3rd August 2007
Unusually this is a fairly straight reproduction of a list post – in this case to WWTTA on the subject of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage Books 1-3 (Volume 1). I have put it here in addition partly because I have found the book so fascinating and partly because I have tried in this post to discover the reasons why I, rather unexpectedly, like this book so much.
This posting just sort of grew and grew – I am afraid it now resembles a very messy stream of consciousness – a kind of bad parody – rather than any concentrated or organised critical analysis!
I have now completed my second reading of these chapters/books, the various articles Ellen has posted and Judy and Ellen’s very helpful posts. It says
something for the book’s appeal to me that I was able to re-read it instantly – I can’t think of many books where I would be happy to do this. I remain however deeply puzzled by many aspects of the book – given the entire lack of any sort of even basic critical consensus (as represented by the articles Ellen has
posted) this is perhaps not surprising. The dominant effect of a second reading was that I paid more attention to the external events in the books and less perhaps to Miriam’s consciousness. Ellen of course picked up this aspect first time around! :).
I agree that one of the book’s weaknesses is its’ lack of honesty about sex. Ellen wrote…
>>I do feel myself somewhat bored after a while. Miriam’s inner life is just not rich enough because Richardson herself is too repressed and cannot show us scenes of anger, sex, and the life she can give Miriam is in a sense dull.<<
I never get bored but I can understand the point. If there is a lesbian sub-text then it is too deep for me to discover. It seems to me that there is a revulsion from all sexual contact. This is replaced by that sensuality which I have commented on before and is almost omni-present. Music, flowers, cigarettes, drinking chocolate, clothes, landscapes, rooms and many other ‘things’ are presented sensually. Indeed ‘things’ are set up in opposition to people….
‘At Newlands people might be dead, the women in bright hard deaths or deaths of cold, cruel deceitfulness, the men tiny insects of selfishness, but there were things which made up for everything, full and satisfying’ (p468 Virago edition)
What an extraordinary sentiment! It is not surprising tha t we do not ‘take’ to Miriam very readily because this thought flies in the face of nearly all established moral sentiment. We are taught, it is embedded into us, that people matter more than things. This can expressed in a variety of ways – religious and non-religious (interestingly I think it might be fair to say that some strands of feminist thought would judge that a part of patriarchal bias is to value things over people?), from different political viewpoints. And it clashes of course with Miriam’s own hatred of materialist people – as represented by North London.
So she can value things over people but hates materialism. A contradiction indeed! The resolution, for Miriam, at any rate is that she properly appreciates these things, in an aesthetic way. She is set apart in this and we have re-iterated passages where she wonders why other people do not feel as her. Her snobbery is, above all, an aesthetic and moral one. I think this last point I only grasped on the re-read, as my inclination is to see snobbery as sociologically or intellectually based (the former as it is most common and the latter as the one to which I am most likely to fall prone to – and I emphasise I am not defending any of these snobberies! – this is Miriam as uncomfortable mirror). Miriam does not,as far as I can tell judge people solely on a class or intellectual basis; she considers servants as human beings for instance (as noted elsewhere) and she is highly suspicious of the world of the ‘intellect’ as commonly understood – male dominated.
All this dodges the issue, raised by both Ellen and Judy, as to how far we identify Miriam and Richardson in this snobbery. I have no answer to this question and would prefer to leave the issue until I have read more but I consider it further below. It was undoubtedly true that personally I was far more prone to snobbery when young so it is possible that we shall see Miriam to some extent ‘grow out’ of this characteristic (though I admit to being dubious of this). It is perhaps too easy to forget that this is an account of Miriam’s consciousness at ’17 and a half’ (p56) ; if the book is centrally concerned as Hanscombe puts it ( and I find Hanscombe’s Introduction the most helpful of the critical comments I have read) with Miriam’s consciousness…
‘Miriam’s consciousness is the subject matter of the novel’
then there is a sense in which even if Richardson and Miriam are identified, the Miriam of the novel is a quite different person, given the temporal remove, to Richardson the author. We both are and are not our past selves. This does remind me inescapably of Proust. On re-reading though, I found my attention drawn more to the social observation. When Miriam ‘moves downstairs’ in Germany; how this is a social promotion – she has been moved from the attics to the rooms allotted to the fee-paying members of Fraulein Pfaff’s school. It is a money making enterprise. Fraulein Pfaff sacks her servant for asking for more money. But then Miriam will break out again in an extraordinary visionary passage of deep bleakness. Such is her sudden flow of thought about cancer which occurs on pp172-3 (Pointed Roofs Chapter 12)…
‘How lovely it would be at the end of the day. Fraulein would feel happy then…or did elderly people fear cancer all the time?…..it was a great mistake. You should leave things to Nature….You were more likely to have things if you thought about them. But Fraulein would think and worry….alone with herself…with her great dark eyes and bony forehead and thin pale cheeks…always alone and just cancer coming…I shall be like that one day…an old teacher, and cancer coming. It was silly to forget all about it and see Granny’s calceolarias in the sun…all that had to come to an end…To forget was like putting off repentance. Those who did not put it off saw when the great waters came, a shining figure coming to them through the floods…If they did not they were like the man in a nightcap, his mouth hanging open—no teeth—and skinny hands, playing cards on his death-bed’
Miriam goes down to the schoolroom where Fraulein and a small group of girls are engaged on mending…Miriam reflects…
‘Behind her distress two impressions went to and fro–Fraulein and the raccommadage party sitting in judgement and the whole roomful waiting for cancer’.
Now it seems to me that none of the criticism I have read even starts to deal with a passage, admittedly exceptional, such as this. In terms of literary comparisons I think of Stead rather than anyone else. Maybe this is the kind of vision Louie in The Man Who Loved Children might have had. How would one describe it? Morbid, visionary and I think depressed. Which does lead me to the feeling that there is something in Miriam’s consciousness of the bi-polar. The mood swings are extreme. And things are always just a little bit out of focus. I am always loath to make this sort of diagnosis but it certainly suggests a
possible reading of a passage such as this which other criticisms do not. I can certainly see no lesbian sub-text here, nor some reflection of Bergsonian
philosophy (even though I remain unclear as to what that consists of!). I should stress that I am not therefore suggesting Miriam is ‘unbalanced’ or ‘mad’ – it may
well be that this is an appropriate way of viewing the world. It is certainly an uncommon one. And the passages are shocking and brilliantly effective – how great a touch are ‘Granny’s calceolarias’?
In other passages Miriam is brilliantly insightful about other people and what is going on around her. I select two. First from Backwater, where she considers her mother’s life and the slow destruction of her personality by her father. It occurs in the context of her being advised by Miss Jenny Perne to read The Standard’s ‘leader’; Miriam reflects how her mother would read leaders, comment ‘excellent leader’ and her father would put down his tome and ‘condescendingly agree’…
“But any discussion generally ended in his warning her not to believe a thing because she saw it in print, and a reminder that before she married she had thought that everything that she saw in print was true, and quite often he would go on to general remarks about the gullibility of women, bringing in the story of the two large long-necked pearly transparent drawing-room vases with stems and soft masses of roses and leaves painted on their sides that she had given too much money for at the door to a man who said they were Italian. Brummagen, Brummagen, he would end mouthing the word and turning back to his book with the neighing laugh that made Miriam turn to the imagined picture of her mother in the first year of her married life, standing in the sunlight at the back door of the Babington house, with the varnished coach-house door on her right and the cucumber frames in front of sloping up towards the bean-rows that began the kitchen garden; with her little scalloped bodice, her hooped skirt, her hair bunched in curls up on her high pad and falling round her neck, looking at the jugs with grave dark eyes. And that neighing laugh had come again and again all through the years until she sat meekly, flushed and suffering under the fierce gaslight, feeling every night of her life winter and summer as if the ceiling were coming down on her head, and read ‘leaders’ cautiously, and knew when they were written in ‘a fine chaste dignified style’. (pp234-5).
Just how good is this! A horrible bleak account of marital hell with the slow and insistent destruction of her mother by her father’s mockery in just a few brilliant, vivid sentences. One can almost hear the ‘neighing laugh’. It is no wonder that Miriam’s mother ends up in a state of near catatonic depression and eventually of course commits suicide. This is fiercely feminist writing as well. Miriam is counter-posing her mother’s and father’s views of life and rejecting the assumed superiority of the latter. It is very specific but very general too. (I am, at last, reading Ellen Moody’s – Ellen’s! – Trollope on the Net and the following couple of sentences from Chapter 2 express something similar to this, in theoretical terms, quite brilliantly ‘ I don’t know if one can overestimate the importance of social stratification in human experience, nor how keen is the average person’s response to even fleeting forms of disrespect. When such experiences become explicit and continual, and humiliation an expected part of one’s daily round, it is the rare person who doesn’t come away badly wounded’. Miriam’s mother has been very badly, indeed fatally, wounded).
The second such passage occurs when Miriam finally ‘sees through’ life at Newlands. I suppose if I had to choose a representative passage from the whole of the first three books it would be this – pages 441-3, the end of Chapter 9 of Honeycomb. Like Ellen I wish I was able to scan the passage in. I will try and describe it and then quote at length. The Newlands weekend house-party is at dinner on a Saturday night. Discussion turns to a case in which Mr Corrie is involved. Miriam is feeling, as usual, alienated. The case involves a railway accident which occurred because a signalman was taken ill. It is discussed with puns and witticisms, Mr Corrie defending the involvement of the law. Miriam starts out sympathetic to Mr Corrie whom she likes, and suggests that maybe the man was ill because of badly cooked food..
>>’I don’t say that because I’m interested, but because I wanted to take sides with him,’ thought Miriam’ Mr Corrie is delighted. But then Miriam continues with
the subject … ‘Perhaps,’ she said, feeling anxiously about the incriminated cook, ‘the real cause then would be a fault in her upbringing, I mean he may have lately married a young woman whose mother had not taught her cooking.’
‘Oh, you can’t go back further than the cook,’ said Mr Corrie finally.
‘But the cause,’ she persisted, in a low, anxious voice, ‘is the sum total of all the circumstances.’
‘No, no,’ said Mr Corrie impenetrably, with a hard face —‘you can’t take the thing back into the mists of the past.’
He dropped her and took up a lead coming from a man at the other end of the table.
‘Oh,’ thought Miriam coldly, appraising him at a glance, the slightly hollow temples, the small skull, a little flattened, the lack of height in the straight forehead, why had she not noticed that before?…..’that’s you; you won’t, you can’t look at anything from the point of view of life as a whole’- she shivered and drew away from the whole spectacle and pageant of Newlands’ life. It all had this behind it, a man, able to do and decide things who looked about like a ferret for small clever things, causes, immediate near causes that appeared to explain, and explained nothing and had nothing to do with anything. Her hot brain whirled back —
signalmen, in bad little houses with bad cooking—tinned foods–they’re a link—they bring all sorts of things into their signal boxes. They ought to bring the fewest possible dangerous things. Something ought to be done. Lawyers were quite happy, pleased with themselves if they made some one person guilty–put their finger on him. ‘Can’t go back into the mists of the past…..you didn’t understand…you’re not capable of understanding any real movements of thought. You think —in propositions. Can’t go back. Of course you can go back, and round and up and everywhere. Things as a whole….you understand nothing. We’ve done. That’s you. Mr Corrie—a leading Q.C. Heavens.’ In that moment Miriam felt she had left Newlands for ever. She glanced at Mrs Corrie and Mrs Craven—bright beautiful coloured birds, fading slowly year by year in the stifling atmosphere, the hard brutal complacent atmosphere of men’s minds….men’s minds, staring at things, ignorantly, knowing ‘everything’ in an irritating way and yet ignorant.'<<
We have to bear in mind that most of the descriptive passages of Newlands have been lyrical, rhapsodic. Miriam loves the ‘things’ of Newlands, as the passage I quoted at the beginning shows. Here everything gets reversed and we have a typical but central example of Richardson’s style. We can note how Miriam is
snubbed, dismissed, when she makes a point with which the dominant male disagrees; she reacts first with an almost childish denigration of his physical characteristics, but then she is almost forced to think and she realises that Newlands is built on this man’s casuistry – it is quite literally built of course, since that is how he obtains the money to buy the beautiful ‘things’ (this moment reminds me of the discussions we often have on ECW about how the glorious stately homes of 18thC England are built on the blood, sweat and death of the exploited both slaves and the working class). The ‘things’ do then become tainted.
My attempted argument with both of these passages is that the novel is more concerned with external events than at first appears. In both cases Miriam’s perception, her consciousness, of other people is acute. This is certainly not always so and is not an attempt to argue away her snobbery or obtuseness or what approaches sexual hysteria – I do not know how else to describe the passage on p445 where Miriam considers a girl who is going to marry a divorced man…
it is as if the girl is going to marry Hitler. There..’were two kinds of men. You could tell them at a glance. Life was fresh and clean for Sarah and Harriett…There
were two kinds of people. Most of the people who were going about ought to be shut up somehow, in prison.’ (I am sure I would be in prison!). This is really horrible reminder of the judgemental sexual prurience of the young. I think this may be why Richardson felt that there was a problem with the term ‘stream of consciousness’. She feels that human consciousness is anything but an easy stream – it is a mass of contradictions, awkwardnesses, unpleasantness. It is the
constant engagement with Miriam’s complex consciousness which makes the book so fascinating.
On to some previous postings. Ellen wrote (and Judy also commented on)… >>One of reiterated statements of this middle novel is how Miriam cannot accept these “dreadful” people she’s surrounded by. The implication is they are dull, dense, conventional, narrow and bigoted too, and would stifle her as well as themselves be unkind (sneering for example). The problem is Richardson does not prove this at all. She simply strikes out with this bad-mouthing. I’m just now reading Trollope’s _Orley Farm_: he dramatizes dreadful cruel bullying behaviour by characters who never seem to go near a book. So there’s no need for him to justify his central character, Mary Lady Mason’s desire to keep well away from all. This lack of demonstration or dramatization could be called as severe flaw in _Backwater_. On the other hand, could it be that Richardson wants us to see Miriam’s unfairness? Miriam is not Richardson. At one point she bought into something I was startled to see; it’s not fair how she leaves the practical tasks to others, Gerard and the other young men are kind, and so too the Misses Pernes when she leaves them. Does anyone feel Richardson is satirizing Miriam’s withdrawal, or is it a case of ambivalence on Richardson’s part?<< I do see exactly what Ellen means and yet I am not offended by it in Richardson in the way that I by it in Lessing (who reproduces many of the same attitudes, about the same kind of people incidentally – the suburban – in The Golden Notebook). Why this difference in my reaction to what might appear a similar elitism/snobbery? First
because it is not political in Richardson. Lessing’s Anna/Ella/self are meant to be politically aware, intellectually current women. Anna is meant to be a communist. This is not to say that such attitudes are unrealistic – I have met them in real life and you can see them clearly in someone like Orwell. But when I do meet them I utterly reject them and I seriously question the person’s socialism. It is no wonder Anna has problems as a Marxist! But all this is irrelevant as far as Miriam (or indeed Richardson) are concerned since they have no pretensions to any kind of political vision, idealism, knowledge. But beyond this I think Richardson is interrogating Miriam – her earlier self. I was very judgemental as a young man. Many of those judgements were incredibly stupid. But isn’t it a way in which we try to establish our individual position in the world – by reacting against things (this is after all better than simply accepting things as they are)? Well we will see how things progress as Miriam ages.
Finally it is important to note that Miriam is of course powerless. Her disapproval or otherwise counts for nothing at all. It will change neither the people concerned nor society. Miriam and Richardson are not interested in this sort of change (which I think Lessing’s Anna and perhaps Lessing herself are?). The only people over whom Miriam has any sort of power she is in fact fairly generous to. In fact we should note that what is portrayed is that though she may despise her pupils or their vision of life she is in fact (as the book portrays her) a good and conscientious and indeed much-liked teacher. Her snobbery and elitism stops in
Ellen wrote(I quote again)..
>>I do feel myself somewhat bored after a while. Miriam’s inner life is just not rich enough because Richardson herself is too repressed and cannot show us scenes of anger, sex, and the life she can give Miriam is in a sense dull. She would say she has done this deliberately. _Villette_ and _Jane Eyre_ are unreal romances. The real man the young woman meets is the pastor at the German school she never gets near or the cigar smoking coarse Mr Corrie who would have
no real interest in such a Jane Eyre type. Richardson doesn’t fill her book with learning and pictures of the type Proust does; she daren’t make sex explicit and for all I know didn’t have sexual experiences to share (beyond the kind of snatching and harassment we find in say Burney’s _Evelina_, would find it unthinkable to share them. So I think there is a problem in this book. We would have been much better off if the suicide and the mother and father’s relationship were put before us. If Miriam could stand to present all she loathes so in all its graphic reality in other people (not so much hell as annoyance, irritation, frustration, thwarting soul-withering stupidity is other people in this book a good deal of the time).<<
I have tried, I suppose, to show in this absurdly lengthy post why I don’t find Richardson in the least dull – so far anyway (there are after all three books to go!). I have quoted a passage which I think brilliantly encapsulates the whole of her father’s and mother’s relationship. But ultimately I agree with Ellen that the book does depend on one’s feelings about Miriam’s ‘inner life’ and whether you personally find that sympathetic or not. The comparison with Proust is spot on, as usual!, because in Proust if you do get bored with the inner musings you can always skip over to some social observation or sexual shenanigans. That’s
not really possible here. And the odd thing, from a personal perspective, is that Pilgrimage is not a book I would expect to like. I find much of Woolf tedious because I cannot connect to the inner lives she portrays; the same is true of James. So its not a gender thing (well as Richardson is female it couldn’t be! :)). Maybe it’s precisely because Miriam’s inner life is so messy, her thought patterns at times so obtuse, even stupid that I connect. I do get the feeling at times of a mirror – and it isn’t always, as I have remarked before, a pleasant one. I think it is much more than any of these other writers an act of analysis – and that includes of course the omissions, as much analytic therapy is a battle of resistance especially over sexuality. I find the lack of reference to this in the criticism baffling. Whatever the case I look forward to seeing if I continue to be enraptured by the next three books!