Dorothy Richardson can seem to have conspired with those critics of her vast novel, over 2,000 pages long, who have complained that it is boringly avant-garde, inchoate, and vitiated by what Virginia Woolf called ‘the damned egotistical self’. It was not just perversity which provoked her to court such charges. She set out to write a novel about ‘the startling things that are not important’, and to do so through the experiences of a woman who is evasive, assertive and contrary. She would have agreed, I think, with Francis Bacon, who once said in an interview that he wanted ‘to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance. And the moment the story enters, the boredom comes upon you.’ Leslie Fiedler found another kind of boredom in Pilgrimage, one he defended, grudgingly, as ‘a warranty of its commitment to truth and the dull reality we all inhabit’. The notion of a ‘commitment to truth’ is acceptable enough, but the novel’s admirers would find that ‘dull reality’ hard to recognise. The reality of Pilgrimage is full of instances of delight and surprise. It is also necessary to say that admirers of the novel rarely express devotion to its heroine, and they have not found it easy to account for its plot and its themes in ways which are likely to tantalise prospective readers. Dorothy Richardson would have approved of that too.
Pilgrimage is, in fact, 13 novels, 12 of which were published separately between 1915 and 1935 and in a collected edition in 1938, while the complete work was last published here in 1967, since when it has been hard to get hold of. Virago’s new edition comes with its four volumes adorned and strangely illuminated by four of Gwen John’s series of paintings called ‘The Convalescent’. There is no evidence that the two women knew of each other, though they were contemporaries and had a good deal in common. They both lived alone for much of their lives, in small city rooms which frame and are part of their portraits of women: portraits which are also self-portraits, revealing of their makers and of themselves, intensely concerned with their own composition, fiercely contained, even restricted in scope, yet alive with qualities of energy and concentration. The work of both women has been seen as especially feminine, and Dorothy Richardson’s was explicitly intended as feminine.
Miriam Henderson is 17 at the beginning of the novel and nearly forty at the end. Expelled from a happy suburban childhood in South London when her father’s always dubious financial dealings fail, she goes to Germany to teach in a girls’ school. Later she returns to a school in North London, cramped and dingy, which she leaves for a job as a dentist’s receptionist at £1 a week. On this she lives, lodging in Bloomsbury and enjoying her liberty. The novel is about working – and there are few novels which enter so well into the intricacies and comedy of a particular job – and about the evenings and weekends her working only just pays for. Miriam in Bloomsbury is solitary and free, able to explore several worlds and belong to none of them. Her old school friend has married a famous writer and lives in Surrey. Hypo Wilson (famously based on H.G. Wells), with whom Miriam has an awkward love affair, urges her to write, either ‘middles’ for magazines or ‘the confessions of a modern woman’: suggestions which she scorns, and which Dorothy Richardson took up. Another friend is the Russian Jew, Shatov, who wants to marry her. Then there are women, ones who smoke and joke and chat into the night, others who marry, as two of her three sisters do, unhappily, so that Miriam is able to congratulate herself on having evaded ‘the convention that kept urbane women alert at the front gates of consciousness to guard the ease of men waiting to be set going on their topics’. She attends lectures and meetings, she reads and talks and bicycles and listens and looks; and slowly, with much argument and back-tracking, she finds her own topic and her own way of life and becomes a writer. Her topic is her own life, and the events of her life are the events of Dorothy Richardson’s life. Yet Miriam is also an imagined character, watched and watching, remembered and remembering. The novel is shaped by acts of remembering and by their trophies, brightly lit fragments which wait, like rooms, to be occupied.
The novel does not deal in the habitual or the repealed, but moves through moments, each one exceptional, and the living of them. Books, conversations, faces, lectures, glimpses from windows, meetings, noises, clothes are experienced, and never passively, so that Miriam quarrels with books, mimics voices, marvels at what she reads in a newspaper, despairs of a blouse. New ideas and people and places assault her, and she is changed by them. Memory alights on those moments which nudge her into fresh insight and knowledge, and for this the moments themselves must be inhabited again. Intellectual growth and personal discovery are not easy for her. They come unpredictably and through struggle. She can never simply be taught, but must learn and relearn, on her own, painfully and resistingly. She liked her school because ‘it had not gone against the things she found in herself’. Learning will never be so simple again, and she is conscious of having a lot to learn. The reader is not cajoled into either sympathy or agreement with this extraordinary woman, whose candours are often contradictory and provisional. The novel’s effect is to rock its reader into the same kinds of resistance, assertion and uncertainty that Miriam goes through herself. To read Pilgrimage is to know, minutely and sometimes uncomfortably, the rhythms of another consciousness.
Memory can turn the past into history, providing what is recalled with a spurious of partial significance, which Miriam dreads as subversive of the reality of ‘current existence, the ultimate astonisher’. Plots, endings, opinions develop purposes of their own, which may reduce the confusions of life without explaining them, and it is the ‘hilariously expostulating narrative voice’ – the voice of men and novels, of sequence and logic, a voice she responded to and knew how to use – which Dorothy Richardson set out to avoid. It was characteristic of her to jib at the word ‘stream’ when May Sinclair, writing of her novels in 1918, used William James’s ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe them. ‘Pool’, she thought, would have done better. She began writing Pilgrimage in 1913, the year when The White Peacock and Du Côté de Chez Swann were published and a year before. Dubliners came out. Her fiction was regarded as experimental then, and still, in the best possible sense, seems experimental now: and yet it is of its time, in its brands of feminism and Fabian socialism and in what it owes to early film-making. What Dorothy Richardson particularly shares with Proust and with Joyce is the incorporation into her novel of its own history and creation. Miriam will eventually write the novel she occupies, and for most of her adult life is seen as a reader and a woman with a need to write, who revels in language and fears its power to generalise and distort.
Miriam is a passionate reader, quick to see what is best in a writer, excitable, greedy for ideas, but always, finally, dismayed. So that Henry James, who is present and parodied in Pilgrimage as the writer who ‘achieved the first completely satisfying way of writing a novel’, becomes ‘a venerable gentleman, a charmed and charming high priest of nearly all the orthodoxies, inhabiting a softly lit enclosure he mistook, until 1914, for the universe’. The dismay is not really with James or Conrad or Gissing, or even Shakespeare, whose women had ‘no reality’ because they were ‘women as men see them’, but with the alternative they forced her towards: a kind of fiction and a language which would reflect and contain what was peculiar to women’s experience and women’s minds. Miriam finds this no easier to grapple with than anyone else ever has, not least because she feels herself to be ‘mannish’, or anyway ‘some sort of bad unsimple woman’, who must untangle the confusions she so exactly expresses in remarks like ‘How utterly detestable mannishness is; so mighty and strong and comforting when you have been mewed up with women all your life.’
She has love affairs and friendships with men and with women. A woman she unhappily shares a flat with for a time accuses her of failing, as she would not have done with a man, to keep a promise she’d made to her. Miriam is superbly indignant and privately ashamed. It is true. She can say disparagingly of a fat woman she sees at a concert that she is ‘two-thirds of the way through a life that had been a ceaseless stream of events set in a ceaseless stream of inadequate commentary without and within’. Yet men are taxed with ‘talking about people and things and never being or knowing anything’. Assertions of this contradictory kind characterise Miriam’s sense of the dilemma and her tackling of it. It is out of the duality of her own nature that the language of the novel is to emerge, and it is a duality which is expressed as a quality of language itself. Language and languages and ways of speaking are sometimes her element, there for sport and mimicry and invention. While translating some dry academic French, she discovers that, in their failure to meet and match, two languages can produce meanings beyond either: yet ‘each was expressive before its meaning appeared.’ If language can generate meaning, it can also evade or wither it: ‘If you speak of a thing: it is past. Speaking makes it glow with a life that is not its own.’
The language Miriam works towards, so that ultimately she will describe ‘the years falling into words, dropping like fruit’, will be one which approximates to the language of impression and thought: dense, flexible, playful, reflexive. The abbreviations of inner language, sentences reduced to their predicates because their subjects and even verbs are too obvious to the thinker, or too painful, to need articulating, will, in detail and throughout the novel, work to ensure that the reader enters the text on terms which make it necessary to query and doubt and reread.
Dorothy Richardson’s mother spent many years in a state of torturing depression, and was taken, at the end of her life, by Dorothy, to a hotel by the sea. The mother’s condition deteriorated as her dependence increased, and one day, when her daughter had gone out to get help from a doctor, she killed herself. This episode is made part of Miriam’s story at the end of the first volume of Pilgrimage. We are not quite told that this is what happened, only that Miriam came back to a horror, whose effect on her is alluded to several times in her later life, and whose cause remains unsayable. It is a kind of narration which has maddened readers.
Miriam will, for instance, muse and speculate about someone before introducing the person of describing her meeting with them. She will wonder how another friend might view this new acquaintance, imagine them together, make comparisons and predictions, rehearse idiosyncrasies of speech or hair-style. The reader, bludgeoned and bemused by such treatment, can nonetheless come to discover its truth to the way we respond to new people as mysterious possessors of faces and voices and gestures first, as owners of names and histories second.
Between 1927 and 1933, Dorothy Richardson wrote reviews of films for Bryher’s magazine Close-Up. Pilgrimage grew from her understanding of the possibilities of the film camera, and, paradoxically, out of her sense that the arrival of ‘talkies’ would be a threat to these possibilities. ‘Vocal sound, always a barrier to intimacy, is destructive of the balance between what is seen and the silently perceiving, co-operating onlooker.’ The paradox was not lost on her; indeed, the kind of loquaciousness she developed to replace the camera contained its own wariness of everything in language which works to categorise, and therefore tempts the writer to clinch and summarise. The notion that language might be what it represents, rather than a mediator of that, is seen by Miriam as a goal: an impossible one in the end, but worth struggling for because of what might be revealed by the obstacles to its achievement.
Maturity in the novel’s fourth volume is expressed as a new confidence in what Miriam uniquely is. She is no longer freakishly divided, but a person in whom variety and contradiction are recognised and productive. She is drawn to the Fabians and later to the Quakers by what both groups have to say about sharing and collaboration, about the individual conscience and its relation to common experience. Special moments, particular experiences, a language which reflects these truthfully, will furnish the novel Miriam finally starts to write. Writing will make possible a merger between those aspects of her life which had seemed polarised: male and female, speech and silence, ideas and feeling. Literature, Miriam finds out, is, after all, communicative: ‘It’s finding the same world in another person that moves you to your roots.’