I was aware of Dorothy Richardson for a long, long time without ever reading her work.
When I was very young and Virago Modern Classics were very new, I remember seeing ‘Pilgrimage’, her thirteen novel series, collected in four thick volumes that had covers that were similar but not quite the same. They looked like important works; the kind of books that I ought to read one day but maybe not quite yet.
Years later, I looked at those four big books again and I learned how very significant Dorothy Richardson had been. That she published the first complete work of stream-of-consciousness fiction, and from that first novel a whole series of autobiographical novels grew, speaking profoundly of the female experience.
It was May Sinclair, who had experimented with writing in a similar form, who described Dorothy Richardson’s style as ‘stream-of-consciousness’, and while I can’t say that it’s wrong I have to believe that there are better words.
To me the word ‘stream’ suggests a rush; and this isn’t a rush, it’s a life being lived. What Dorothy Richardson did in this book is place her readers in her principal character’s position, conveying exactly what she perceived and exactly what she felt. No more and no less
Virginia Woolf, who published her own first novel in the same year as Dorothy Richardson, explained that much more elegantly, praising Richardson for inventing “the psychological sentence of the feminine gender ….. is used to describe a woman’s mind ….”
I collected the four Virago volumes, and the first volume of Pilgrimage was sitting on my bedside table a year or two ago, when I went to hear Louisa Treger speak about Dorothy Richardson and about ‘The Lodger’, her first novel, inspired by the author’s life and writing. She spoke with such erudition and such love that I was inspired. And she reminded me that Dorothy Richardson wrote thirteen novels, not four volumes, and that I could – and maybe should -read them one novel at a time.
A single novel felt so much more approachable that a think omnibus edition; and now that I have read that first novel I have to say that I do hope that some day Pilgrimage will be published as it was written, in thirteen small volumes. Because, though I thought it would be difficult, it wasn’t; it was fascinating to be drawn in, to identify completely, with one woman.
“Miriam left the gaslit hall and went slowly upstairs. The March twilight lay upon the landings, but the staircase was almost dark. The top landing was quite dark and silent. There was no one about. It would be quiet in her room. She could sit by the fire and be quiet and think things over until Eve and Harriett came back with the parcels. She would have time to think about the journey and decide what she was going to say to the Fraulein.
Her new Saratoga trunk stood solid and gleaming in the firelight. To-morrow it would be taken away and she would be gone. The room would be altogether Harriett’s. It would never have its old look again. She evaded the thought and moved clumsily to the nearest window. The outline of the round bed and the shapes of the may-trees on either side of the bend of the drive were just visible. There was no escape for her thoughts in this direction. The sense of all she was leaving stirred uncontrollably as she stood looking down into the well-known garden.”
‘Pointed Roofs’, the first of these thirteen novels, opens as Miriam Henderson is leaving home for the first time. She is sensitive to the fact that she is the first to leave, that home life will carry on without her, but she knows that it is time for her to take her first steps out into the world. Because her family’s finances are strained – her mother is in poor health and her father’s business is struggling – she has accepted a job as an English teacher in Fräulein Pfaff’s finishing school in Hanover for German and English girls.
Because she has barely finished her own education, Miriam is concerned about how she will be able to teach, and how she will cope with the questions her students may ask. She finds though that she barely has to teach at all; she is simply expected to read and converse English with the German pupils, and accompanying them on outings and errands. That seems simple, but of course settling into a first job and learning to live with others is never straightforward. There is much in Miriam’s experiences that will strike a chord with anyone who has done those things. Her relief is tempered with disappointment, because she appreciate the very good education that she had received.
Miriam steps out into the world at a time when it was changing rapidly. Fräulein Pfaff, and many of her staff, have traditional views, and see decorum and the making of a good marriage as all important. Her students are a little more modern in their outlook, a little freer in their behaviour, but they still see marriage and motherhood as their future roles. Miriam is a little different. She is uncomfortable in their world; her interests and concerns are quite different from theirs, and so she frequently misunderstands who it going on and fails to pick up on many things that are unsaid; she does know that she is looking for something more from life.
The narrative style highlights all of this. It’s a little like the third person, but it isn’t quite that because it is composed entirely of Miriam’s perceptions. The prose moves quite naturally between her perceptions, her thoughts and her emotions. Her observations are clear and precise, but her thoughts are often more complex, and ellipsis are used to very good effect as she moves between different trains of thought and works through ideas and emotions. There are times when she finds resolutions, but there are also times when she can’t – or maybe won’t.
The story is a little episodic. There is time spent in the classroom, a musical evening, writing letters home on a Saturday, trips out, the school hair-wash, an unexpected chance to play the piano, a trip to the country, a thunderstorm in the night. That well works well with the prose style; each episode feels like a point in a life that might be remembered.
Because I only had Miriam’s perceptions to guide me it sometimes took time to understand what was happening, who all of the characters were, and there were some things that I never come to understand as well as I might have with a more traditional narrative. But coming to understand Miriam – a complex, sensitive, intelligent young woman, just a little ahead of her time – and sharing her world and her life was completely captivating.
I thought reading might be difficult but it wasn’t; and the prose was so lovely and so right that I feel clumsy as I try to write about it.
I was tempted to pick up the next book straight away, to find out where life takes her and how it changes her, but I resisted. I wanted to read ‘Pointed Roofs’ in its centenary year and I did, and now I want to read a book a month this year, to move steadily through Miriam’s life and to appreciate everything that her life and times have to offer.