Pilgrimage (Vol 4: Oberland, Dawn’s Left Hand, Clear Horizon, Dimple Hill, March Moonlight)

I’ve been having the most vivid dreams since I’ve been falling asleep to the voice of Miriam in my head for the past month. Alas, I’ve reached the end of the journey, the final volume containing the last five books of Pilgrimage. The volume starts off incredibly strong—I absolutely love the descriptions of Switzerland in Oberland, evoking memories of reading Mann’s Magic Mountain (1924), which was published three years before Oberland. In it, Miriam has saved up for a delightful trip, taking herself alone to Switzerland to a ski chalet, tobogganing down the snowy hills and chumming it up with her fellow travelers for a fortnight. She will continue to reminisce about the wonders of Oberland throughout the remaining books.

Dawn’s Left Hand details Miriam/Richardson’s affair with Hypo/HG Wells, kicked off by attending an opera with him and his wife, Miriam’s friend Alma. She continues working at the dentists’ office in Wimpole Street, has moved out of the shared rooms with Miss Holland and back into her boarding house with Mrs. Bailey on Tansley Street. “Whatever else awaited her at Tansley Street, these moments waited there. And daily moments of return to a solitude that whenever she crossed the threshold of her empty room ceased to be solitude.” She meets the French/Irish woman Amabel at the Lycurgan/Fabian society, and they both fall madly yet platonically in love with each other.

Miriam introduces Amabel to Michael, the Jew she refuses to marry, in Clear Horizon and they go on to marry in the later books. Amabel also gets deeply into the suffrage cause, participating in marches and getting jailed. Miriam also introduces Amabel to Hypo, and he whisks away with Miriam to her Donizetti coffee shop to focus attention solely on her. “His swift glance towards the next table revealed his everlasting awareness of neighbours-as-audience, and his search, even here, for a sympathetic witness of his tolerant endurance of a young person’s foolish remarks, or for escape into some interesting aspect of his surroundings.” Ah yes, I have also spent time with such a narcissist. As she begins the process of cutting loose from Hypo, she receives a letter that she wants to return to him.

But anything would have been better than responding, to his zestful sketch of himself, so thoroughly in the masculine tradition, and which any ‘sensible’ woman would indulgently accept and cherish, with something that had been dictated by a compensating complacent vision of herself as the Intimate Friend of a Great Man; but without the justification so amply supporting his complacency, without a single characteristic to qualify her for the role, or a sufficient background of hard-won culture to justify a claim to it. His rebuke, though addressed to a non-existent person, the meekly admiring follower he desired rather than an opponent facing the other way, was well earned. But his manner of administering it, insufferable.

At the end of Clear Horizon Miriam decides to cut all ties to London and her previous life. As she discusses this with Hypo, he mentions that she has ten years of material she could use in a dental novel.

‘You know, you’ve been extraordinarily lucky. You’ve had an extraordinarily rich life in that Wimpole Street of yours. You have in your hands material for a novel, a dental novel, a human novel, and, as a background, a complete period, a period of unprecedented expansion in all sorts of directions. You’ve seen the growth of dentistry from a form of crude torture to a highly elaborate and scientific and almost painless process. And in your outer world you’ve seen an almost ceaseless transformation, from the beginning of the safety bicycle to the arrival of the motor car and the aeroplane. With the coming of flying that period is ending and another begins. You ought to document your period.’

‘You’ve been a great chucker-up, I admire that. But I’m not sure that you’re being wise this time, Miriam. What are you going to do?’

Whence this strange prophecy? Nothing she had written or said could have suggested that she was going away for good. Even in her own mind the idea had risen only in the form of a question to be answered in the distant future, at the end of her reprieve that seemed endless.

‘Nothing. I’m going away.’

‘Where?’

‘I don’t know.’

With that, she leaves her London life forever. Dimple Hill has her beginning her journey with the Broom sisters (Grace and Florence) but then settling in as a border with a Quaker family. “I realized one of the Quaker secrets. Living always remote, drawn away into the depths of the spirit, they see, all the time, freshly. A perpetual Sunday.” This book was completed in 1938, the final book Richardson would live to see completed. March Moonlight was cobbled together posthumously, a process I’m not entirely a fan of. This last book is a strange hodgepodge of rolling up bits from the past, and according to her biographer, it was written in sporadic bursts over the last few decades of her life while she was living hand to mouth with her poet husband, both sickly and struggling to make ends meet.

Now that I’m finished, I’d have to say that my favorite books were The Tunnel, Oberland, Dawn’s Left Hand, and Clear Horizon. As soon as she leaves London, the interest fades quickly. I’m immediately on the hunt to purchase this complete set, but find that it is nearly impossible to get. I think I heard rumblings of an annotated, scholarly version hitting the presses in a few years, and will probably wait to grab that for my next reading.

 

Pilgrimage (Vol 3: Deadlock, Revolving Lights, The Trap)

This begins to feel like a slog. Books 6,7, and 8 of the series, and we travel further into Miriam’s mind as she jumps from thought to thought, not stopping to tell us where she is or with whom. She continues to wander around London, enjoying her midnight walks and seclusion in coffee shops, flaunting her independence and rejecting marriage offers. In the last book, she gives up her room to move in with another woman to save money, a flimsy curtain strung up across their bedroom to give the illusion of privacy. When, on the first night, Miriam and Miss Holland disagree about the pleasantness of rattling windows, Miriam knows she’s in a bad situation. It’s also an ill omen that Holland does not enjoy Donizetti’s comforts like Miriam, lounging on the red velvet sofa while enjoying a late night snack and coffee. Meanwhile, the poet Yeats apparently lives in the building behind them, peepable from Miriam’s window. If you can wade through the somewhat incomprehensible streams of consciousness, there are delightful tidbits of Miriam’s feminist rage.

From Deadlock, Miriam discovers one of her employers reading an outrageously sexist book:

Lovely Woman, by T.W.H. Crosland. Why so many similar English initials? A superfluity of mannishness. An attack of course; she scanned pages and headings; chapter upon chapter of peevish facetiousness; the whole book written deliberately against women… The usual sort of thing; worse, because it was colloquial, rushing along in modern everyday language and in some curious way not badly written. Because some women had corns, feminine beauty was a myth; because the world could do without Mrs Hemans’s poetry, women should confine their attention to puddings and babies. The infernal complacent cheek of it. This was the kind of thing middle-class men read. Unable to criticize it, they thought it witty and unanswerable… It ought to be illegal to publish a book  by a man without first giving it to a woman to annotate.

From Revolving Lights, in conversation with Hypo Wilson (e.g. HG Wells):

‘Nonsense, Miriam. Girls with quite good brains and abilities will marry anything; accept its views and quote them.’

‘Yes; just as they will show off a child’s tricks. Views and opinions are masculine things. Women are indifferent to them, really. Any set will do… It is that women can hold all opinions at once, or any, or none. It’s because they see the relations of things which don’t change, more than things which are always changing, and mostly the importance to men of things men believe.

Further musings:

Why cannot men exist without thinking themselves all there is?… [Men] never are. They only make or do; unconscious of the quality of life as it passes… Men have no present; except sensuously. That would explain their ambition and their doubting speculations about the future. Yet it would be easier to make all this clear to a man than to a woman. The very words expressing it have been made by men.

On Miriam’s void when in the room with the Lintoffs and Michael:

There was no pressure in the room; no need to buy peace by excluding all but certain points of view. She felt a joyful expansion. But there was a void all about her. She was expanded in an unknown element; a void, filled by these people in some way peculiar to themselves.

 

Pilgrimage (Vol 2: The Tunnel, Interim)

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.”

 

Pilgrimage (Vol 1: Pointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb)

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.