The Tunnel by Dorothy Richardson (1919)

The fourth book of Dorothy Richardson’s ‘Pilgrimage’ gas pulled me from the first to the second of my four green Virago omnibus editions, and to starting anew at this place felt right, because there has been a sea change in the life of Miriam Henderson. After three live-in teaching positions, where she always considered home to be her family home, she has established a home of her own, in a room in a house in Bloomsbury.

A room of her own:

“She closed the door and stood just inside it looking at the room. It was smaller than her memory of it. When she had stood in the middle of the floor with Mrs Bailey, she had looked at nothing but Mrs Bailey, waiting for the moment to ask about the rent. Coming upstairs she had felt the room was hers and barely glanced at it when Mrs Bailey opened the door. From the moment of waiting on the stone steps outside the front door, everything had opened to the movement of her impulse. She was surprised now at her familiarity with the details of the room . . . that idea of visiting places in dreams. It was something more than that . . . all the real part of your life has a real dream in it; some of the real dream part of you coming true. You know in advance when you are really following your life. These things are familiar because reality is here.”

She is earning her living by working in a dentist surgery, in a job that seems to bring together the roles of receptionist, bookkeeper and dental nurse. She finds her workload difficult to manage; and it is clear that she is the kind of person who worries that she has failed if she hasn’t completed every single task perfectly; but she enjoys playing her part, she takes a pride in her successes and she appreciates having a place in the team.

The scenes where Miriam is at work are particularly vividly drawn. I was caught up in every moment with Miriam; but I have to say that I am so glad that dentistry has moved on since then.

20160106_193046I can’t say exactly when ‘then’ was, because Miriam’s thoughts and thoughts and perceptions were all I had to guide me through this book; but I can say, because I know Dorothy Richardson’s dates and because I knew some of the books that Miriam was reading – one of which was published in 1899 – that this story must have been set in or a little after that year.

(I was delighted that Miriam loved ‘Red Pottage’ as I loved it too, and it was the book that I had to finish before I returned to her story a month or two ago.)

That makes her choice to live alone as a single woman and to earn her own living quire remarkable.

Reading Dorothy Richardson requires the ability to notice small things and to accept that there are some things that you many never know. I spotted a reference to Miriam’s employment having been found by a family friend, but how she found her lodgings, how she came to know her friends, I don’t know.

But to complain about that would be missing the point. This is the story of Miriam’s journey, filtered through her consciousness, and the best way to appreciate it is to stay in the moment with her. And there is so very much to appreciate.

Miriam was captivated by London.

“Strolling home towards midnight along the narrow pave-ment of Endsleigh Gardens Miriam felt as fresh and un-troubled as if it were early morning. When she had got out of her Hammersmith omnibus into the Tottenham Court Road she had found that the street had lost its first terrifying impression and had become part of her home. It was the borderland of the part of London she had found for herself; the part where she was going to live, in freedom, hidden, on her pound a week. It was all she wanted. That was why she was young and glad ; that was why fatigue had gone out of her life. There was nothing in the world that could come nearer to her than the curious half twilight half moonlight effect of lamplit Endsleigh Gardens opening out of Gower Place ; its huge high trees, their sharp shadows on the little pavement running by the side of the railings, the neighbouring gloom of the Euston Road dimly lit by lamps standing high in the middle of the roadway at long intervals, the great high quiet porched houses, black and still, the shadow mass of St. Pancras church, the great dark open space in front of the church, a shadowy figure-haunted darkness with the vague stream of the Euston Road running to one side of it and the corridor of Woburn Place opening on the other. The harsh voice of an invisible woman sounded out from it as she turned off into her own street. …” Dressed up — he was — to the bloody death.” . . . The words echoed about her as she strolled down the street controlling her impulse to flinch and hurry. The woman was there, there and real and that was what she had said.Resentment was lurking about the street. The woman’s harsh voice seemed close. Miriam pictured her glaring eyes. There was no pretence about her. She felt what she said. She belonged to the darkness about St. Pancras church . . . people had been garrotted in that part of the Euston Road not so very long ago. . . . Tansley Street was a soft grey gloaming after the darkness. When she rattled her key into the keyhole of number seven she felt that her day was beginning. It would be perpetually beginning now. Nights and days were all one day; all hers, unlimited.”

She spends time with other women who have rooms in the same house as her; she visits her sister Harriett, who is happily settled as a wife and mother to be, and her sister Eve whose situation is less happy; she attends lectures with a work colleague; and books and music continue to illuminate her life.

She even learns to ride a bicycle, and, after an awkward start, she relishes the freedom that gives her.

It was difficult to form a clear picture of the whole of Miriam’s life, but I saw the arc of the story clearly: that in her room and out in the world Miriam was establishing a life if her own.

She made contact with an old school friend and was invited to stay with her and her writer husband in the country. Miriam felt a little out of her depth when she met their literary friends, but she was fascinated by them and she realised that she wanted to be part of their world. On the train home she remembered things that had been said that she wanted to remember that she wanted to use to impress her friends – that reminded me of the Miriam of the earlier books who had been uncomfortable in social situations, and of how far she had come – and she thought much on things that her friend’s husband had said.

“Gazing out at the exciting silent pines — so dark and still, waiting, not knowing about the wonders of English — Miriam recalled her impressions of those of the authors she knew. It was true that those were their effects and the great differences between them. How did he come to know all about it and to put it into words? Did the authors know when they did it? She passionately hoped not. If they did, it was a trick and spoilt books. Rows and rows of ” fine ” books ; nothing but men sitting in studies doing something cleverly, being very important, ” men of letters ” ; and looking out for approbation. If writing meant that, it was not worth doing. English a great flexible language ; more than any other in the world. But German was the same? Only the inflections filled the sentences up with bits. English was flexible and beautiful. Funny. Foreigners did not think so. Many English people thought foreign literature the best. Perhaps Mr. Wilson did not know much foreign literature. But he wanted to ; or he would not have those translations of Ibsen and Bjornsen. German poetry marched and sang and did all sorts of things. Anyhow it was wonderful about English — but if books were written like that, sitting down and doing it cleverly and knowing just what you were doing and just how some-body else had done it, there was something wrong, some mannish cleverness that was only half right. To write books, knowing all about style would be to become like a man. Women who wrote books and learned these things would be absurd and would make men absurd. There was something wrong. It was in all those books upstairs. ” Good stuff ” was wrong, a clever trick, not worth doing. And yet everybody seemed to want to write.”

That there was so much reflection is telling I’m sure. There has been little reflection in the parts of ‘Pilgrimage’ that I have read so far and that disappoints me, particularly now that there has clearly been some upheaval in the Henderson family.

Miriam and Mr Wilson didn’t meet again in this book, but I am quite sure that they will in the next.

I found much to love in this book. There is a wealth of detail, I am still so taken with Miriam and with Dorothy Richardson’s writing;  but I am finding the gaps in the narrative and the literary impressionism a little more difficult than I did in the earlier books of the series.

That might be because this is a longer book than those, or it might be the stage that Miriam has reached in life.

Time will tell ….

 

Honeycomb by Dorothy Richardson (1917)

Now that I am at the end of the first of the four volumes that collect Dorothy Richardson’s ‘Pilgrimage’ sequence of novels, it seems strange that I had ever feared that the ‘stream of consciousness’ of those thirteen novels would be difficult and that one woman’s consciousness would not be enough to fill all of those pages.

I have loved walking through life with Miriam Henderson, sharing in her perceptions and emotions, and appreciating that maturity and experience were helping her to form ideas and steadily grow as a woman in her world. And I have loved seeing Dorothy Richardson grow as a writer, honing her craft, and making each of the first three novels of this saga distinctive and yet still part of the same whole.

‘Honeycomb’ – the third of those three novels – felt to me like a three-volume Victorian novel re-worked, in miniature, for a new and very different age.

20160106_193046The first act opens as Miriam is travelling to take up a new position. She will be the governess to two young children in a country house. One of her sisters had been a governess and had warned Miriam that the life would not suit her, but she had taken no notice and she was happy to be travelling comfortably by coach as spring was coming.

The writing was lovely and there was just a hint of playfulness, maybe acknowledging the books that the younger Dorothy Richardson had read and enjoyed.

Miriam was at ease in the role of governess, and she appreciated the comforts that she had in the household of a wealthy family. She also appreciated being in a family home, missing school life not at all, though she found her position – in between the servants and the family, not belonging to either group – difficult at times, and some of her old awkwardness came back at times like that.

I appreciated how much, and how very naturally, she had grown up over the course of three novels.

She realised that while the women of the family were happy their roles, as wives and mothers, did not interest her at all.

The second act finds Miriam back at home as the  Henderson household prepared for the weddings of two of her sisters,  Harriett and Sarah. All of the family was caught up in preparations for a joint ceremony and was happy to be drawn in too. But while she is happy for her sisters, and happy to be sharing in their celebrations, she is reflective because she doubts that she will find the things that she hopes life has to offer in marriage, and she expects that her path will be more difficult.

The third act is devastating. Miriam’s mother struggled with her nerves and her health; and it fell to Miriam to accompany her mother on a holiday trip to the seaside. It didn’t help Mrs. Henderson, and it was heart-breaking to understand what was happening through the perceptions of a daughter who was much to far out of her depth to comprehend.

The novel ends with a deep and unexplained grief.

Dorothy Richardson’s handling of those passages is astonishingly good; there could only be one explanation, and she knew that it was something that Miriam could not acknowledge or express.

All of the writing is wonderful; Dorothy Richardson has  grown as a writer through the course of her first three novels, finding so many ways  to catch Miriam’s consciousness on the printed page, finding the right variations in tone and content to match her different experiences, and tracking the subtle ways in which Miriam changes and grows with those experiences.

I think I may much the same thing already, but I really am so taken with what Dorothy Richardson is doing in this series of books.

If you have an interest in women’s history, or an interest in the evolution of the novel form, then you really should read Dorothy Richardson.

I wish I hadn’t left her books on the shelf for so long, thinking that they would be difficult; they do require close, careful reading to appreciate everything that is there, but they reward that reading so very richly.

A great deal changed in this book for the Henderson family, and I think that there will be significant differences in the next book.

I’m ready to pick it up and start reading.

Backwater by Dorothy Richardson (1916)

This was my second step into the consciousness of Miriam Henderson, and the second of the thirteen volume series of novels that Dorothy Richardson titled ‘Pilgrimage’ after she found a new way of writing, a way of writing that simply captured that thoughts and perceptions of the woman whose life she portrayed.

The story opens a few months after Miriam returned from Germany to her home in London. Her happiness to be back there is tangible, but she must come to terms with the knowledge that the home and family that she knew is changing. One sister has left home to become a governess, another is newly engaged, and only the youngest of the four of them is still a child at home.

Miriam knows that she must find a new position. She didn’t want to go but she knew that she must.

20160106_193046She  is employed at a small school for girls run by the Misses Perne. They are delighted to have her, she is more than capable of doing what is asked of her, but she isn’t happy. Her second teaching position has her feeling that is unsuited to the role and the environment. She couldn’t cope with the restrictions and confines, or with the expectation that she would promote a faith the she could not accept for herself.

But she doesn’t know what else she might want to be.

That was understandable. She lived in Victorian England, in the age of the ‘new woman’; her only training came in the schools were she taught; and that she needed to work at all was because her father’s business had failed; it wasn’t what she and her sisters had been raised to expect.

Miriam’s life at school in term time is set against her life at home in the holidays. That life is what most middle class young women would have experienced. She goes to parties and dances. She spends some time at the seaside. She crosses paths with eligible young men.

She doesn’t find that entirely easy either. Because Miriam has yet to learn self-awareness. She often fails to appreciate how her words and her actions will be interpreted by others, and she missed cues and social signals. Her intentions were good, but she could appear to be gauche and thoughtless.

Miriam had a coping strategy: she had a secret passion for sensational novels. She devoured books by Charlotte Yonge, Rhoda Broughton and, most of all, Ouida.

That was a link with Miriam that I hadn’t expected to find! But I had expected to find Dorothy Richardson difficult and, two books in, I am not finding her difficult at all.

I do have to say though that she rewards slow, careful and thoughtful reading.

Miriam had led a very sheltered life, but she was slowly learning how to deal with the world. She was aware though that she was out of step with her contemporaries; she had ideals, she had ambitions, but she had no idea yet where she wanted to go or what she wanted to do.

I know a little more that she does, because I know that this is an autobiographical work, and because I know a little of how Dorothy Richardson’s story plays out. I’m eager to move forward through the other volumes of Pilgrimage, but I know that I have to move slowly and appreciate each stage of Miriam’s life.

1341051577The writing is much to good to resist. There was no narrator, but Miriam’s inner world, her thoughts and her perceptions were captured so perfectly and purely that I felt that I completely understood how it felt to be her.

It’s such clever writing, it’s clear that Dorothy Richardson was far ahead of her peers, and I am so sorry that she was somehow over-shadowed when others caught up with her.

One consequence of the was she wrote was that picture of the world around Miriam was sometimes less that clear. Because I was with her in the present but I hadn’t been with her for all of her past, and because I could only learn things as she did. It is so tempting to look up the facts of Dorothy Richardson’s life, to order one of the biographies that I know my library has tucked away, but I am going to resist, because I know sharing in Miriam’s  world will be much more rewarding without the weight of knowledge.

I have noticed that she has formed no close relationships with people outside her family circle; I hope it won’t be too long before she does, for her own sake and because I think that when she does her story will be enriched.

This book – like the first – ends with Miriam deciding that she must make a change.

And that leaves me eager to move on to the next volume of her story, and then the next ….

Pointed Roofs by Dorothy Richardson (1915)

I was aware of Dorothy Richardson for a long, long time without ever reading her work.

When I was very young and Virago Modern Classics were very new, I remember seeing ‘Pilgrimage’, her thirteen novel series, collected in four thick volumes that had covers that were similar but not quite the same. They looked like important works; the kind of books that I ought to read one day but maybe not quite yet.

20160106_193046Years later, I looked at those four big books again and I learned how very significant Dorothy Richardson had been. That she published the first complete work of stream-of-consciousness fiction, and from that first novel a whole series of autobiographical novels grew, speaking profoundly of the female experience.

It was May Sinclair, who had experimented with writing in a similar form, who described Dorothy Richardson’s style as ‘stream-of-consciousness’, and while I can’t say that it’s wrong I have to believe that there are better words.

To me the word ‘stream’ suggests a rush; and this isn’t a rush, it’s a life being lived. What Dorothy Richardson did in this book is place her readers in her principal character’s position, conveying exactly what she perceived and exactly what she felt. No more and no less

Virginia Woolf, who published her own first novel in the same year as Dorothy Richardson, explained that much more elegantly,  praising Richardson for inventing “the psychological sentence of the feminine gender …..  is used to describe a woman’s mind ….”

I collected the four Virago volumes, and the first volume of Pilgrimage was sitting on my bedside table a year or two ago, when I went to hear Louisa Treger speak about Dorothy Richardson and about ‘The Lodger’, her first novel, inspired by the author’s life and writing. She spoke with such erudition and such love that I was inspired. And she reminded me that Dorothy Richardson wrote thirteen novels, not four volumes, and that I could – and maybe should -read them one novel at a time.

A single novel felt so much more approachable that a think omnibus edition; and now that I have read that first novel I have to say that I do hope that some day Pilgrimage will be published as it was written, in thirteen small volumes. Because, though I thought it would be difficult, it wasn’t; it was fascinating to be drawn in, to identify completely, with one woman.

“Miriam left the gaslit hall and went slowly upstairs. The March twilight lay upon the landings, but the staircase was almost dark. The top landing was quite dark and silent. There was no one about. It would be quiet in her room. She could sit by the fire and be quiet and think things over until Eve and Harriett came back with the parcels. She would have time to think about the journey and decide what she was going to say to the Fraulein.

Her new Saratoga trunk stood solid and gleaming in the firelight. To-morrow it would be taken away and she would be gone. The room would be altogether Harriett’s. It would never have its old look again. She evaded the thought and moved clumsily to the nearest window. The outline of the round bed and the shapes of the may-trees on either side of the bend of the drive were just visible. There was no escape for her thoughts in this direction. The sense of all she was leaving stirred uncontrollably as she stood looking down into the well-known garden.”

‘Pointed Roofs’, the first of these thirteen novels, opens as Miriam Henderson is leaving home for the first time. She is sensitive to the fact that she is the first to leave, that home life will carry on without her, but she knows that it is time for her to take her first steps out into the world. Because her family’s finances are strained – her mother is in poor health and her father’s business is struggling – she has accepted a job as an English teacher in Fräulein Pfaff’s finishing school in Hanover for German and English girls.

Because she has barely finished her own education, Miriam is concerned about how she will be able to teach, and how she will cope with the questions her students may ask. She finds though that she barely has to teach at all;  she is simply expected to read and converse English with the German pupils,  and accompanying them on outings and errands. That seems simple, but of course settling into a first job and learning to live with others is never straightforward. There is much in Miriam’s experiences that will strike a chord with anyone who has done those things. Her relief is tempered with disappointment, because she appreciate the very good education that she had received.

20609003Miriam steps out into the world at a time when it was changing rapidly. Fräulein Pfaff, and many of her staff, have traditional views, and see decorum and the making of a good marriage as all important. Her students are a little more modern in their outlook, a little freer in their behaviour, but they still see marriage and motherhood as their future roles. Miriam is a little different. She is uncomfortable in their world; her interests and concerns are quite different from theirs, and so she frequently misunderstands who it going on and fails to pick up on many things that are unsaid; she does know that she is looking for something more from life.

The narrative style highlights all of this. It’s a little like the third person, but it isn’t quite that because it is composed entirely of  Miriam’s perceptions. The prose moves quite naturally between her perceptions, her thoughts and her emotions.  Her observations are clear and precise, but her thoughts are often more complex, and ellipsis are used to very good effect as she moves between different trains of thought and works through ideas and emotions. There are times when she finds resolutions, but there are also times when she can’t – or maybe won’t.

The story is a little episodic. There is time spent in the classroom,  a musical evening, writing letters home on a Saturday, trips out, the school hair-wash, an unexpected chance to play the piano, a trip to the country, a thunderstorm in the night. That well works well with the prose style;  each episode feels like a point in a life that might be remembered.

Because I only had Miriam’s perceptions to guide me it sometimes took time to understand what was happening, who all of the characters were, and there were some things that I never come to understand as well as I might have with a more traditional narrative. But coming to understand Miriam – a complex, sensitive, intelligent young woman, just a little ahead of her time – and sharing her world and her life was completely captivating.

I thought reading might be difficult but it wasn’t; and the prose was so lovely and so right that I feel clumsy as I try to write about it.

I was tempted to pick up the next book straight away, to find out where life takes her and how it changes her, but I resisted. I wanted to read ‘Pointed Roofs’ in its centenary year and I did, and now I want to read a book a month this year, to move steadily through Miriam’s life and to appreciate everything that her life and times have to offer.