Backwater by Dorothy Richardson (1916)

This was my second step into the consciousness of Miriam Henderson, and the second of the thirteen volume series of novels that Dorothy Richardson titled ‘Pilgrimage’ after she found a new way of writing, a way of writing that simply captured that thoughts and perceptions of the woman whose life she portrayed.

The story opens a few months after Miriam returned from Germany to her home in London. Her happiness to be back there is tangible, but she must come to terms with the knowledge that the home and family that she knew is changing. One sister has left home to become a governess, another is newly engaged, and only the youngest of the four of them is still a child at home.

Miriam knows that she must find a new position. She didn’t want to go but she knew that she must.

20160106_193046She  is employed at a small school for girls run by the Misses Perne. They are delighted to have her, she is more than capable of doing what is asked of her, but she isn’t happy. Her second teaching position has her feeling that is unsuited to the role and the environment. She couldn’t cope with the restrictions and confines, or with the expectation that she would promote a faith the she could not accept for herself.

But she doesn’t know what else she might want to be.

That was understandable. She lived in Victorian England, in the age of the ‘new woman’; her only training came in the schools were she taught; and that she needed to work at all was because her father’s business had failed; it wasn’t what she and her sisters had been raised to expect.

Miriam’s life at school in term time is set against her life at home in the holidays. That life is what most middle class young women would have experienced. She goes to parties and dances. She spends some time at the seaside. She crosses paths with eligible young men.

She doesn’t find that entirely easy either. Because Miriam has yet to learn self-awareness. She often fails to appreciate how her words and her actions will be interpreted by others, and she missed cues and social signals. Her intentions were good, but she could appear to be gauche and thoughtless.

Miriam had a coping strategy: she had a secret passion for sensational novels. She devoured books by Charlotte Yonge, Rhoda Broughton and, most of all, Ouida.

That was a link with Miriam that I hadn’t expected to find! But I had expected to find Dorothy Richardson difficult and, two books in, I am not finding her difficult at all.

I do have to say though that she rewards slow, careful and thoughtful reading.

Miriam had led a very sheltered life, but she was slowly learning how to deal with the world. She was aware though that she was out of step with her contemporaries; she had ideals, she had ambitions, but she had no idea yet where she wanted to go or what she wanted to do.

I know a little more that she does, because I know that this is an autobiographical work, and because I know a little of how Dorothy Richardson’s story plays out. I’m eager to move forward through the other volumes of Pilgrimage, but I know that I have to move slowly and appreciate each stage of Miriam’s life.

1341051577The writing is much to good to resist. There was no narrator, but Miriam’s inner world, her thoughts and her perceptions were captured so perfectly and purely that I felt that I completely understood how it felt to be her.

It’s such clever writing, it’s clear that Dorothy Richardson was far ahead of her peers, and I am so sorry that she was somehow over-shadowed when others caught up with her.

One consequence of the was she wrote was that picture of the world around Miriam was sometimes less that clear. Because I was with her in the present but I hadn’t been with her for all of her past, and because I could only learn things as she did. It is so tempting to look up the facts of Dorothy Richardson’s life, to order one of the biographies that I know my library has tucked away, but I am going to resist, because I know sharing in Miriam’s  world will be much more rewarding without the weight of knowledge.

I have noticed that she has formed no close relationships with people outside her family circle; I hope it won’t be too long before she does, for her own sake and because I think that when she does her story will be enriched.

This book – like the first – ends with Miriam deciding that she must make a change.

And that leaves me eager to move on to the next volume of her story, and then the next ….

16 thoughts on “Backwater by Dorothy Richardson (1916)

  1. The story sounds wonderful, but I also love the idea of a 13 book series, following a character or characters through so much, and presumably so many years.


    1. I understand that the books cover a decade or so, and that the end comes when she begins writing. She wanted to write more but her health failed before she could address that problem of writing an autobiographical novel about writing an autobiographical novel … and so on an infinitum …


  2. Great review Jane. I don’t think I picked up on Miriam’s bad interpersonal skills when I first read the books, but she really does find it hard to pick up the subtleties of those around her. Very much looking forward to the next one!


    1. I suspect I would have missed that when I was younger, having that in common with Miriam. I’ve just picked up the next one and I am particularly taken with the opening. I sense that Richardson is more comfortable with what she is doing, and I see signs that Miriam is evolving.

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  3. I’ve just finished ‘Pointed Roofs’ and am so glad I discovered such a wonderful author! I really enjoyed the style of writing, the access to Miriam’s inner thoughts and feelings. There’s an agonising sense of isolation at times, but that’s balanced by sudden bursts of defiant resilience. I’m so glad there are another 12 books in the series to enjoy.


  4. I’m still looking for these in the local charity shops. There was a time when you would find multiple copies in every one you went into but just when I want them they seem to have flown off the shelves. Oh well, such is life.


  5. I’m so enjoying reading these, and reading them alongside you and Karen is the icing on the cake. I think I’m going to avoid reading the biog until I’ve read the series, then I can see her life unfold without knowing what’s to come. Can’t wait to start the next one!


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