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.
The 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.