With nine volumes of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage down, and four to go, Dawn’s Left Hand is the one in which Miriam has sex with H G Wells. It’s an extraordinary episode, and if you’ve read H G Wells’ Ann Veronica, you’ll be fuming, because the setting is exactly the same as the attempted rape of Ann Veronica, a private upstairs room in a London restaurant, after the waiter has cleared away the dishes and left the couple with their dessert. Presumably there was a sofa or chaise longue in the room too, for the horizontal post-prandial exercise.
The events take place in 1906, and this novel was published in 1932, but even in the 1930s explicit sexual encounters could not be described in fiction. You have to read quite carefully to realise that if Weston has his clothes off, and Miriam is considering his bare body as he puts them on again, something like sex is very likely to have occurred. It doesn’t sound rapturous, and she is not in love with him: this is a chilly experiment of curiosity on her part (remarkable in itself, for this period), and he is delighted with yet another conquest of a young woman. In this or in a later novel someone describes Hypo Weston as a professional collector of virgins, which pretty much sums him up. Their sexual encounters are always on his instigation.
It is also not clear if they actually had sex on that occasion. There is much oblique discussion after the event as to where Miriam might go to have a baby, and Weston’s feelings about being a father. There is a memorable scene in the stalls at the opera when Miriam decides that this is the right time and place to tell her ex-fiancé Michael that she may be pregnant by another man. These modernists really knew how to extract the maximum drama out of a situation. Michael, to his great credit (assuming he and his reactions are based on a real person), leaps to the conclusion that only he can rescue Miriam and tells her that of course she must marry him now as soon as possible. Naturally she doesn’t, and we don’t hear anything more about the pregnancy. Perhaps it miscarries, as Richardson’s did in real life.
Instead, Miriam’s emotional energies are turned to Amabel, a well-off Frenchwoman who takes such a shine to Miriam that she moves into Tansley Street to be near her (Miriam has given up on Selina Holland and Flaxman Court), works as a maid when she can’t pay the rent, and generally gushes and dotes all over her. They have adjoining attic rooms, they spend all their waking hours together, breathing and sleeping and eating together. There is no eroticism in these encounters, but there is the fascination of a rabbit by a snake. Amabel is probably my least preferred character in the whole of Pilgrimage, outdoing even my loathing of Weston by her erratic and chaotic behaviour. Nothing she says can be relied on, and nothing she does is not egocentric.
Dawn’s Left Hand ends with a truly magnificent rejection by Miriam of Weston’s continued assumption that he is the most important person in her life. (I’m borrowing here from Samantha Ellis’s introduction to Amber Reeves’ 1914 novel A Lady and her Husband (Persephone, 2016), who says, caustically, that H G Wells could never understand that he wasn’t the most exciting thing in Reeves’ life.) After an evening out, Weston wants to walk Miriam home, presumably to add to his erotic tally by not only having sex with her in his wife’s house, but to also have illicit sex with her in her own rented room, like a tomcat marking his territory. Miriam allows him to walk her in the general direction of where she lives (even though he can send her letters, he doesn’t seem to know where the street is: this seems odd). When he is determined to actually see her to her door, she leads him astray by walking him long past Bloomsbury, and then leaves him in the middle of the street and walks away briskly into the darkness where he can’t follow. It’s a powerful gesture, as her rejection of his proprietorship, and the affair.
Clear Horizon, published four years later in 1935, is the volume in which everything is ironed out and cleared up. (I had a chortle when finding, checking some facts online, that a Norfolk boat hire company called Richardson’s Holidays owns a boat called the Clear Horizon. I wonder if they know?) Miriam’s way is free now, because Amabel detaches her emotional grip from her to focus on militant suffragism, and ends up, triumphantly, in prison. Richardson is not kind towards Amabel, depicting her as a self-dramatist who will go to any lengths to gain attention, and Miriam is relieved to be through her. She is not a character to warm to, but few of the Pilgrimage women are.
Dr Densley, still in love with Miriam, manages to arrange an emergency operation for her sister Sarah, and tells Miriam that she must go away for rest for six months. He seems to specialise in medicine for dying women, and would be a good husband and a strong man to lean on, but this is not what Miriam wants. She does not want to be the good wife of the good doctor, making a background for his work, and appearing at his side as the doctor’s wife, never as herself. So she begins to be herself: this is the novel in which Richardson begins to use ‘she’ and ‘I’ in the same sentences that Miriam speaks and narrates, blending the focalisation into a blurred mass of introspection. It’s not difficult to read, but it’s confusing; we don’t know who is speaking. It doesn’t matter. Michael finds Miriam a farm in Cornwall to go to for her six months of rest and writing. The countryside beckons.
For the other reviews of the volumes in Pilgrimage, see Pointed Roofs, Backwater and Honeycomb, The Tunnel and Interim, Deadlock and Revolving Lights, The Trap and Oberland, and Dimple Hill and March Moonlight, and see also my conversation with Brad Bigelow of The Neglected Books page.