When I finished Volume 1 less than a month ago, I was rapturous, giddy, screaming Dorothy Richardson’s name from the rooftops to try and raise awareness of this incredible novel. I packed all the DR material I could fit into my suitcase and headed for an extended trip to the Pacific Northwest and promptly did very little reading. Now that I’m back home, I chugged through a dozen other books before settling into devour Volume 2, which is made up of two books: The Tunnel, and Interim.
Volume 1 ended in Miram’s mother’s suicide, but no mention is made of it in the fresh pages of The Tunnel. We discover Miriam on the doorstep of her new lodgings with Mrs. Bailey, a working girl secretary to the busy dentists of Wimpole Street. She thrills at being on her own, earning just enough money to pay for a room and very simple dinners (eggs, roll, coffee) at the A.B.C. tea room. Her horizons expand with every page, going to lectures on science, Dante, etc. She explores London and various relationships: Mag and Jan, two independent women living together; her old school friend Alma, now married to a serious literary critic, and the salon of literary folk that surround them; Miss Szigmondy and her friends; Mr. Hancock, Mr & Mrs. Orly, and the other dentists. Through the kindness of Ms Szigmondy, she takes a few lessons on learning to ride a bicycle and this changes her navigable surroundings, taking a 70-mile ride one summer, sleeping in the fields.
She handles vaguely threatening men in the street at midnight:
But why, why… fierce anger at the recurrence of this kind of occurrence seized her. She wanted him out of the way and wanted him to know how angry she was at the interruption.
‘Well,’ she snapped angrily, coming to a standstill in the moonlit gap.
‘Oh,’ said the man a little breathlessly in a lame broken tone, ‘I thought you were going this way.’
‘So I am,’ retorted Miriam in a loud angry shaking tone, ‘obviously.’
Chapter 7 of The Tunnel is the shortest yet, only twenty sentences wherein Miriam remembers her mother as she sees Teetgen’s Teas, “Why must I always think of her in this place?… Something is wearing out of me. I am meant to go mad.”
As she gets more into cycling, she rails against the ridiculous clothing women must wear. Her friends Mag & Jan admit to riding their bikes around Russel Square in their knickers, “We came home nearly crying with rage at not being able to go about, permanently, in nothing but knickers. It would make life an absolutely different thing.” Miriam talks about her fondness for A.B.Cs, what she loves most about them is their dowdiness, then brings the conversation back to clothing: “That’s what I hate, dressing like other people. If I could afford it I should be stylish–not smart. If I can’t be stylish I’d rather be dowdy, and in a way I like dowdiness even better than stylishness.”
Out of nowhere, she suggests to Mag and Jan that they should write. Jan’s excuse not to is that she doesn’t want to write anything mediocre. Miriam is cut to the core, her deepest dream is to write. She wonders if it would be so wrong to write mediocre stuff, and the question is smacked down, it would be foolish, it wouldn’t sell.
Miriam realizes that if she can make it to age fifty and still be independent, she will be free:
In social life no one was alive but the lonely women keeping up half-admiring half-pitying endless conversations with men, with one little ironic part of themselves… until they were fifty and had done their share of social life. But outside the world–one could be alive always. Fifty. Thirty more years…
She visits a sick friend of her sister’s, Miss Dear, who whips up a quick dinner in her room. “It was wonderful and astonishing to know how to cook a real meal, in a tiny room.” Then in lieu of conversation, Miriam talks about the book she’s reading, Villette, about which I agree heartily:
‘I’ve been reading this thing ever since I came back from my holidays.’
‘It doesn’t look very big.’
Miriam’s voice trembled. ‘I don’t mean that. When I’ve finished it, I begin again.’
When visiting Mr. Taunton, the man who proposes to marry Miss Dear and take care of her, he shoves a book in Miriam’s hands, “Do you know this book?”
Miriam skeptically accepted the bulky volume he took down from the book-crowded mantelshelf.
‘Oh, how interesting,’ she said insincerely when she had read Great Thoughts from Great Lives on the cover… I ought to have said I don’t like extracts. ‘Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime,’ she read aloud under her breath from the first page… I ought to go. I can’t enter into this… I hate ‘great men,’ I think…
Interim begins with a Christmas visit to two of her former students from Volume 1: Backwater. Her landlady has also converted lodgings into a boarding house which amps up the social aspect by communal meals. Miriam meets the Canadian doctors, gives French lessons to the landlady’s daughter, listens to gorgeous piano playing and is invited to the pianist’s home, which she likens to Bohemia. At the end of this musical evening, she is walked back to her boarding home, “longing for solitude and to be free to wander slowly along the new addition to her map of London at night.” Her sister, Eve, flees her governess situation to become a florist assistant in London (eventually heading back to that comfortable rich house by the end of this section). She has her first dining-out-alone-at-night-in-a-restaurant experience after feeling nervous that she’d be mistreated for only ordering a roll with butter (all she could afford):
At Gower Street it was eleven o’clock. She was faint with hunger. She had had no dinner and there was nothing in her room. She wandered along the Euston Road hoping to meet a potato-man. The shop-fronts were black. There was nothing to meet her need but the empty stretch of lamplit pavement leading on and on. Rapid walking in the rain-freshened air relieved her faintness, but she dreaded waking in the night with gnawing hunger to keep her awake and drag her up exhausted in the morning. A faint square of brighter light on the pavement ahead came like an accusation. Passing swiftly across it she glanced bitterly at the frosted door through which it came. Restaurant. Donizetti Brothers. The whole world had conspired to leave her alone with that mystery, shut in and hidden every day the whole of her London time behind its closed frosted doors and forcing her now to admit that there was food there and that she must go in or have the knowledge of being starved through fear. Her thoughts flashed painfully across a frosted door long ago in Baker Street, and she saw the angry handsome face of the waiter who had shouted ‘Roll and butter’ and whisked away from the table the twisted cone of serviette and the knives and forks. That was in the middle of the day. It would be worse at night. Perhaps they would even refuse to serve her. Perhaps it was impossible to go into a restaurant late at night alone. She was coming back. There was nothing to be seen behind the steamy panes on either side of the door but plants standing on oil-cloth mats. Behind them again was frosted glass. It was not so grand as Baker Street. There was no menu in a large brass frame with ‘Schweppe’s’ at the top. She pushed open the glass door and was confronted by another glass door blankly frosted all over. Why were they so secret? Inside the second door, she found herself at the beginning of a long aisle of linoleum. On either side people were dotted here and there on short velvet sofa seats behind marble-topped tables. In the close air there was a strong smell made up of all kinds of meat dishes. A waiter flicking the crumbs from a table glanced sharply round at her and went off down the room… A short compact bald man in a white apron was hurrying down the aisle, toward her. He stopped just in front of her and stood bowing and indicating a near empty able with his short arm, and stood silently hovering while she dragged herself into place on the velvet sofa. The waiter rushing up with a menu was gently waved away and the little man stood over the side of the table, blocking out the fuller end of the restaurant. Hardly able to speak for the beating of her heart, she looked up into the little firm round pallid face with a small snub nose and curious pale waxy blue eyes and said furiously, ‘Oh, please, just a roll and butter and a cup of cocoa.’
The little man bowed low with a beaming face and went gently away. Miriam watched him go down the aisle, bowing here and there right and left. The hovering waiter came forward questioningly to meet him and was again waved aside and she presently saw the little man at a speaking-tube and heard him sing in a soft smooth high monotone, ‘Un-sho-co-lat.’ He brought her things and arranged them carefully about her and brought her an Illustrated London News from another table. She sipped and munched and looked at all the pictures. The people in the pictures were real people. She imagined them moving and talking in all manner of circumstances and suffered their characteristics gently, feeling as if someone were there, gently, half-reproachfully holding her hands tied behind her back. The waiter roamed up and down the aisle. People came in, sometimes two or three at a time. The little man was sitting writing with a stern bent face at a little table at the far end of the restaurant in front of a marble counter holding huge urns and glass dishes piled with buns and slices of cake. He did not move again until she rose to go, when he came once more hurrying down the aisle. Her bill was sixpence and he took the coin with a bow and waited while she extricated herself from the clinging velvet, and held the door wide for her to pass out.
‘Good evening, thank you very much,’ she murmured, hoping that he heard, in response to his polite farewell. She wandered slowly home through the drizzling rain warmed and fed and with a glow in her heart. Inside those frightful frosted doors was a home, a bit of her own London home.
Updated to include Virginia Woolf’s review of The Tunnel: “better in its failure than most books in their success.”