Honeycomb by Dorothy Richardson (1917)

Now that I am at the end of the first of the four volumes that collect Dorothy Richardson’s ‘Pilgrimage’ sequence of novels, it seems strange that I had ever feared that the ‘stream of consciousness’ of those thirteen novels would be difficult and that one woman’s consciousness would not be enough to fill all of those pages.

I have loved walking through life with Miriam Henderson, sharing in her perceptions and emotions, and appreciating that maturity and experience were helping her to form ideas and steadily grow as a woman in her world. And I have loved seeing Dorothy Richardson grow as a writer, honing her craft, and making each of the first three novels of this saga distinctive and yet still part of the same whole.

‘Honeycomb’ – the third of those three novels – felt to me like a three-volume Victorian novel re-worked, in miniature, for a new and very different age.

20160106_193046The first act opens as Miriam is travelling to take up a new position. She will be the governess to two young children in a country house. One of her sisters had been a governess and had warned Miriam that the life would not suit her, but she had taken no notice and she was happy to be travelling comfortably by coach as spring was coming.

The writing was lovely and there was just a hint of playfulness, maybe acknowledging the books that the younger Dorothy Richardson had read and enjoyed.

Miriam was at ease in the role of governess, and she appreciated the comforts that she had in the household of a wealthy family. She also appreciated being in a family home, missing school life not at all, though she found her position – in between the servants and the family, not belonging to either group – difficult at times, and some of her old awkwardness came back at times like that.

I appreciated how much, and how very naturally, she had grown up over the course of three novels.

She realised that while the women of the family were happy their roles, as wives and mothers, did not interest her at all.

The second act finds Miriam back at home as the  Henderson household prepared for the weddings of two of her sisters,  Harriett and Sarah. All of the family was caught up in preparations for a joint ceremony and was happy to be drawn in too. But while she is happy for her sisters, and happy to be sharing in their celebrations, she is reflective because she doubts that she will find the things that she hopes life has to offer in marriage, and she expects that her path will be more difficult.

The third act is devastating. Miriam’s mother struggled with her nerves and her health; and it fell to Miriam to accompany her mother on a holiday trip to the seaside. It didn’t help Mrs. Henderson, and it was heart-breaking to understand what was happening through the perceptions of a daughter who was much to far out of her depth to comprehend.

The novel ends with a deep and unexplained grief.

Dorothy Richardson’s handling of those passages is astonishingly good; there could only be one explanation, and she knew that it was something that Miriam could not acknowledge or express.

All of the writing is wonderful; Dorothy Richardson has  grown as a writer through the course of her first three novels, finding so many ways  to catch Miriam’s consciousness on the printed page, finding the right variations in tone and content to match her different experiences, and tracking the subtle ways in which Miriam changes and grows with those experiences.

I think I may much the same thing already, but I really am so taken with what Dorothy Richardson is doing in this series of books.

If you have an interest in women’s history, or an interest in the evolution of the novel form, then you really should read Dorothy Richardson.

I wish I hadn’t left her books on the shelf for so long, thinking that they would be difficult; they do require close, careful reading to appreciate everything that is there, but they reward that reading so very richly.

A great deal changed in this book for the Henderson family, and I think that there will be significant differences in the next book.

I’m ready to pick it up and start reading.

12 thoughts on “Honeycomb by Dorothy Richardson (1917)

  1. Lovely review, Jane. Yes, I think Richardson’s repututation or the terms ‘modernism’ or ‘stream of consciousness’ put people off – but they shouldn’t because these books are a joy to read.

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  2. I am a traveller companion in this journey, if you don’t mind, and I do enjoy your reviews (which you may and can think the truth as you know me enough to guess that I say loudly when I disapprove of a review or do not say anything at all -lol-)I shall reblog it, tweet it and post it on my FB page. My few readers have told me they were happy to have met you and to read your posts. Some have discovered Dorothy Richarson thanks to you.
    I was glad to read Kate Macdonald’s review this morning, but somehow it did not ring like you and your Richardson. Nice, but… So it is fine to get one of your reviews tonight (8 pm in France).
    I shall now long for the next! 🙂

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    1. Thank you. We all write in different ways and some voices are going to work for some people and some for others. I tend to write as ideas come to me, trying to be honest but kind about my feelings towards book and author. I’m so pleased that you’re enjoying the journey.

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  3. You have me totally persuaded Jane! I’ve also enjoyed reading Kaggsy and Sarah on Hard Book Habit’s reviews of Richardson & so I managed to pick up the first two volumes in a large second hand bookshop recently. I’m looking forward to getting started and its great to hear she gets better & better 🙂

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  4. “I wish I hadn’t left her books on the shelf for so long, thinking that they would be difficult; they do require close, careful reading to appreciate everything that is there, but they reward that reading so very richly.” — exactly my experience. I love your portrayal of the book as a three-volume novel in miniature. I can’t remember whether you’ve read the biographical novel – I was left confused by the ending, but am trusting in Richardson to make things clear.

    And the path itself is clear for me to start the next one now, as I’ve had sufficient space after my last Virago. Hooray!

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  5. Wonderful review Jane! I have this lined up for next week, and volume 2 arrived in the post this week ready for next month. I can’t wait. Discovering Dorothy Richardson has been the highlight of my year, and I’m so glad I have eleven novels to go of this exquisite series!

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