Revolving Lights by Dorothy Richardson (1923)

My final words when I wrote about the sixth book of Dorothy Richardson’s ‘Pilgrimage sequence were:

“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.”

I’d waited until I’d written about the book before I started the next, and when I had finished writing I turned the pages to begin this next book straight away. I was knocked back by a difficult opening: gone were the journeys, the scenes of home, that had pulled me into the earlier books.

That thought came back.

I was by no means going to give up, because I’ve come so far, because I always knew that the journey was going to be difficult, and because I had found along the way that the rewards more than outweighed those difficulties. But I put the book to one side for a while.

When I decided that it was time to try again my book had vanished. I checked the library catalogue, and I found that there was a 1923 edition in my library’s reserve stock. I placed an order; because even if my copy turned up I was very interested to see what such an early edition would be like.

The book that arrived not a first edition, but it was a first re-printing. It was a small, sturdy red book. There was no introduction, no afterword, no extra material at all; just ‘Revolving Lights’ itself.

That reminded me that by 1923 interest in Dorothy Richardson’s work had diminished. I can understand that. I might have been less inclined to follow this long journey through a few – albeit pivotal – years of one woman’s life if I had been reading then, not knowing how long it would go on and having to follow threads over years between books.

I might have been disappointed that Dorothy Richardson’s path didn’t evolve as the way those of many of her peers did.

Now though, with the benefit of hindsight, I realise that there is nobody else who did what Dorothy Richardson did, and no other body of work like ‘Pilgrimage’.

My little red library book felt so much more readable than my green Virago omnibus; I having a single book in my hand and less content on each page made it for me to be held in the moment. I even came to think that the long chapter that had seemed so difficult was actually a tour de force.

20160106_193046It follows Miriam’s thoughts as she leaves a socialist meeting and makes her way home. As she walks she thinks about so many things. The ideas that were raised at that meeting. Her relationship with Michael Shatov. Why she and her sisters are so different. A conversation about books that she had with someone she didn’t name. Her relationship with the city she had come to love. And what her future might hold.

The writing was lovely; different themes, tenses and styles tumbled together, and I never doubted for a moment that I was being drawn into the inner life of one woman.

I came to understand her feelings about many aspects of her life much better than I had before.

After that the remaining chapters felt like business as usual.

The second chapter follows on Miriam on a visit to friends of Michael Shatov, where she is a little uneasy. The third follows her to a house party at the home of Myra and Hyppo Wilson. There she is as easy and as confident as I can ever remember her being.

It becomes clear that he was the unnamed writer of the first chapter.

In a very short fourth – and final – chapter Miriam is at work, but her head is full of her dialogues with Hyppo Wilson. Even when she is being told that there are changes to come.

That the book ends with a letter from him to Miriam indicates how very important he has become.

There was little room in this book for home, for work, for friends, for sisters; but there was room for that.

As a whole this book felt odd; one chapter of one thing and three of another.

I wish it all could have been like the first chapter; a series of walks on different days could have laid out the evolution of Miriam’s thinking and the evolution of her life.

I wish that all of the steps of ‘Pilgrimage’ were available as little books; I think they would make so much more sense, and be so much more accessible, that way.

This has been a rather odd stage in my journey through Dorothy Richardson’s work; but it has left a clear impression and it does leave me wanting to take the next step forward.

13 thoughts on “Revolving Lights by Dorothy Richardson (1923)

  1. Thanks for this guided tour of Richardson’s Pilgrimage, a gentle and helpful introduction for those of us who aren’t acquainted with her work except by reputation. Cheers for your persistence and thoughtful approach.


    1. Thank you for your kind words. I need to write to help my own understanding and to remember things from different steps of the journey, but I’m delighted if what I’m doing is helpful to others too.


  2. The right edition can make all the difference, can’t it? I have Pilgrimage to read, and I think part of the delay is my looking at the huge omnibus editions & feeling completely overwhelmed!

    Your reviews of Pilgrimage are so encouraging though Jane, even when Richardson seems a bit impenetrable, that I’m sure I’ll make a start soon 🙂


    1. The difference was remarkable, but as I made it through two omnibus editions I’m sure I can make it to the end that way, now that my missing book has reappeared, Whatever the format she isn’t the easiest of authors but I’m glad I started reading her and I hope that you will be too.

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  3. I’ve fallen a long way behind on my Pilgrimage reading, mainly because while I love the writing, the novels do require a certain commitment of concentration, that has deserted me over the past month or so. I will persevere though. I intend to reclassify August as Pilgrimage month, so hopefully by September I’ll have caught back up!


    1. I lost track of Pilgrimage for a while but I’m catching up. Miriam isn’t always the easiest company but with all the turmoil in the world there’s something to be said for keeping company with someone so politically aware and willing to think,


  4. Lovely review Jane, and how interesting that having a different edition made a difference. I’m not entirely surprised though, because I’ve found this myself with other books – a small type, hard to handle volume can really put you off a book. I will catch up with these over the summer hopefully!


    1. I know that the anthologies started in Dorothy Richardson’s lifetime, long before Virago, but I do think her work could be better presented. Hopefully OWC will do her proud. She does need the right reading mind-set, which is why I fell off the pace for a while but I’m catching up and on track to read about Miriam’s travels Switzerland in August. I like the idea of reading that when the town is full of tourists.

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  5. A lovely review, i thought that about the chapters, too! And I enjoy her wanderings around London the most out of all of the different parts of the book, I think – those and the details of daily life in London at that time. I wonder if I would have carried on reading them as they came out at the time. They would have seemed SO different, wouldn’t they, reading them as they came out.


    1. If I was considering this book alone I think I would have been rather critical of the structure and I’m sure I would have lost track of different threads. Though I fell off the pace for a while I do think that this book a month approach is the right one.

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  6. I’m a bit embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard of Dorothy Richardson until I read your post. I did a quick online search on her career, especially the series you mentioned. Her writing sounds challenging, but fascinating. I’m going to look for this at the library. Thanks for the introduction!


    1. There’s no need to be embarrassed, because Dorothy Richardon has received little attention in recent years, and if I didn’t collect Virago Modern Classics I doubt I would have read her. She isn’t easy but she isn’t as difficult as I thought she would be, and though I have had ups and downs I am more than glad that I started out on this journey through her work.

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