saw shapes like seashells. Her hips, unclothed, had the rolling outlines of hills. He told her that her skin was the softest he’d known. She felt remodeled by him; no longer a misfit, large boned and awkward. To him she was a poem, as enchanting as any heroine in literature.
See what I mean about the physical ache? The same beauty is there in the descriptions of Dorothy’s first attempts at writing – set against the brutality and ugliness shown to the suffragettes as they marched, and the cruelty they experienced in prison.
This is an exceptional book – I loved it. Please try it too…
Born in London, Louisa Treger began her career as a classical violinist. She studied at the Royal College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music, and worked as a freelance orchestral player and teacher.
Louisa subsequently turned to literature, gaining a First Class degree and a PhD in English at University College London, where she focused on early twentieth century women’s writing.
Married with three children, she lives in London.
Louisa has an excellent website, and is active on both Facebook and Twitter.