Pointed Roofs is the first novel in Dorothy Richardson’s 13-volume sequence Pilgrimage, published between 1915 and (posthumously) 1967. I knew there were 13 novels, but when I was bought the 1938 Cresset Press edition in Brussels’ loveliest antiquarian bookshop, Het Ivoren Aapje, two months ago, I realised that my 4-volume edition only includes the first 12. Where, and what, was no. 13? All the online references (even that of the Dorothy Richardson Society) could not help me make the numbers come right, some giving only 11 titles, some only 12. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English revealed the solution in plain English for the newcomer to Richardson bibliography: the 13th novel, March Moonlight, was first published in the 1967 edition of Pilgrimage, after Richardson’s death. (The 12th, Dimple Hill, was first published in the 1938 edition.)
Why the fuss? If you teach or study British twentieth-century literature Richardson is one of the very few women writing fiction from the very beginning of the experimentalist, modernist period. In 1918 May Sinclair used the term ‘stream of consciousness’ for the first time to describe the rush of interior monologue that forms a prose narrative, in a review of one of Richardson’s novels. Virginia Woolf was complimentary about Richardson’s project, which was to write the story of one young woman – Miriam Henderson – from the 1890s onwards, describing only the essential elements of her life: ‘life going on and on and on’. Another literary-critical point of importance about Pilgrimage and Richardson’s achievement is that she was the first woman to write a woman’s life which was wholly centred on being a woman, not on being a daughter or wife or some other feminine role appended to and subordinate to a man. A further claim, from Woolf, is that Richardson created ‘the sentence of the feminine gender’, but that is debatable.
All this is good and fine and true for the study of English literature. I wouldn’t write so lengthily about this novel here if I didn’t also think that Pointed Roofs is a fascinating and enjoyable novel to read. It is pleasurably intense, and crammed with the details of social history (always my favourite). It begins by dropping the reader into Miriam’s consciousness as she waits one evening in the bedroom she shares with another girl. We slowly realise that the other girl is her sister, that Miriam (though we don’t know her name at this point) is feeling tense about an impending ordeal, and that she is bracing herself not to cry, or to show that she is affected, and that she is tormented by fugitive thoughts that betray her emotional turmoil. The sister appears, then another, Miriam is careless and casual, and we realise that she is keeping her end up, not betraying emotion because to do this would be to give away her fear and excitement and let the family down at a moment of great crisis. Miriam is about to leave her home in London for the first time, at the age of seventeen (we find out later), to go to Germany to teach in a girls’ boarding school. Her father will escort her part of the way there, and she is resentful of something he has done, or failed to do. She is unnerved by the alienness of the Fraulein for whom she will be working, and – most of all – she is petrified at the prospect of having to pretend to be an English teacher to girls only a year or two younger than she is.
The clipped, truncated streaming of Miriam’s consciousness is deceptively easy to read, yet we shouldn’t skim. There is crucial information in the half-sentences and slipping phrases. It’s important to keep reading the details because so much of what comes later won’t make sense: Miriam’s changing views about the Fraulein; her first impressions of the girls under her charge and her companion teacher, Mademoiselle; the way the children of the school respond to firmness and flexibility; and the developing characters of the hearty Australian girl who practically runs the school, and the shy and sentimental Germans who can barely speak English.
Given that this novel was published in 1915, what it inclines the reader to feel towards Germany and the Germans is fascinating. It’s set in the 1890s, which was a prime period for anti-German rhetoric in the cheaper periodicals and newspapers, yet Miriam’s allegiance is to the romantic and musical Germany of Schiller and Schubert. Richardson builds in brief hints about the rigidity of the Prussian character and the cult of facial scars from duelling, foregrounding their militarism in a position of strength. She creates a worrying sense of shifting moods and truths within the school, of who is in disgrace, who is favoured, which undermines Miriam’s sense of security. Miriam doesn’t have the money to go to the sea for the summer with the other English girls and she hasn’t been a good enough teacher for the Fraulein to pay for her. This is the ending, but how can Miriam go home again, if she truly has been a failure?
Pointed Roofs is a truly impressive novel, on its own terms and for what it achieves in technique. It delivers a powerful response to the built environment – rooms, doors, spaces, windows, roofs (pointed) and the weight of ceilings – and to the emotional temperature of the communities of women – Miriam and her sisters, Miriam and the Fraulein, Miriam and the English girls of whom she is nominally in charge, and Miriam as part of a susurrating, shifting group of women and girls, who surge in their emotions as much as they do in their long and tucked-up dresses. Onto book 2, Backwater.
For the other reviews of the volumes in Pilgrimage, see Backwater and Honeycomb, The Tunnel and Interim, Deadlock and Revolving Lights, The Trap and Oberland, Dawn’s Left Hand and Clear Horizon, and Dimple Hill and March Moonlight, and see also my conversation with Brad Bigelow of The Neglected Books page.