Oberland by Dorothy Richardson (1928)

The ninth of the thirteen volume series of novels that Dorothy Richardson titled ‘Pilgrimage’ – and the first novel in the last of the four Virago omnibuses – is the story of a holiday. It opens as Miriam is travelling by train to the part of Switzerland known as Oberland.

How the trip was financed, why she joined a tour group alone, wasn’t at all clear; but if nothing else I have learned to expect much in Miriam’s life to be unexplained, and I know that the best way to appreciate her story is to live with her in the moment  and to be acutely aware of seemingly insignificant details that could well be important clues.

20160106_193046I caught her excitement as she travelled through Europe again, as she had in the first novel of this series when she travelled to Germany to take up a teaching post. The book – Pointed Roofs – seems so long ago now. Much has changed, Miriam has grown up a great deal, but she is still the same rather opinionated, rather awkward, young woman.

I’ve written before about how well Dorothy Richardson wrote and held her readers in Miriam’s consciousness; but what I don’t think I’ve written, and think now that I should, is how very well she maintained and developed her character and her consciousness through a long series of books written over many years.

The trouble is, it takes more than that to make a novel appealing to a reader.

I found much to appreciate in this book.

There was some lovely  writing, and a very different setting:

“The leap of recognition, unknowing between the mountains and herself which was which, made the first sight of them — smooth snow and crinkled rock in unheard-of unimagined tawny light — seem, even at the moment of seeing, already long ago.

They knew, they smiled joyfully at the glad shock they were, sideways gigantically advancing while she passed as over a bridge across which presently there would be no return, seeing and unseeing, seeing again from the first keen vision.

They closed in upon the train, summitless, their bases gliding by, a ceaseless tawny cliff throwing its light into the carriage, almost within touch; receding, making space at its side for sudden blue water, a river accompanying, giving them gentleness who were its mighty edge; broadening, becoming a wide lake, a stretch of smooth peerless blue with mountains reduced and distant upon its hinter side… “

She was so clearly happy and relaxed exploring this new world. She viewed different goods in shop windows, and was particularly taken with Swiss biscuits. She was exhilarated by tobogganing, but she refused to ski. Understandable maybe, given that she wasn’t among her own friends, and that she was in Edwardian dress.

“Long after she had sat erect from her warm ensconcement, the sunlit mountain corridors seemed to be saying watch, see, if you can believe it, what we can do. And all the time it seemed that they must open out and leave her upon the hinter side of enchantment, and still they turned and brought fresh vistas. Sungilt masses beetling variously up into pinnacles that truly cut the sky, high up beyond their high clambering pinewoods, where their snow was broken by patches of tawny crag. She longed to glide onwards through this gladness of light.”

When there was just Miriam, when she was out in the world, this chapter of her story was a joy.

But when she was caught up with the tour group, when she was inside her small pension. it was dull.

Those scenes were well done, but there was no development, nothing new. And her interactions with the other members of the tour group felt rather pointless when I knew that they would be disappearing from her life in a matter of days.

I was homesick for the London life that illuminated the books that preceded this one.

I wondered why, when the years of the authors life were passing more quickly that those of her alter ego, when she must have realised that she was working at something that could never be finished, she chose make a two week holiday the subject of an entire novel.

Maybe she wanted to do something a little different, something a little more conventional. There were moments when I thought she could have been a very different kind of novelist; but there was also some below par writing in this book, because Miriam’s life had lost its momentum, and that made me think that the path she had chosen was the best one.

Maybe she realised that she didn’t have the time to do everything she might wish to with Miriam’s life, and the books that I have still to read will be more focused on particular aspects of Miriam’s experiences.

Or maybe she simply wanted a break from the ongoing story.

Miriam thought of Michael a number of times, but this book ended with her thought that back in London Hyppo Wilson was waiting for her to make a decision.

The next book could be very interesting.

I’m still glad that I started this series of books, I’m still eager to move forward; but I also have to say that I will be very glad when I reach the end of the final book.

11 thoughts on “Oberland by Dorothy Richardson (1928)

  1. I decided against a library copy (as I mentioned in a comment to your review of the previous installment), and I have located copies of the Virago to buy. I’m anticipating I should take this slowly, and live with it over the long haul. Thanks so much for the inspiration and tour-guiding me through!


  2. I agree with everything you said here. While I don’t always need attractive and positive characters in a book, I think when you have one central character you’re living and breathing with through so.many.books, it’s useful to not have her show herself up as a petty snob and as being man-mad … but I can’t stop pushing on now, not long to go!


  3. Interesting response, Jane, and certainly I felt that Miriam was somewhat out of character here. The flirting with the men was most unlike her, although the tobogganing was consistent with her love of cycling! Maybe Richardson *did* just feel the need to take her character somewhere else, and presumably this was reflecting an experience in her life. Like you I’ll be interested to see where it goes next, but it will in some ways be a relief to get to the end! 🙂


    1. I saw most of her behaviour as stemming from her character – the pride and the snobbery just showing themselves in rather different ways because she was abroad and away from her usual circle. And though to have a holiday was interesting I wasn’t sure that it needed an entire book.

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  4. I’ve been following your Dorothy Richardson journey with great interest, and enjoyed this post on her work perhaps the most! She still intrigues me, perhaps because you present this lull in her writing so suggestively. And I love your summation–and doesn’t this sum up our entire perspective in reading–‘the next book could be very interesting’. Yes, that’s the beauty of it! Reading is discovery. Perhaps next year I will have this author on my TBR list. Thanks, as always, Jane, for your lovely, thoughtful posts.

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