Deadlock by Dorothy Richardson (1921)

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.

20160106_193046Mrs. 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.

14 thoughts on “Deadlock by Dorothy Richardson (1921)

  1. I’ve been neglecting Dorothy Richardson of late – well, the turbulent times have left me too distracted to read much, but your wonderful review has reminded me what I’m missing out on, thank you!

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    1. I read this a few weeks ago, but I was distracted by Margaret Kennedy Day and then knocked sideways by what’s been happening. I had to pick up the threads again with this one because it occurred to me that if more people read, thought and discussed as Miriam did the world might be a better place.

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  2. I felt like you did about this one, relieved the series had become more readable and perhaps more accessible than the previous couple! I love your descriptions of it and the passages you have picked out. I’m actively looking forward to continuing it next month – if I can get my reading mojo back, that is, and read more than the very lightest froth …

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    1. I still have to read this month’s book, but my copy of Pilgrimage volume 3 has vanished into thin air for the moment. Otherwise books from the past and books in translation are calling now that I’ve picked myself up and am wishing there was more I could do to change the world.

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      1. Oh no, I wonder where it’s gone. In my multicultural city, I’m drawing solace from taking part in the Safety Pin campaign to show my fellow citizens I’m a safe person for them to be around. But I’ve yet to pick up my reading.

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  3. Wonderful review Jane – I think this is one of my favourite in the series so far. I am running a little behind with this month’s book and finding it more of a struggle. But Deadlock was indeed excellent. It’s hard to read more complex books when the world feels like it’s falling apart, isn’t it?

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    1. I think that the ‘three volume novel’ the was Honeycomb might be my favourite, but I found much to appreciate in this one. Books from the past and the wider world are what I need to draw me away from the very real present, but I do like the idea of getting back to Pilgrimage soon.

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  4. wonderful review Jane….I have a feeling I am going to like Richardson’s work, if I can only pluck up my courage and start…this one especially is very tempting…

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  5. I was interested by what you told of the book, but felt you left out what might be the meaning of the events. You say Miriam lacks emotional understanding but don’t say why you feel that. Why should people take offence at the subtext they glimpse that Miriam might be referring to her own life? you seem to accept that judgement. Is there no sense in Richardson that Tolstoy is presenting a skewed male point of view? Or do you not want to say this? If this were so, the talk about Tolstoy could be a defense of Miriam’s choices in life. She doesn’t want to be “that certain kind of woman” and for good reason — especially when she looks at her sisters.

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    1. It disappoints me that Miriam seems to think that there is one right way, and that she seems unable to negotiate or compromise. I love that she has high ideals, but I have learned that I have to deal with the realities of the world and the people around me and Miriam hasn’t. Eve has succeeded in the life she has chosen, and I’m sorry that Miriam couldn’t acknowledge that. Eve’s life wouldn’t suit her but it does suit Eve. I don’t doubt that she might feel differently and react differently if she was happier and I’ll be interested to see how things change as her journey towards becoming a writer progresses.

      What I took from the discussion about Tolstoy was that Miriam was interested that he was drawing on his own life for the book but concerned that he might be writing about things he knew less. There are signs of the writer she will become, and I can see that Tolstoy may be an influence, but another book the she has referred to often – Charlotte Bronte’s Villette – has yet to be surpassed.

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  6. Thirteen volumes does seem like a lot.

    I am glad you enjoyed the read even though you found it a bit difficult at first. I love the passages you selected. Isnt it lovely when one book talks about another book in the pages? I havent read Karenina yet, still you get a familiar feeling when another book title is mentioned. Good luck reading through the rest of the series.

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    1. The thirteen volumes were Dorothy Richardson’s life’s work, so it doesn’t feel unreasonable but it does feel like something that should be taken slowly. That’s why a group of us decided to read a volume a month until we reach the end. The writing is lovely, and the references to books Miriam reads are particularly interesting as I can see how they might be influencing the write she will eventually become.

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