When I started to read this, the sixth of the thirteen volume series of novels that Dorothy Richardson titled ‘Pilgrimage’, I thought that little had changed in the life of Miriam Henderson, and that this might be the point at which I ran out of things to say.
I was both right and wrong.
In many ways this book is the same as the books before it, catching Miriam’s life in London, catching her relationships with the people around her, and focusing on certain experiences that shape her thinking. But, because her life is evolving, her thinking is evolving, there is just enough difference to keep things interesting.
And the writing is still lovely.
The opening finds Miriam still comfortably settled in Mrs Bailey’s boarding house.
“Miriam ran upstairs narrowly ahead of her thoughts. In the small enclosure of her room they surged about her, gathering power from the familiar objects silently waiting to share her astounded contemplation of the fresh material. She swept joyfully about the room ducking and doubling to avoid arrest until she should have discovered some engrossing occupation. But in the instant’s pause at each eagerly opened drawer and cupboard, her mind threw up images. It was useless. There was no escape up here. Pelted from within’ and without, she paused in laughter with clasped restraining hands the rest of the evening must be spent with people . . .”
Her situation is the same but I came to realize that something intangible had changed; she had passed through that undefined, unnamed point in life when you cease to a newcomer to grown-up living and simply become one of the grown-ups.
I saw that in her life and home and in her life at work.
And, because she was the same Miriam I met in the first volume of Pilgrimage -she was sensitive, she cared, but she lacked emotional understanding – she had a few ups and downs.
Her sisters were both in a seaside town; where Eve had been encouraged to open a shop, and Harriett and her husband had followed to run a boarding house. When Miriam visited she found it hard to understand why Eve was happy with what she saw as so little or why Harriett was staying in a less that happy marriage for the sake of her child.
She was bored with her job, and she resented that it took so much time away from the things she really wanted to do. When she spoke out about a book she was reading – a book on the inequities of employment – she was shocked to be dismissed. It really didn’t occur to her that anyone might think she was talking about her own situation and take offence.
But they were not at the centre of this book, because there was a significant development in Miriam’s life.
Mrs. Bailey had a new lodger, a Russian Jew named Michael Shatov, and Miriam, who was known to be bookish, was asked to help him improve his English. This possibility engaged her in a way that her work never could, and they became friends immediately; happily discussing literature, politics, philosophy and many of the issues of the day.
Their conversations about Russian literature were fascinating, and they pointed to a particular book that might have had a significant influence on the development of Dorothy Richardson’s writing.
” ‘There is in this book the self-history of Tolstoi. He is Lavin, and Kitty is the Countess Tolstoi. That is all most wonderful. When we see her in the early morning ; and the picture of this wedding. There is only Tolstoy for those marvellous touches. I shall show you.’
‘Why does he call it Anna Karenina ‘ asked Miriam anxiously.
‘Certainly. It is a most masterly study of a certain type of woman.’
The fascination of the book still flickered brightly; but far away, retreated into the lonely incommunicable distance of her mind. It seemed always to be useless and dangerous to talk about books. They were always about something else If she had not asked she would have read the book without finding out it was a masterly study of Anna. Why must a book be a masterly study of some single thing ? Everybody wisely raving about it …”
It felt significant that Miriam agreed to go out walking with Mr Shatov – in the last volume of her story she had been reluctant to walk with Mr Mendizabal – and it was. There relationship grew as they attended lectures, visited museums, and ate out together. Miriam blossomed and Mr Shatov became Michael.
That was lovely to watch.
Sadly though that wouldn’t last. Michael became Mr Shatov again, and by the end of this volume it became clear that he and Miriam might continue to be friends, but no more than that. Maybe because Miriam couldn’t accept his belief that a woman could be content as a wife and a mother. Maybe because she came to realise that Judaism encompassed a faith as well as a culture and a way of life. Or maybe there were other reasons .
Dorothy Richardson’s writing continued to be as opaque as it was beautiful.
There was a hint of something in Mr Shatov’s past. There was a passing mention that Miriam continued to visit her friend Alma and her writer husband, Hyppo Wilson. There was a reference to a cycling accident. Life went on, but this book was focused on a particular side of Miriam’s life.
This was the story of the meeting of two minds, and wide-ranging dialogues that followed.
In many ways I think this the most conventionally written of the Pilgrimage sequence of novels that I have read so far. There is a clear story arc, there are wonderfully vivid descriptions, and the conversations illuminate the characters so well. But there’s more that that, and I am aware that I have almost begun to take Dorothy Richardson’s way of writing take for granted; forgetting that other writers rarely shift perspective, tense, or style as naturally and as cleverly as she does; forgetting that she has taken care to remain with the consciousness of Miriam Henderson; forgetting just how innovative, just how modern she was ….
I am appreciating the threads that run through this sequence of books now.
I love the conviction that I can see underpinning those dialogues. And seeing how the world around me has changed in between reading this book and writing about it how I wish that more people were reading, thinking and talking as Miriam and Michael did.
I have to say as well that this book holds some of the loveliest and most distinctive passages of writing I have ever read. Many of them catch London and Miriam’s relationship with her home. One of them catches her first encounter with a new-fangled gramophone quite brilliantly.
Writing that catches life like that will stay with me.
At the end of the last book I was apprehensive that these books were becoming difficult; but at the end of this book that thought was gone.