This is the end of Pilgrimage, and for the first time I understand why Richardson named this sequence after a religious journey of self-examination and hope. I don’t understand the worship part, but I completely understand the point of her writing this journey, begun in wartime to say that all experience matters, and the future is something to walk towards in hope and faith.
Volume 12, Dimple Hill, is full of faith. It was published in 1938, and – probably not intentionally – reads very like a Cold Comfort Farm (1932) set in Cornwall. It has rural settings, a farming household based on faith (Quaker, not Amos’s hellfire performance), the erotic appeal of a man who works the land (though Richard Roscorla is no Seth Starkadder), and the malignant power of the family matriarch in her dim, dark room. It would be funny, but Miriam doesn’t do humour. (Why have I only just noticed this?)
The tone of Dimple Hill is different from those of the preceding volumes, probably because it is not a city novel, but set in the countryside where Miriam can share the manual labour (rather glamorised) of pruning and picking fruit. She falls in love with Richard, and expresses this so joyfully that this too adds to the feeling of a great difference in her life. She is close friends with Rachel Mary, and friendly with Alfred, the third Roscorla sibling, but the mother dislikes her. Mrs Roscorla’s monumental resistance to Miriam’s entrance into the household is played out when Miriam apparently flirts with a male visitor, and is told later, embarrassed, that he’s already spoken for. It seems clear enough that Miriam couldn’t care less, and that her ‘flirting’ is nothing more than the close attention to a conversation that she would have with her London friends. This is not how the serious Roscorlas conduct themselves. Town mouse, city mouse, anyone? Richardson instead makes great play with Miriam’s memory of having said, lightly, that money shouldn’t be saved, which she thinks is the ostensible reason for the Roscorlas asking her to leave. It’s a bizarre episode, played out in hints and oblique remarks, compounded by Richard’s evident refusal to obey his mother. He arrives in Miriam’s sitting-room one evening after the farm work is done for the night, where she is writing, and silently watches her working. It’s an episode of cross-purposes: she is waiting with interest for him to do or say something, and he is incapable of doing any more than simply stand in silence. So Miriam leaves: the Cold Comfort Farm inarticulacy is really too much. Instead, she attends the marriage of Amabel and Michael (which she arranged, in true Flora Poste style).
The remarkable aspect of Dimple Hill is its focus on Quakerism and the daily lives of Friends in the 1910s. I don’t think any novel of this period has been written about Quakers in quite such detail before, and Miriam’s flirtation with becoming a Friend (more serious than any flirtation with a man) is a considered meditation on being a Quaker in the twentieth century, a modern way of living rather than the historical throwback they might seem.
In March Moonlight, the final volume, I have to ask, where is Miriam’s home now? Where are her dreams of settling down to write? Everything in her life is up in the air, and Miriam herself seems dangerously close to turning into a Miss Dear, peripatetic, rootless, constantly burning her boats and keeping nothing in reserve. This volume was collated from unfinished sections after Richardson’s death, and is an incomplete patchwork of what she intended for this volume. It took far longer to write, and covers much more time than any of the earlier volumes, and feels erratic and sketchy. The sudden rush of two new possible suitors for Miriam is explained by the events taking place over three years rather than the usual few months, but the effect is confusing: how can she feel so deeply for two people in such a short book?
Miriam is also partly homeless, which is very unsettling. She visits Switzerland but also lodges in the YWCA. She visits Amabel and Richard and they’re not happy, until they have a baby son and suddenly everything is fine again. She befriends Olga, who later commits suicide in Paris, sending Miriam a postcard to let her know. She returns to the Roscorlas and meets Charles, a former monk. She tells him of her past affair with Weston, which does not go down well. Richard, too, gives her his final rejection. Oh dear. Such a catalogue of false starts and people who let Miriam down by not living up to her ideals of modern behaviour.
The trouble is, I cannot care any longer. The impetus and interest in reading Miriam’s life has slowed to a halt. Richardson’s compression of the last events of the recorded life loses the sense of life passing by in a smooth stream of constant time that was the dominant characteristic of the earlier volumes. This volume is made up of broken pieces, put together carefully, but they are as incomplete as a reconstructed pot dug up from archaeological wreckage. Reading March Moonlight is for completists only, I think. The Pilgrimage is over.