After the long trudge through the last four novels in Pilgrimage, Dorothy Richardson’s The Trap, and Oberland, are a surprising contrast. They’re short, they’re full of recognisable and traceable incident, they have drama rather than meandering conversations, and Miriam learns to sledge.
The main reason for this difference in tone and mood is that The Trap was published twelve years after Revolving Lights. A lot can happen to a writer in that time, and to her conception of this epic project, as well how Richardson got herself back into Miriam’s skin and mind. Another reason for the shift in focus in The Trap is that Miriam has moved house. The novel opens with her getting her possessions into a shared set of rooms that she has set up home in with Miss Selina Holland, a comparative stranger who is also poor and unable to live comfortably alone on what she earns. By pooling resources these idealistic women intend to share a harmonious feminine existence of independence. On learning that this shared existence means literally sharing a bedroom, albeit divided by a curtain, my heart sank. This will not end well.
They don’t have a decent room in which to entertain visitors, since neither has the energy, skills or inclination to decorate or clean properly. So they use a nearby women’s club for entertaining. This is one of the reasons I wanted to read Pilgrimage, since I read an extract from The Trap some years ago, and loved the idea of a women’s club in London, at this time in history. Its descriptions are golden, suffused with the happiness, ease and comfort that Miriam feels as a member. She hosts a dinner party there, which, as a contrast to her Tansley Street life, is like Virginia Woolf’s descriptions of the different college dinners in A Room of One’s Own (1929). Tansley Street food is like that served in the women’s college dining-room: meagre, economical, not tasty and certainly not pleasant, while the women’s club meal is like that offered to Woolf in the men’s college: ample, expansive, conducive to long conversations and confident that there will be more of the same tomorrow. The women’s club represents security and a regular income, which the rented rooms do not, so to escape from domestic discomfort to a space where someone else does the cooking an cleaning well, is bliss. It also suggests that Miriam can afford club ownership, choosing to spend her income on that rather than a higher rent for a home of her own. Strange street noises come from odd people living in the courtyard and downstairs, but Miriam’s chief pleasure is marvelling at the sight of W B Yeats. The unpseudonymous poet has inexplicably got a walk-on part in this and a later novel, with only one line. His presence reinforces Miriam’s emotional relationship with London, a magical place of transformation and possibility, where you can live next door to a poet as a matter of course.
As part of this new social circle Miriam has a new social life. She is being courted by Dr Densley, the same hard-working general practitioner whom she called up at midnight to prescribe for the destitute Miss Dear, some books ago. Miriam now being in his social orbit gestures at the life she must be living that doesn’t make it into the novel. Her emotional responses are more important to her than anything he says or does, but she is undecided. She goes home quite sure that he wants to marry her, and finds a letter on the hall table from another man, with an even more radical proposition. Marriage, it would seem, is the trap. Curtain, and applause.
I found this novel so much easier to read, and reassuringly conventional in its willingness to give names, connections, relationships, facts and dramatic events. This could be a simple contrast with the hard labour of the past four novels, or the relative shortness of The Trap, but I think that most of the difference comes from Miriam’s greater happiness and ease in herself. She is confident, perfectly sure she will find solutions for any problem that crops up, and this is a great relief. There is much less anger, much less aggression, thought she is by no means a subdued or subordinated woman. She retains the power of choice, and we are agog to read what she will do when she had read the letter.
Keeping us dangling, Oberland takes Miriam off on holiday to Switzerland. Dr Densley has sent her there (though she pays her own way), because she has been overworking and under-eating, and needs a rest. Miriam is quite surprised that she can in fact afford a holiday, in money as well as time, and cheerfully sets off on the overnight boat-train from Waterloo. She observes winter sports, skiing, ski-jumping, toboggans and sledges, and is invigorated by clear air, crisp temperatures and new faces in her boarding house. Was anything written like this on winter sports and tourism before?
This interlude in Miriam’s life separates her from the demands of her friends and family. The tendrils of social and emotional obligations wither and die in the cold air, and she ignores them happily. She has rejected Dr Densley, and is making us wait for her decision on what to do about that letter. Instead Miriam is enjoying the company of Mr Vereker and Signor Guerini without embarrassment, for why should she have any? No-one knows her here. Or do they?
For the other reviews of the volumes in Pilgrimage, see Pointed Roofs, Backwater and Honeycomb, The Tunnel and Interim, Deadlock and Revolving Lights, 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.