The End of my Pilgrimage with Miriam Henderson

The twelfth of the thirteen volume series of novels that Dorothy Richardson titled ‘Pilgrimage’ was the first not to be published as a single volume. It made its first appearance in the first 4-volume edition that was published in 1938, and it opens at a point in the life of Miriam Henderson when she has finally stopped thinking about changing her life and actually done something. She has left her job, she has left her lodgings, she has left London, but she has no firm plans for the future.

The opening chapter found her on visiting Chichester with her old friends, sisters Grace and Florence Broom. The writing was quite dense, I was a little worried that this might be the point where Dorothy Richardson became ‘difficult’, but I decided to take what understanding I could from this chapter and move on. I understood that while Miriam still had no love for the Anglican church she had become more tolerant and accepting of faith, I understood that she had not found her path but was confident that she would, and I understood that letting go of many things had made her happier and more relaxed than she had been for a long time; maybe ever.

pilgrimageknopf1938That first chapter was opaque, but I found the rest of this book wonderfully readable.

It was Michael Shatov who found the right place for Miriam to settle for a while. He introduced her to the Roscorla family, who kept a farm at Dimple Hill and had a spare room they let to boarders. They accepted her in the belief that she was recovering from an emotional breakdown and needed to rest and recuperate.

Miriam loved the peace and beauty of the  countryside, she enjoyed watching the regular routines of farm life, and, most of all,  she was fascinated by the Roscorlas’ Quaker faith. All this was communicated in swathes of lovely, descriptive prose.

I could have happily read writing like this for such a long time. I share Miriam’s interest in Quakerism. I loved that Miriam’s hosts had a wonderfully Cornish name.

There were hints that she was writing, but no more than that. That’s still the way with Dorothy Richardson

The pictures of the Roscorla family are wonderfully clear.

Miriam is clearly smitten with Richard; she forms a friendship with his sister, Rachel Mary, and she grows to like their brother Alfred; but the mother of the three siblings never warms to her. She is disapproving when Miriam talks with a male visitor, and that reminds Miriam that she is not at home and that the ways of this family are not her ways.

Miriam has matured in many ways over the course of this series of books; but there are times when her social skills are as lacking as they were when she set out for Germany in the very first book. That’s understandable in a girl but rather less so in a grown woman who is a guest in someone else’s home.

It becomes clear that it is time for her to move on.

She returns to London for the wedding of Michael and Amabel; and then she accepts an invitation to visit a friend from Oberland.

And that is the end of this book.

20160106_193046It was the last book that Dorothy Richardson completed, but the beginnings of another book named ‘March Moonlight’ emerged when ‘Pilgrimage’ was reissued in 1967, ten years after the death of its author.

This final book is a patchwork, tacked together from pieces that suggest that there could have been more books if Dorothy Richardson been given a longer and less difficult life.

There is:

  • The overseas trip set up at the end of the last book, where Miriam is entangled in complex relationships with a number of people who I am sure haven’t been mentioned before and I don’t feel I have been properly introduced to.
  • A visit to her sister Sally’s suburban home. I had quite forgotten that Miriam had another sister, and I think she might have forgotten too, but she enjoys her visit and being part of family life for a while.
  • A visit to Michael and Amabel, who were struggling with the practical realities of married life. I was astonished when Miriam offered sensible advice and then retreated.
  • A return to Dimple Hill, where Miriam makes worse mistakes than she did before and there is a permanent parting of the ways.
  • A final return to London where Miriam finds new lodgings, meets old and new friends, and comes to realise that she has made her choice to be alone, to write, and to live on the little money she has. That’s not a firm conclusion, but it is an idea that emerges.

There is much incident but little character development.

But this final book is so clearly unfinished and unpolished; and maybe not a book at all but a collection of sketches and possibilities for books that would never be written.

One sentence on the last page caught my eye.

“Until the autumn of 2015”

I’m inclined to thank that is when this series of book should have ended; when the first volume of this series of books was published.

I wish that she had been given the time to get there, or that she had done things a little differently to get there quicker.

But she made her choices about how to live and how to write, for better or for worse.

Miriam Henderson has been infuriating at times but she has been utterly believable, and the portrayal of her consciousness has been like nothing else I have ever read.

I’ve run out of things to say about her but I shall miss her.

I plan to read more about Dorothy Richardson next year, because I want to understand her and her alter ego a little better.

The Small Widow by Janet McNeill (1967)

There are a great many books sitting on my Virago bookcase, double-banked because shelf space is desperately lacking, and so it if horribly easy for ‘one Virago’ authors to get lost behind the authors who had a few or a great many titles reissued.

Janet McNeill is one such ‘one Virago’ author, and I always liked the look of ‘Tea at Four O’Clock, I always meant to read it, but I lost sight of it only to remember when I saw another book, reissued by another publishing house, sitting on a shelf in the library.

I picked it up.

The story opens when Julia has just become a widow; at the funeral of Harold, her husband of thirty-two years. She is following the steps that she knows that she must follow, but she isn’t quite sure that she is acting as she should, feeling as she should.

12145597Julia had been happy to be cast as wife and mother, but suddenly she had to learn to play a new role that she hadn’t expected or wanted. Her husband was gone, her children were grown, and there was nothing to fill the space that was left.

Janet McNeill captures her situation beautifully, understanding the subtle changes in Julia’s different relationships with children, friends, and other family members; and appreciating that there would be missteps and frustrations as the new widow tried to come to terms with her new life.

She reminded me of something that my mother said to me not long after she was widowed. She said that many people were – or tried to be – kind – but that the only people who understood were those who were widows too.

Her writing has subtlety, clarity and just a little dry wit.

“Julia knew by this time that her conduct wouldn’t in any way measure the extent of her grief. She hadn’t been able to measure it herself. She had tried. She thought about death deliberately, trying to assess it. She thought about her own death. She thought about the new carpet in the dining-room; the salesman said it would give her fifteen years. It was disconcerting to compete with a carpet.”

A wealth of different characters around Julia help to illuminate her story: there is  a daughter-in-law whose concern, whose anxiety to do the right thing, becomes cloying; there is a friend who is so grateful for help when she has to chose an outfit for a special occasion; there is a son who is nearby, whose new relationship Julia is pleased to see, though she cannot help but feel a little jealous of the closeness they have; and then there is Madge, the old family friend who was with Harold when he died and whose behaviour is a little strange ….

That creates a certain amount of drama, but ultimately the ‘The Small Widow’ is a quiet book, following Julia’s life though a momentous year and speaking profoundly of the changes and the realisations that year brought.

 “I don’t feel anything,” she said, “not anything at all. It isn’t that I’m trying not to. I want to feel something, even though Harold mightn’t have wished me to. But I just go on in an empty muddled kind of way, getting impatient because I’m always waiting for some piercing grief that doesn’t come. I mean I don’t suppose this is all there is to it, it couldn’t be, could it?”

Its hold on me grew steadily as the story progressed.

The back cover of this novel suggests that Janet McNeill should be considered alongside “Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner and, more particularly, Elizabeth Taylor.” I have to say that I’m not entirely convinced;  and that there were times when the wring felt clumsy and the story felt rather mundane.

But I can say that she does what she does very well, and she does one thing better than any of them. She catches the difficult moments that Julia would rather forget and the emotions that she would rather not acknowledge. That makes her writing feel both honest and real.

She may never be a particular favourite but I’ll happily read Janet McNeill again.

And I must check my shelves for more of those ‘one Virago’ authors ….