Sunday, 23 March 2014

Pilgrimage 1 by Dorothy Richardson

I have submitted my thesis, so what could be a better way to celebrate than to start on Dorothy Richardson's modernist epic, a roman fleuve of 13 novels delineating the outer and inner lives of one Miriam Henderson?  Pilgrimage has a reputation for being difficult, heavily reliant on interior monologue or, as May Sinclair famously called it in her review of the early novels in the sequence, stream of consciousness.  Richardson's work influenced other novels I admire and enjoy, especially Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and Sinclair's own Mary Olivier: A Life, and to be perfectly honest I was starting to feel slightly guilty for not having attempted it - so here we go.

The Virago edition of Pilgrimage 1 contains three novels: Pointed Roofs, Backwater, and Honeycomb.  Pointed Roofs has a lot in common with other early twentieth-century fictions of women's lives, showing us in the early chapters a rather awkward Miriam and her rather hilarious sisters, their in-jokes and little rituals.  Miriam is preparing to leave home to go to work in a school in Germany; her father has lost the family money in unwise speculation, and the girls are having to find work.  Miriam takes to Germany, especially the beautiful old town of Hannover, although she remains uncertain about teaching.  In fact she is hardly a teacher at all; she is a mixture between a paid English-speaking companion and a friend to the older girls.  Miriam has, rather shockingly for the time (the first three books are set during the 1890s) tendencies to atheism, and some of the tension of the first novel comes from her relationship with the school's intensely pious headteacher, Fräulein Pfaff.  Miriam was educated at a school run in line with the philosophies and ideas of Ruskin and Darwin, and really this makes her fairly ill-fitted to be a teacher in more conventional establishments.  In Backwater she is back in London and teaching at a girls' school in North London, where she attempts to cure a sense of isolation by long walks in the park and a diet of sensation fiction from a penny library.  Despite forming close relationships with the spinster sisters who run the school, Miriam leaves to go to work as a governess.  In Honeycomb, she is living with the Corries in their country house, caring for two small children and trying to fill the uncomfortable position of one who is not quite a servant and not quite a member of the family, until her mother's ill health means that she has to leave.

In the background to all this are more typical events in the life of a late Victorian young woman.  Miriam, when at home, goes to dances and parties, and meets possible young men; one of her sisters marries, and the family is rescued slightly from poverty by her new husband.  Events happen off-stage, and are mentioned obliquely; a man that Miriam has been fond of dies, but we only find out about this when Miriam is reassuring a potential employer that she does not intend to marry.  The circumstances and events of her mother's depressive illness are similarly obscure.  Because everything is shown from Miriam's point of view, we can only know what she chooses to think about, or finds important, and often her thoughts are happenstance and disconnected, as thoughts tend to be.  Dorothy Richardson used the materials of her own life to try to document and capture the unfolding development of a consciousness, a huge project that demanded this massive, finely detailed text.

In narrative terms the earlier volumes use a more traditional approach, with clearly signalled changes into the stream of consciousness mode.  By Honeycomb, much of the narrative is being expressed through Miriam's thoughts and impressions.  Does this make it difficult?  I wouldn't say it is as difficult as parts of Joyce, but the allusive and obscure style meant that I needed to read attentively if I wanted to know what was happening, and it was easy to miss key sentences in the middle of a long internal monologue.  But the attention paid off, and the book is highly enjoyable.  I found Miriam and her negotiations with the world fascinating and very real, and the way that significant events emerge from her internal monologue can be very moving.   The Pilgrimage series is in print, all four volumes being published by Virago.