This conversation began when Brad Bigelow of The Neglected Books page noticed that I’d reviewed Pointed Roofs, the first volume of Pilgrimage. We began to chat about our respective experiences of reading the books, since he was only five volumes ahead of me, as I posted about Backwater and Honeycomb, and The Tunnel and Interim. When I finally completed the sequence, the conversation continued, and we’re posting what we said on both our sites, today. Be advised that although there aren’t many spoilers, we didn’t make an effort to avoid them.
BB: Congratulations on finishing Pilgrimage! It’s a happy coincidence that we both chose to tackle Dorothy Richardson’s magnum opus at the same time, since Pilgrimage is certainly a work that, once read in its entirety, one feels compelled to talk about with others. And given its relative neglect, there aren’t a lot of other readers who’ve made it through all thirteen novels.
With a work of this magnitude, there is an enormous number of possible topics to discuss – starting with the question of how to refer to it: Is it one novel in thirteen ‘chapters’, as Richardson sometimes referred to it? Is it thirteen novels linked through a common narrative? Is it in fact a novel or fictionalized autobiography? But lest we get bogged down counting angels on a pin, let’s start with a basic question: what was your experience of reading Pilgrimage?
For me, it was an endeavor that consumed a large share of my time and attention over the course of a month or so. I chose to read the 2,000-plus pages straight through and set myself a quota of pages to complete each day. As Richardson writes in a highly impressionistic style that often takes liberties with time and narrative continuity, I found it challenging as I sat at the dining room table, pencil in hand, and with George Thomson’s Reader’s Guide nearby to help explain the many glancing and cryptic references in the text.
On the other hand, I found it profoundly illuminating to spend so much time looking at the world through the eyes of a woman who dedicated herself so utterly to understanding her own thoughts, experiences, and emotions. I’ve been exclusively reading the works of women writers for the last year or so, but nothing else I’ve read in that time was so immersive and so forcefully different from a male perspective. And yet, though Richardson is at times almost strident in her feminism, in the end, I think what distinguishes Pilgrimage is its dedication to the importance of individual identity. I found its emphasis on making–and accepting the consequences of–one’s own choices very contemporary.
How did it seem from your side of the gender divide?
KM: That’s a very disciplined approach! I let the structure of the novels, and the edition I was using (1938 4-volume Cresset Press) dictate how I read the sequence. When I finished a novel (and sometimes when I’d stopped for the night, still with chapters to get through), I wrote it up in my reading diary. This was essential: I could not have recalled much of the plot, the events, my responses and my unfolding thoughts about her writing, without recording as much as I could along the way. Once I’d finished reading one novel, I sometimes went straight onto the next one, but I often took a break and read some science fiction, or a novel I needed to review.
I found Miriam a demanding narrative voice, and don’t like her very much, but her London life resonated very strongly with me. I agree with you about the immersive power of the reading experience in that respect. I too (I think I’ve already said this in my earlier blog about Backwater and Honeycomb) was a young woman earning my own living in my twenties, alone in London, with not many friends, but revelling passionately in the freedom and opportunities for finding out what I liked to do and who I wanted to be. I spent a lot of time in and around Bloomsbury, as I was reading for my PhD at University College London, so I know the ‘Tansley Street’ and Euston areas well. All her midnight wanderings and long walks, and her dingy rooms and uncongenial neighbours: been there, done that too.
I found Richardson’s feminism less strident than you. I was very aware (because I’m a book historian) that DR was writing these novels as historical accounts, and so although Miriam was discovering feminism, and suffragism, for DR these issues were old hat when the novels they appeared in were published. (Some) women received the vote in 1919, when only the second or third novel was published, so when Amabel was in prison for militant suffragism, the first readers of that episode were in the 1930s, and about to receive full suffrage for all women. But at the same time, these novels were probably among the first historical accounts of the very recent advances in feminist history (as opposed to the suffrage fiction published at the time of the Suffrage campaigns), so they were powerful even for their first readers.
I didn’t have the Readers’ Guide (until you lent it to me much later), so I wasn’t able to check things as I read. Though I did do some research online to sort out Richardson’s connection to H G Wells. It was obvious when Hypo Wilson appeared that he was Wells: such an opinionated, obnoxious little man. (Though I enjoy his fiction greatly, had I ever met him I would have slapped him for his condescending philandering and preying on young women.) I was content to absorb the novels’ characters and settings as probably based on Richardson’s own life, but it wasn’t important for me to find out the ‘real’ source, because these are novels, not autobiography. I was determined to read them as fiction.
Which produces my question: did you read these novels as conventional, linear realist fiction, in which a plot and characters are constructed and arranged to produce what we in the trade call ‘rising and falling action’, ie a simulation of tragedy, or any other kind of story, that is tidily contained within the novel’s beginning and end? Or were you able to read the texts more impressionistically, to follow her ‘stream of consciousness’ experiment? (Thank you, May Sinclair, for that genius descriptive term.) I ask because I don’t think many of the Pilgrimage novels are a success as a pure stream of consciousness, as with (the inevitable) Mrs Dalloway, or as a slice of unplotted, no beginning-and-end life, as in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them.
BB: I didn’t read Pilgrimage as conventional linear fiction, or at least that wasn’t the way I perceived the novels. To me, the story is far less about what happens to Miriam than about how her understanding of herself develops. Richardson clearly found herself by far the most fascinating character in her own story, which is probably one reason why Miriam isn’t fiction’s most likeable character.
I’d have to agree with you that Pilgrimage isn’t purely a stream of consciousness narrative. It’s really more of a hybrid, a mix of two different generations of fiction, if you will. Don’t forget that the writer who most influenced Richardson was Henry James (remember Miriam’s reverie over The Ambassadors in the early part of The Trap?). So throughout the books, the style shifts back and forth from interior monologue to closely (at times microscopically) observed social intercourse: Richardson puts us inside Miriam’s head, then sets aside and recounts the scene from the perspective of a detached observer. Not an omniscient observer–at least I don’t recall that she ever tries to get inside the thoughts of any other character.
When I described Richardson’s feminism as strident, I wasn’t referring to feminism as a movement in any political sense, so perhaps my use of the word was incorrect. What I meant was that Richardson is emphatically of the view that men are relatively unthinking, unobservant, and unperceptive lunks who have done a pretty poor job of organizing and running the world. Now, having raised two sons and one daughter, I’ll admit that there’s some truth to that, but as Pilgrimage progresses, you’ll find statements to that effect being made over and over, to the point that it does get somewhat tiresome.
What never got old for me were the wonderful passages about life in London, the life in the streets and the cafes, the light on the rooftops, the bustle of crowds on the sidewalks, the shop windows and omnibuses. You could say that Miriam’s most passionate relationship is with the city itself–I think she says something to that effect in one of the later books (Dawn’s Left Hand?). All the lyrical passages about London collected together would add up to a work of a hundred pages or more, and they certainly had the effect for me of leavening what might easily have become a monotonous string of long stays inside Miriam’s head. I love visiting and walking through the streets of London, and it was a pleasure to imagine Regent Street, Oxford Street, and Bloomsbury from a hundred years ago as channeled through Richardson’s prose.
This leads me, though, to a question I told you I wanted to discuss – namely, how should Pilgrimage be approached, if there is any hope for it to regain a place of greater recognition among the literature of its time? Even when the authoritative edition emerges over the course of the next decade or so, most readers won’t be willing to take on the task of reading through all 13 novels. The easy answer is to say, read Pointed Roofs and keep going if you feel like it. It’s not the book I’d choose as an introduction, though. My vote would probably be for The Tunnel. But as one who teaches literature as a profession, how would you approach it? Or would you say that it doesn’t quite rate a spot on the syllabus? (There are plenty who’ve assessed Pilgrimage as an impressive but ultimately minor work.)
KM: The close-gripped focus on Miriam and her life, her perspective, her view of the world didn’t seem to get annoying for me, despite her personality being aggravating. I liked the consistency, and I liked trying to see past her point of view to think about how her behaviour might have seemed to others, like Mrs Philps or Dr Densley. The confusion I felt as she left each (what seemed to me to be) perfectly reasonable situation or relationship, again and again, was me putting myself in her situation (so that’s a sign of good fiction-writing). I had to respond to that to ask why Miriam had taken each action, to ask myself questions about her character and motivations. By making the narrative so completely Miriam’s, DR was making the reader observe her more closely than we might have done if other perspectives had been available.
I’d forgotten the Henry James elements, and I agree. I don’t particularly like reading James, so perhaps the more Jamesian parts of Pilgrimage may be where I did a little skim-reading ….
I think DR does draw some fairly enlightened male characters: Dr Densley and Mr Hancock seem sensitive and considerate human beings, and Michael Shatov puts up with Miriam for way longer than I could have done. But the system (political, social, economic, educational) was entirely directed at and for men, so that’s what she was rightly railing against. And there was no sign of change, which would explain why the subject is returned to again and again in successive novels.
The London parts are wonderful for a Londoner! (Anyone who’s lived in London for a few years is a Londoner.) Even though the buildings and street patterns have changed after wars and demolition, what she writes about is still there.
How should Pilgrimage be approached for teaching? The Dorothy Richardson Project will be doing something about that now, since they have UK academic funding, and their website has finally been updated, and the Dorothy Richardson Editions and Letters will be published by Oxford University Press between now and 2020, so the basic resources will be there for students to use. Teaching it now is easy enough using e-editions (although I loathe them, students like them). I would start with Oberland as a standalone example of Richardson’s writing, and because the novel is relatively unconnected to any of the others, so won’t need extensive explanations and catch-up briefings. It’s also short, and about a very appealing, recognisable subject (Holiday! Learning to sledge in a long skirt! Flirting with new people!). Its attention to introspection and details is just as strong as in other novels, and the narrative voice works in the same way. If I were teaching a seminar on Richardson and other modernist authors, where we had to work on three or four novels for each author, I’d also use Backwater and Honeycomb as a pair, since they make a strong contrast, they show Miriam’s character in many different ways, they raise questions about women’s education and careers, about inhabiting spaces not one’s own, about resisting external pressures and corruption. Lots to talk about and get students working on in there. The Tunnel is VERY long, which is a negative (but did that ever stop Ulysses being taught?), but I can see lots of positives: an excellent ‘London’ novel (often teaching by theme is more interesting than teaching by chronology or by genre), very good for modernist style and the development of s-of-c; good for the sociology of the period (women in work, women sharing rooms, the boarding-house economy, illness and health). It also has the immortal (or, rather, not immortal, but still) Miss Dear, who is a parasitic monster the like of whom I have never encountered before.
I do think Pilgrimage should be on the syllabus, if only for students to know that it exists, and what it represents as a woman’s literary endeavour and as a monumental modernist work. The individual novels should be taught, because they (some more than others) are significant works of literature, and there are precious few woman modernist authors taught apart from the inevitable Virginia Woolf, whom Richardson predates.
My question now: I’ve often wondered whether London’s attraction as a setting in fiction of the past two centuries or so depends on its familiarity. If DR has set these novels in Birmingham, or Glasgow, or another large and successful British city, would they have the same appeal to those who don’t know the cities? I can’t quite work out where the Londonness of the novels comes from, and how important it is to Miriam’s story. The contrast of city versus the country and suburbs is very important, but why London?
BB: The release of Pilgrimage in authoritative editions from the OUP should go a long way toward restoring Richardson’s status in the academic community, and I can only hope that a certain amount of publicity in the press will accompany it. But I suspect many readers will still be put off at the prospect of scaling its massive rock face. Oberland is an interesting choice as a point of entry – as you remarked in an earlier email, it’s something of an anomaly within the overall context of Pilgrimage. I also thought it was the most Jamesian of the lot. (I’m not a great fan of James, either, but more because my life doesn’t offer sufficient time and energy to give his work the level of focus I think it demands – at least not at the moment.)
I am a great lover of novels set in big cities, but I’m not sure the actual choice of city always makes a difference. I loved John McIntyre’s Steps Going Down, for example, which is set in Philadelphia, but it could just as easily have been set in a dozen other US cities or in an entirely fictional one. Still, for some countries, there is one city in particular that is such a focal point that any other choice turns the novel into a regional work: London for the UK, Dublin for Ireland, Paris for France, Rome for Italy, Madrid for Spain, and, yes, New York City for the US.
In the case of Pilgrimage, London had to be the setting merely because Miriam’s story is so closely based on Richardson’s own. It certainly helps to make the series more accessible to a wider audience than if she had chosen, say, Glasgow or Manchester. London was where the Fabians were founded and thrived, where there was a strong current of foreign influences as one of the great global cities of its time and capitol of the Empire, and where a wide variety of cultural and religious activities could be found. If you think of a contemporary novel from her time set in a city outside London – one of Arnold Bennett’s for example – there is always a sense that whatever is going on, the really big, important things are happening in London.
I’m glad to hear that you would put Pilgrimage, at least in part, on the syllabus, particularly to broaden the coverage of women writers beyond Woolf. Woolf has come to dominate the place of women writers in the first half of the 20th century to a point that almost every one of her peers is unfairly ranked as second-class as a result. And, in some ways, I think Pilgrimage stands a better chance of finding sympathetic readers among female students, in particular, since her protagonist is an independent and working woman, which was such a rarity in literature of the time and yet such a commonplace of our world today. There aren’t a lot of Clarissa Dalloways walking around London today, but the tubes and buses are full of Miriam Hendersons.
One question you raised when we were considering this dialogue was: Do the novels in Pilgrimage bear any resemblance to other novels being published at the time? When Pointed Roofs came out, it was immediately remarked upon as a work of some novelty, but by the time Dimple Hill and the first four-volume editions came out (1938), a whole generation of modernistic literature, much of it considerably more experimental and challenging, had been published and read. We know from Richardson’s own correspondence that she was an active reader and kept up with much of what was being written. Do you sense that she was influenced in any way by the changes in literature? Or did she just stubbornly stick to the furrow she began plowing in 1915?
KM: I’ve been doing some research on women writers of this period, as it happens, so this is something I have data for. Contemporary and present-day critics interested in women’s writing of DR’s period write about these authors, as well as Woolf and Richardson: Rose Allatini, Edith Bagnold, Mrs Baillie-Reynolds, Stella Benson, Mary Borden, Phyllis Bottome, Lettice Cooper, Clemence Dane, E M Delafield, Ethel M Dell, Mary Fulton, Constance Holme, Winifred Holtby, Violet Hunt, Storm Jameson, Sheila Kaye-Smith, Margaret Kennedy, Rosamond Lehmann, Rose Macaulay, Viola Meynell, Hope Mirrlees, Eleanor Mordaunt, Baroness Orczy, Amber Reeves, Vita Sackville-West, Dorothy L Sayers, Ethel Sidgwick, May Sinclair, Cynthia Stockley, Rebecca West and E H Young. Obviously loads of male authors were active at this time too, but they are more easily looked up in the canonical sources. Of the women authors that I have read working in DR’s period, I’d say Mary Borden’s work was closer to DR’s in terms of the emerging technique of stream of consciousness, and Stella Benson’s in terms of writing about London as an experience rather than a setting. I think also that once DR had got Miriam going, she stayed with that style because it suited what she wanted to say and do. There are fluctuations, obviously: the novels as a single creative stream have ebbs and flows of more modernist, less modernist, more realist, more novelettish, even. The Jamesian moments are like quicksand.
Better critics than I have already spent a lot of time discussing DR, and I am not an expert by any means, I just know the period well. Kristin Bluemel, Gloria Fromm and George Thomson are the scholarly names to read, while waiting for the DR Project to get underway. [The November 2015 issue of Modernist Cultures has a couple of articles about Pilgrimage, which are free until the end of May (rush to the Edinburgh University Press journals website …)] The DR Project bibliography is also useful for further investigation.
My question for you: I’ve been thinking about how DR expected her reader to read these novels. They are unrelentingly personal, interior, single-perspective: there is no omniscient third-person narrator to give useful and helpful background details, nor is there a coherent cumulative list of dramatis personae. By the time of The Tunnel Miriam is no longer focused on her sisters, her mother is dead (which we have to infer), and her father simply disappears for several novels. Her perspective is written as tunnel vision, a beam of light on her world that doesn’t record anything that was happening elsewhere. This is a modernist technique, to get away from the conventional realist novel and only focus on what was important to one character. How did reading this technique feel to you? I know I was struggling between two ‘modes’ of reading, if you like: absorbing the single-directional Miriam-perspective as DR intended, but also querulously grumbling that I wanted to read the novels as if they were Victorian or Edwardian sagas; to know the continuing stories of Sarah, Eve, Harriett, the Philps family that we re-encounter in Interim, all the people that Miriam meets and rushes past, as if they’re leaves blown away in the wind of her high-speed velocity. DR makes no concession for that need the reader will feel, except for a few very late catch-up remarks much later in the sequence.
BB: I actually enjoyed DR’s ‘unrelentingly personal, interior, single-perspective’, perhaps because it seemed more “exterior” than other works based in an interior monologue. When Miriam sits by herself in her room and reflects, her window is open and she’s taking in the world outside, where the feeling from many other books using the technique is one of having to live inside the narrator’s head–with the windows shut, the door locked, and maybe even the lights out.
It’s absolutely true that what DR sacrificed in her pursuit of this one very focused objective was a huge amount of the context one would expect from a conventional novel. Contrast, for example, the family in Rebecca West’s series that started with The Fountain Overflows. Here the sisters all have lives, experiences, and come and go in a fairly predictable manner, so that at the end of the series the reader can, essentially, tot up the status of the original cast. Whereas in Pilgrimage – to take the most blatant example – the manner in which the suicide of Miriam’s mother is conveyed is so indirect and glancing that more than a few readers have finished Honeycomb without a clue to what actually happened.
Which is probably why the ending of the series, the last few pages of March Moonlight, do seem so out of keeping with the rest of the work. There is just enough tying up of loose threads that it comes off as more conventional than anything the reader has come to expect.
For me, there is something quite refreshing in DR’s willingness to let characters step away and disappear. It reminds me of the experience of watching Monty Python when the series first came on in the 1970s. When the Python crew found that a sketch wasn’t working, they simply cut to something else. This was so liberating after years of watching sketch comedy shows where the conventional form, which demanded an ending that provided some dramatic closure or a punch line, forced the actors and writers to carry on to some painfully awkward and unfunny endings.
It may have also been the right decision in terms of DR’s own ability as a writer. I honestly think she could be a better writer in sticking to her monomaniacal individualism than if she had tried to conform more closely to existing narrative conventions. I probably am somewhat biased in thinking that it takes a exceptional talent to create a work of striking originality while staying within the bounds of a conventional form, and that sometimes the abandonment of form helps a writer overcome her own limitations as much as it enables her artistic aims. I’m not sure DR’s work would be quite so memorable and distinctive if she had tried, say, to follow scrupulously the example of Henry James. Given a choice, I’d take any volume of Pilgrimage over one of H G Well’s conventional novels (Ann Veronica? The Passionate Friends?) – or even, for pure reading pleasure, one of James’.
But then I don’t really agree with the view, which Thomas Staley and some others have proposed, that each of the books in Pilgrimage should be viewed as a complete and independent novel outside of the context of the series. That might be the only way to introduce students to Richardson’s work, but I don’t think it does justice to her accomplishment. She truly committed her life to reinterpreting and transforming her own life through a continuous narrative centered on a fictional counterpart. Once she set out on this path, she really abandoned the possibility of other works. As long as she had the energy, she worked on Pilgrimage. The fact that it was incomplete when she died was, to me, inevitable. Could she really have set it aside and written a 200-page satirical novel? Or a play? Or a romance? I can’t fit any of those possibilities with what I’ve learned of Richardson’s life and character.
Which is why, in trying to reach my own summary assessment of Pilgrimage, I have to put it in something of a category of its own, or perhaps a category by In Search of Lost Time and possibly a few other works one could call ‘life-long narratives’. It is fiction, and it is, technically, a form of autobiography, but both labels are inexact fits. The term roman-fleuve, taken literally, might be more accurate, since the story flows on from book to book like a river–but, like a river, without precise borders between stages. It’s kind of like Michael Apted’s Up series of films, which are individual documentaries but so much more when seen as a series, as a whole bundle of ‘life-long narratives’. Few writers have the resources or take the opportunity to stick with a work over the course of decades, as Richardson did. And yes, the result is massive and intimidating and, at times, frustrating. But also immersive and illuminating and rewarding. So whatever label you choose to apply, I think you’d agree that Pilgrimage is a monumental accomplishment absolutely worthy of acclaim, endless study, and appreciation by anyone who loves remarkable writing.
KM: I agree completely that DR’s ‘interiority’ is completely about what Miriam is experiencing through her senses: it is not about her internal agonies. The world really matters to her, whereas in other modernist works the exterior world is occluded by the size of the narrator’s ego. I also agree that March Moonlight is a sad falling-off of quality and tone. It really does feel as if DR had forgotten how she produced the fierce focus of the earlier books: but it’s an unrevised draft, I think, not a final novel, and published after she died, so it wouldn’t be fair to judge her on that. However, its existence does suggest that DR could have written a competent realist novel in the conventional way, had she wanted to. Its a hybrid.
I do try to read Wells’ novels when I stumble across old editions: I’m about to start Marriage, which should be a hoot, considering his actions and views on the subject. His personality and convincement that he was right, suffuse his writing. Its not possible to know if the same happens with DR, because she didn’t make a living forcing her opinions on the world the way that Wells did: his novels are just extensions of his personality and his times, whereas hers are creative accomplishments of technique and perspective, far less bound to the period in which she was living. Perhaps that is what makes them feel so outside historical time, they simply aren’t concerned with the social environment of Miriam’s day, but with Miriam’s own growth.
DR’s willingness to allow characters to disappear and for scenes to end without conventional resolution is one of the most revolutionary techniques that she introduced. Narrative unity is abandoned completely, and it is so refreshing. She mimics real life perfectly in that respect, because the effect is a result of Miriam’s lack of knowledge about the future, she cannot know that X will reappear in two books’ time, or that she will never see Y again. Roman-fleuve seems about right to me.
And with that, the conversation ended, as we put Pilgrimage back on our respective shelves, and looked about us for something else to read. For my reviews of the volumes in Pilgrimage, see Pointed Roofs, 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.