Continuing this series of posts about successive volumes in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, here are volumes six and seven, Deadlock, and Revolving Lights. We’re at the halfway mark, and I have to say that this is now a trudge for me. It’s grim duty and a distant curiosity about what will happen next that keeps me going. And because Brad is now waiting for me to read on to the end so we can have a conversation, so I have to do that, I can’t give up now.
Deadlock contains so much endless discussion between Miriam and the new lodger Michael, about philosophy, literature, Emerson’s essays: it is clear that he is extremely important in Miriam’s experience of London, and her life. Yet these conversations are exhausting because they lack the delight of verbal back-and-forth, and the scintillation of personal attachment that will make the dullest of conversations fascinating if they’re with the right person. We lack the emotional part of their dialogue that gives it life, no matter what Richardson does to tell us what Miriam thinks about this intriguing, earnest, effortful little man. Their relationship is based on endless talk, a passion of the intellect, since they do fall in love, quarrel, make up, and apparently agree to marry. Michael is anxious about his Jewishness, which Miriam doesn’t seem to be bothered by at all, though she is bothered by the thought of other people, like her sisters, objecting to Michael because of it. He offers to give up his Judaism, and she is horrified. She is also horrified at how Judaism treats women, which leads to pages of debate.
Marriage recurs. Miriam’s landlady Mrs Bailey is marry Mr Gunner, a much younger man who seems totally devoted to her, which shocks and repels Miriam, much as having to sit with Mrs Bailey in her room does, while the older woman recovers from a ‘turn’. This is enforced intimacy that Miriam has spent much time avoiding. Miriam visits Harriett and Gerald and her baby niece Elspeth at their house by the seaside which Harriett is now running as a boarding house, because she and Gerald have separated, but they cannot live apart because of the baby. Marriage is a misery here, and Miriam is in despair at the wreck of their lives which began so well, only three books ago.
Miriam is an intolerant and disappointed person, heedless when she could make life easier for herself with a little thought. Consequently she crashes through her life in an angry state of emotion and rage at injustice. She is severely disappointed by Eve’s dislike of her beloved London. There is a domineering fury in Miriam that refuses to allow people to be themselves, which is so strange compared to her live-and-let-live attitude of Interim. She tolerates a grubby, shabby life for herself as a lodger with partial drawing-room rights, never seeming to want to pull herself out of this rut, yet she attends philosophy lectures, and the opera with Michael, as if she’s searching for intellectual and aesthetic stimuli. Miriam could not care less for the worldly things of life, yet she resents Eve running a fancy goods shops in a seaside town, since it is as low-class as their family have sunk to yet. These confused feelings produce an impression that she is treading water, not sinking, but not progressing. This is the deadlock: she can’t go forward, nor can she go back.
Revolving Lights increases the experience of unreadability, since Richardson is paring down the events of Miriam’s life, and recording only impressions and fleeting scraps of dialogue. Miriam’s introspection about non-specific ideas and past ways of thinking are desperately uninteresting to read except as an experiment in stream of consciousness: the banal recall of interior vocalising.
Clutched from the torrent of impressions and references I can just about work out that despite having apparently (since very little is really clear, or definite) been given the sack by Mr Hancock in Deadlock, Miriam is still working at the Wimpole Street surgery, so she must have been reinstated. Unless Richardson decided to rewrite Miriam’s world and merely toyed with a fantasy of her being sacked to generate righteous indignation: who can tell? Mr Leighton is now married, and Miriam can now socialise with him and his circle without fear of scandal. Hypo Weston becomes important, and at this point I had to do my Richardson & H G Wells research to get it straight in my head what their relations were (intimate, as a judge might say). Weston is a self-important, smug literary critic and novelist, and thinks very well of himself. His long conversations with, or rather at, Miriam, make me want to slap him for his condescension. These might actually be comic passages: it’s hard to tell.
Miss Dear comes back into Miriam’s life, after somehow having allowed the hapless curate of an earlier volume to evade her clutches and not marry her after all. Now she is pregnant, penniless, still tubercular and conducts herself with as much relentless effrontery as before. After a week she is asked to leave Mrs Bailey’s boarding house because she’s been cadging money off other boarders. Yet she is a superb survivor, finding a new victim to marry, even if she has to leave the country to do so. In contrast, after Michael takes Miriam to see the Lintoffs, fellow Russian emigrés with whom Michael is animated and happy, and Miriam deeply bored, she breaks off their engagement. Why? Inertia? Does she want someone new to squabble with? There is a great deal of meaningless argument about Jews and Judaism in this volume (I can’t call it a novel: it has no plot, nor beginning or end), arising from Miriam’s fascination with their otherness and separateness, as well as the women question. In parallel with her aggressive enquiry about Jewish culture, Miriam attends a Quaker Meeting at St Martin’s Lane and is annoyed by extensive ministry from a man. What with Hypo Weston’s superior, condescending attitude, and her increasing fascination with her employer, I can put together an image of Miriam revolving like a stunned and furious victim between different people, thoroughly annoyed with the unsatisfactory choice she is being offered, unsure whether she wants to choose any of them. Hypo is dangerous and alluring, but married; Michael is too willing to give everything up for her; Mr Hancock has severely disapproving female cousins: are we finally back in a Victorian melodrama?
Towards the end of this volume Richardson produces a very unexpected cliff-hanger, consisting of an ultimatum, a letter on the hall table, and the prospect of entering a thrilling new literary milieu. Is it a trap? This is the title of the next volume, so perhaps Richardson was listening to her publisher and giving the readers of Revolving Lights something to buy the next volume for. Deadlock was not a recommendation.
For the other reviews of the volumes in Pilgrimage, see Pointed Roofs, Backwater and Honeycomb, The Tunnel and Interim, 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.