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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
These are the second and third novels in Dorothy M Richardson’s Pilgrimage sequence, and, like the first – Pointed Roofs (1915) – they are as realist as one could hope for in a modernist novel. The narrative is straightforward, albeit entirely through the perspective of the narrative voice, Miriam Henderson, a girl from Barnes now marooned in a North London private school, and then in Newlands in (one supposes) Surrey, at the home of Mr Corrie the judge, and his under-occupied erratic wife, and their clever, rich, smart set. Miriam is still a teacher, as she was in Pointed Roofs. In Backwater she teaches in a basement and loathes the sisters who run the school, and North London itself. In Honeycomb she is a cossetted, pampered governess with very little to do. I found it hard to disentangle these novels except by their events. Compared with the later volumes (I’m currently struggling through Revolving Lights, vol 7), the first three volumes are almost Victorian for clarity, linearity and plot, so it’s probably safer to talk about them together, before the narrative hinges start shaking loose.
The only reliable way of recalling what happens in each volume is to keep a running list, and treat them like episodes of Friends: ‘The One Where Harriet and Gerald get married at the same time as Sarah and Bennett’, ‘The One Where Miriam Walks along the Cliffs with Mr Perrow’, ‘The One Where Miriam Loves the Toboggan Ride at the Crystal Palace Fireworks’ and so on. But this is to beg the question: are we supposed to read these novels as collections of interconnected and designed incidents, in which one will have a bearing on others, as part of a complete and rounded-off design? Or are they simply slices of Miriam’s life, in which one event or person has no more significance or inner resonance than another? Friends is an everlasting soap opera in which not much happens, but the way that the characters interact and grow is more important than its plots. Is Pilgrimage a soap opera? Miriam is central to the whole sequence, though her sisters and some friends and employers become less peripheral and more recurrent in each volume. There are no best friends or permanent secondary characters: even her sisters fall out of favour over time. Miriam’s passion for living alone in London as an independent person (in the 1890s, she’s absolutely a New Woman) propels my interest, because I too spent my twenties living and working alone in London in a succession of jobs and rented rooms, and I loved it passionately as well. But I hope very much that I was never as sour and intolerant and angry as Miriam (especially by vol 7) becomes.
In Backwater Miriam struggles against a miasma of clinging dependency emanating from her spinster employers. They repel her while they try to draw her in, and this cloying persuasion drives her to resign. She thinks the school unhealthy, the system unkind, the pupils largely taken advantage of and a waste of her time to teach, and she resents any encroachment on her personal time or space from her employers. Its North London setting is part of her horror, and I cannot say that this is persuasive. I’m prepared to accept that she hates her surroundings and loathes her job – think Villette – but the reason why is too deeply embedded in Miriam’s angry personality to rouse my empathy. The narrative is scrupulously honest, utterly realistic. There is no foregrounding, no hinting or colouring-in more intensely one incident over another, so each thing happens, and life goes on, and there is no way the reader will be able to anticipate drama in the offing. Each event has the same emotional power and immediacy, and exudes integrity. It is a remarkable work.
Where Backwater has integrity, Honeycomb reeks of guilt. In Backwater Miriam was working too hard and physically suffering. In Honeycomb she is lapped in unearned comfort, as the anxious but happy governess of two intelligent, lazy children who concede that they had better learn something to get the morning over with. There is an overwhelming sense of something dreadful about to happen, an awful fate in store for Miriam who is doing so little for so much. But this is brought about completely by a habituated expectation of a righteous plot of Victorian guilt and deserved punishment for not working hard and keeping one’s place. I have no idea if this theory would be accepted by Richardsonians, but it seems to be a game that the author plays on the reader, making them feel trouble coming due to one set of learned associations, but shows them something entirely different. Miriam’s life at Newlands is not corrupt, and she breaks no law and does not behave dishonourably (it matters very much to Miriam that she adheres to her private, rigid code of honour), but it is a life of unearned comfort and riches, and this has got to be paid for. She is bored, and picky, critical now as a matter of course, rather than the tolerant, friendly personality she seemed to have been in Pointed Roofs. Her creeping contempt for Mrs Corrie’s slack principles and lack of any occupation, diminishes Miriam’s spirit just as it reduces her enjoyment. Honeycomb ends abruptly, miserably, with very little explanation, when Miriam has taken her mother to the seaside, and the dreadful things that we have felt to be waiting arise and engulf them both.
Stepping back from the plot, I do wonder if these should also be characterised as historical novels. These first three were published, respectively, in 1915, 1916 and 1917, yet nothing of the First World War is felt in their content or mood. The passionate love Miriam feels for clean, orderly, musicianly German life in Pointed Roofs is remarkable considering it was published when anti-German feeling was being whipped up by the British tabloids. The feeling persists in Backwater and Honeycomb: the German school in Hannover is the standard which Miriam’s next teaching jobs failed to achieve. Germans are lovely people, Germany is beautiful, and so on. To achieve this much separation from the mood of the day by writing against popular sentiment and to hold true to an artistic truth is, again, remarkable. The novels are set in the 1890s, so they don’t quite reach the rule of thirty years between the novel’s setting and year of publication that normally distinguishes a historical novel from a contemporary one (an arbitrary rule invented by modern critics, I think), but they function as if they did. Does that make Pilgrimage a historical saga? I will have to keep reading to find out.