Dorothy Richardson is a miracle. Her epic thirteen chapter book, Pilgrimage, is made up of thirteen individual novels that she continued publishing from 1915 steadily until 1938 (then the last book/chapter, March Moonlight, tacked on awkwardly after her death). If she’s known at all (and she is not, sadly), she’s known for pioneering stream of consciousness writing, predating Woolf and Joyce. More importantly in my mind, she is the first to assert the narrative rights of a female consciousness. Her writing is breathtaking in the way it transports you into Miriam’s mind. While the book relies heavily on autobiographical material from Richardson’s life, she insisted that we view it as a fictional piece.
In the first book/chapter, Pointed Roofs, we’re immediately thrust into the throbbing current of Miriam’s thoughts as she bids farewell to her sisters and travels to Germany to teach English and to continue her studies, her father’s fortune having dwindled to nothing and having to adjust to a life of poverty after enjoying the carefree lifestyle of the British upper class. She thinks and feels intensely, playing piano, embracing the moment of life right now, “what a perfect morning… what a perfect morning.” She’s summoned home to celebrate her sister Harriet’s engagement and never returns to Hanover.
Backwater picks the story up with Miriam and her mother having tea with the three Pernes sisters, all old maids, who run a school that Miriam will teach at in the fall. She has three glorious weeks at home where she meets a man (Max Sonnenheim) that perhaps she will marry, and then heads to the gloomy North London school to teach. Here she has her first experience reading the newspaper, and waits until everyone is out of the room before she attempts to read it, not wanting to look foolish about how to fold it.
No wonder people read newspapers. You could read about what was going on the country, actually what the Government was doing at that very moment. Of course; men seemed to know such a lot because they read the newspapers and talked about what was in them. But anybody could know as much as the men sitting in the arm-chairs if they chose; read all about everything, written down for everybody to see. That was the freedom of the press—Areopagitica, that the history books said so much about, and was one of those new important things, more important than facts and dates. Like the Independence of Ireland. Yet very few people really talked like newspapers. Only angry men with loud voices. Here was the free press that Milton had gone to prison for. Certainly it made a great difference. The room was quite changed. There was hardly any pain in the silent cane-seated chairs. There were really people making the world better. Now. At last.
At the end of Backwater, she leaves the school so she can take the more lucrative job of governess. This is where we find her in Honeycomb, headed toward the wealthy family with two children she will teach, Sybil and Boy. (The boy remains unnamed, but is once called Boy by his sister…) Miriam becomes more and more confident in her thoughts, boldly offering up ideas and conversation to the men as she plays billiards with them while their wives flutter about like decorative birds. On one occasion the woman she works for (Mrs. Corrie) decides to head into London to buy a hat and begins gossiping about one of her friends not having any children.
Miriam mused intensely. She felt Mrs Kronen ought to be there to answer. She had some secret Mrs Corrie did not possess. Mrs Corrie looked suddenly small and mild and funny. Why did she think it dreadful that Mrs Kronon should have no children? There was nothing wonderful in having children. It was better to sing, She was perfectly sure that she herself did not want children… ‘Superior women don’t marry,’ she said, ‘sir she said, sir she said, su, per, i, or women’—but that meant blue-stockings.
Later, at a party at the Corrie’s house, Miriam has a moment of truth:
The men of the party were devouring their food with the air of people just about to separate to fulfill urgent engagements. They bend and gobbled busily and cast smouldering glances about the table, as if with their eyes they would suggest important mysteries brooding above their animated muzzles. Miriam’s stricken eyes sought their foreheads for relief. Smooth brows and neatly brushed hair above; but the smooth motionless brows were ramparts of hate; pure murderous hate. That’s men, she said, with a sudden flash of certainty, that’s men as they are, when they are opposed, when they are real. All the rest is pretence. Her thoughts flashed forward to a final clear issue of opposition, with a husband. Just a cold blank hating forehead and neatly brushed hair above it. If a man doesn’t understand or doesn’t agree he’s just a blank bony conceitedly thinking, absolutely condemning forehead, a face below, going on eating—and going off somewhere. Men are all hard angry bones; always thinking something, only one thing at a time and unless that is agreed to, they murder. My husband shan’t kill me… I’ll shatter his conceited brow—make him see… two sides to every question.. a million sides… no questions, only sides… always changing. Men argue, think they prove things; their foreheads recover–cool and calm. Damn them all—all men.
Delicious insight into the state of mind that Miriam had after realizing her options were to be trapped in a marriage or to be desperately looking for work all her life.
I’ve already gone down a rabbit hole on where to find the other 3 volumes that contain the remainder of the books, contemplating buying them but thinking I might hold off on purchasing when the scholarly edition hits the shelves in a few years. In the meantime, the library is my friend and I will pluck the next volume from its shelves. This book is woefully forgotten, neglected, abandoned, and we must take up its cause.