When I started to read this, the fifth of the thirteen volume series of novels that Dorothy Richardson titled ‘Pilgrimage’, I found myself swept straight back into the consciousness of Miriam Henderson.
It seems that early in every book there will be a new home.
This new home was a happy home, the women there were comfortable in each others company. They talked about anything and everything, and as they celebrated Christmas together they happily recalled Christmases past.
“Did you have a Noah’s ark she asked smiling at the fire. Yes ; Florrie had one. Uncle George gave it to her. They began describing. Didn’t you love it ? broke in Miriam presently. Do you remember? She recalled the Noak’s ark as it had looked on the nursery floor, the offended stiffness of the rescued family, the look of the elephants and giraffes and the green and yellow grasshoppers and the red lady bird, all standing about alive amongst the little stiff bright green trees. We had a farm-yard too, pigs ; and ducks and geese and hens with feathers. We used to stand them all out together on the floor, and the grocer’s shop and all our dolls sitting round against the nursery wall. It used to make me perfectly happy. It would still. Everyone laughed. It would. It does only to think of it ….”
It took me a while to realise that Miriam was not in a new home of her own, that she was staying with friends for a while. There were small details that told me that, and when Miriam went out by herself to walk through the streets of London it became clear. It was clear that she was still walking alone through life.
“She wandered along the little roads turning and turning until she came to a broad open thoroughfare lined with high grey houses standing back behind colourless railed-in gardens. Trams jingled up and down the centre of the road bearing the names of unfamiliar parts of London. People were standing about on the terminal islands and getting in and out of the trams. She had come too far. Here was the wilderness, the undissembling soul of north London, its harsh unvarying all-embracing oblivion Innumerable impressions gathered on walks with the school- girls or in lonely wanderings ; the unveiled motives and feelings of people she had passed in the streets, the expression of noses and shoulders, the indefinable uniformity, of bearing and purpose and vision, crowded in on her, oppressing and darkening the crisp light air. She fought against them, rallying to the sense of the day. It was Christmas Day for them all. They were keeping Christmas in their homes, carrying it out into the streets, going about with parcels, greeting each other in their harsh ironic voices. Long ago she had passed out of their world for ever, carrying it forward, a wound in her consciousness unhealed.”
The writing was lovely and it caught such a range of emotions. Though she didn’t address the point herself, I realised that the lives that Miriam saw were the kind of lives that she and her sisters had been raised to live, that they would have lived had their father’s business not have failed, had their mother’s heath not broken down.
Miriam’s home is still in the same place, but it has changed. Her landlady has carried out her plan of changing from a lodging house to a boarding house, providing meals in a shared dining room and opening up other rooms of her house so that those who live there are much more in each others company. Miriam is both curious to see and know more of the people around her and anxious about dealing with this new situation.
She is used to being single and independent, but that makes her intriguing to the new boarders: the French Mr Bowdoin, the Spanish Mr Mendizabal, and three Canadian doctors who have come to London for the summer to study. She returns their interest, fascinated by their different and diverse backgrounds.
Miriam is unprepared for this. She has learned to do her job at the dental surgery, and now that she has had time to settle in it has become a routine; she continues to read avidly and she has learned much by regularly attending lectures; but she lacks experience of simply socialising in mixed company; it doesn’t help that she has no family around her, that she has no mother to guide her.
Though she had come such a long way there were still traces of the Miriam who didn’t quite know what to do in social situations, who couldn’t see what lay behind the things that people said and did; the Miriam I recalled from the earliest books in this series.
Her response to the sight of Mr Bowdoin’s room, when he held a musical soiree there, was amusing:
“This was Bohemia! She glanced about. It was the explanation of the room. But it was impossible to imagine Trilby’s milk-call sounding at the door It was Bohemia; the table and chairs were Bohemian. Perhaps a big room like this would be even cheaper than a garret in St. Pancras. The neighbourhood did not matter. A bohemian room could hold its own anywhere. No furniture but chairs and a table, saying when you brought people in, “I am a Bohemian,” and having no one but Bohemians for friends.”
She spends a good deal of time with Mr Mendizabal simply because he was expansive and she found him interesting. She was unsettled though when she wanted to go for a walk alone, when he insisted that he would accompany her and she didn’t know how to pull away. She didn’t understand how that would appear to others, and she was upset when the Canadian doctors left without saying goodbye.
She had been interested in Dr von Heber, and he had seem interested in her.
“Once more she was part of a novel; it was right, true like a book, for Dr. Heber to come in in defiance of everyone, bringing his studies into the public room in order to sit down quietly opposite this fair young English girl. He saw her apparently gravely studious and felt he could * pursue his own studies ‘ all the better for her presence. She began writing at random, assuming as far as possible the characteristics he was reading ‘into her appearance. If only it were true ; but there was not in the whole world the thing he thought he saw. Perhaps if he remained steadily like that in her life she could grow into some semblance of his steady reverent observation. He did not miss any movement or change of expression. Perhaps you need to be treated as an object of romantic veneration before you can become one. Perhaps in Canada there were old-fashioned women who were objects of romantic veneration all their lives, living all the time as if they were Maud or some other woman from Tennyson. It was glorious to have a real, simple homage coming from a man who was no simpleton, coming simple, strong and kindly from Canada to put you in a shrine….”
Her landlady, who probably only realised how naïve Miriam was when she saw her distress, took it upon herself to tactfully explain one or two things. That sent Miriam spiralling into a lovely but rather dense stream of consciousness that touched upon to many things: the passing of time, the changing of the seasons, the lesson of life, the inevitability of ageing ….
I wish that the book had ended there, but it went on a little longer, with Miriam being caught up in the troubles of a friend of a friend for a second time. That pulled the book out of shape, undermining what little structure there was.
I knew that Dorothy Richardson’s writing was impressionistic, I knew that there were gaps in the narrative, I knew that I had to accept that and live in the moment, appreciating how brilliantly Dorothy Richardson created Miriam’s consciousness on the printed page.
I did and I do, but I found that more difficult in this book. There were times, I thought, when she could have made things a little clearer for her reader without any diminution of what she wanted to achieve with her writing.
I am still finding much to love, but there have been times when I wondered of the author was making things difficult for her readers on purpose.
I still want to carry on though this series of books until I reach the end, but I am more apprehensive about the road ahead than I was.