The fourth book of Dorothy Richardson’s ‘Pilgrimage’ gas pulled me from the first to the second of my four green Virago omnibus editions, and to starting anew at this place felt right, because there has been a sea change in the life of Miriam Henderson. After three live-in teaching positions, where she always considered home to be her family home, she has established a home of her own, in a room in a house in Bloomsbury.
A room of her own:
“She closed the door and stood just inside it looking at the room. It was smaller than her memory of it. When she had stood in the middle of the floor with Mrs Bailey, she had looked at nothing but Mrs Bailey, waiting for the moment to ask about the rent. Coming upstairs she had felt the room was hers and barely glanced at it when Mrs Bailey opened the door. From the moment of waiting on the stone steps outside the front door, everything had opened to the movement of her impulse. She was surprised now at her familiarity with the details of the room . . . that idea of visiting places in dreams. It was something more than that . . . all the real part of your life has a real dream in it; some of the real dream part of you coming true. You know in advance when you are really following your life. These things are familiar because reality is here.”
She is earning her living by working in a dentist surgery, in a job that seems to bring together the roles of receptionist, bookkeeper and dental nurse. She finds her workload difficult to manage; and it is clear that she is the kind of person who worries that she has failed if she hasn’t completed every single task perfectly; but she enjoys playing her part, she takes a pride in her successes and she appreciates having a place in the team.
The scenes where Miriam is at work are particularly vividly drawn. I was caught up in every moment with Miriam; but I have to say that I am so glad that dentistry has moved on since then.
I can’t say exactly when ‘then’ was, because Miriam’s thoughts and thoughts and perceptions were all I had to guide me through this book; but I can say, because I know Dorothy Richardson’s dates and because I knew some of the books that Miriam was reading – one of which was published in 1899 – that this story must have been set in or a little after that year.
(I was delighted that Miriam loved ‘Red Pottage’ as I loved it too, and it was the book that I had to finish before I returned to her story a month or two ago.)
That makes her choice to live alone as a single woman and to earn her own living quire remarkable.
Reading Dorothy Richardson requires the ability to notice small things and to accept that there are some things that you many never know. I spotted a reference to Miriam’s employment having been found by a family friend, but how she found her lodgings, how she came to know her friends, I don’t know.
But to complain about that would be missing the point. This is the story of Miriam’s journey, filtered through her consciousness, and the best way to appreciate it is to stay in the moment with her. And there is so very much to appreciate.
Miriam was captivated by London.
“Strolling home towards midnight along the narrow pave-ment of Endsleigh Gardens Miriam felt as fresh and un-troubled as if it were early morning. When she had got out of her Hammersmith omnibus into the Tottenham Court Road she had found that the street had lost its first terrifying impression and had become part of her home. It was the borderland of the part of London she had found for herself; the part where she was going to live, in freedom, hidden, on her pound a week. It was all she wanted. That was why she was young and glad ; that was why fatigue had gone out of her life. There was nothing in the world that could come nearer to her than the curious half twilight half moonlight effect of lamplit Endsleigh Gardens opening out of Gower Place ; its huge high trees, their sharp shadows on the little pavement running by the side of the railings, the neighbouring gloom of the Euston Road dimly lit by lamps standing high in the middle of the roadway at long intervals, the great high quiet porched houses, black and still, the shadow mass of St. Pancras church, the great dark open space in front of the church, a shadowy figure-haunted darkness with the vague stream of the Euston Road running to one side of it and the corridor of Woburn Place opening on the other. The harsh voice of an invisible woman sounded out from it as she turned off into her own street. …” Dressed up — he was — to the bloody death.” . . . The words echoed about her as she strolled down the street controlling her impulse to flinch and hurry. The woman was there, there and real and that was what she had said.Resentment was lurking about the street. The woman’s harsh voice seemed close. Miriam pictured her glaring eyes. There was no pretence about her. She felt what she said. She belonged to the darkness about St. Pancras church . . . people had been garrotted in that part of the Euston Road not so very long ago. . . . Tansley Street was a soft grey gloaming after the darkness. When she rattled her key into the keyhole of number seven she felt that her day was beginning. It would be perpetually beginning now. Nights and days were all one day; all hers, unlimited.”
She spends time with other women who have rooms in the same house as her; she visits her sister Harriett, who is happily settled as a wife and mother to be, and her sister Eve whose situation is less happy; she attends lectures with a work colleague; and books and music continue to illuminate her life.
She even learns to ride a bicycle, and, after an awkward start, she relishes the freedom that gives her.
It was difficult to form a clear picture of the whole of Miriam’s life, but I saw the arc of the story clearly: that in her room and out in the world Miriam was establishing a life if her own.
She made contact with an old school friend and was invited to stay with her and her writer husband in the country. Miriam felt a little out of her depth when she met their literary friends, but she was fascinated by them and she realised that she wanted to be part of their world. On the train home she remembered things that had been said that she wanted to remember that she wanted to use to impress her friends – that reminded me of the Miriam of the earlier books who had been uncomfortable in social situations, and of how far she had come – and she thought much on things that her friend’s husband had said.
“Gazing out at the exciting silent pines — so dark and still, waiting, not knowing about the wonders of English — Miriam recalled her impressions of those of the authors she knew. It was true that those were their effects and the great differences between them. How did he come to know all about it and to put it into words? Did the authors know when they did it? She passionately hoped not. If they did, it was a trick and spoilt books. Rows and rows of ” fine ” books ; nothing but men sitting in studies doing something cleverly, being very important, ” men of letters ” ; and looking out for approbation. If writing meant that, it was not worth doing. English a great flexible language ; more than any other in the world. But German was the same? Only the inflections filled the sentences up with bits. English was flexible and beautiful. Funny. Foreigners did not think so. Many English people thought foreign literature the best. Perhaps Mr. Wilson did not know much foreign literature. But he wanted to ; or he would not have those translations of Ibsen and Bjornsen. German poetry marched and sang and did all sorts of things. Anyhow it was wonderful about English — but if books were written like that, sitting down and doing it cleverly and knowing just what you were doing and just how some-body else had done it, there was something wrong, some mannish cleverness that was only half right. To write books, knowing all about style would be to become like a man. Women who wrote books and learned these things would be absurd and would make men absurd. There was something wrong. It was in all those books upstairs. ” Good stuff ” was wrong, a clever trick, not worth doing. And yet everybody seemed to want to write.”
That there was so much reflection is telling I’m sure. There has been little reflection in the parts of ‘Pilgrimage’ that I have read so far and that disappoints me, particularly now that there has clearly been some upheaval in the Henderson family.
Miriam and Mr Wilson didn’t meet again in this book, but I am quite sure that they will in the next.
I found much to love in this book. There is a wealth of detail, I am still so taken with Miriam and with Dorothy Richardson’s writing; but I am finding the gaps in the narrative and the literary impressionism a little more difficult than I did in the earlier books of the series.
That might be because this is a longer book than those, or it might be the stage that Miriam has reached in life.
Time will tell ….