Miriam left the gaslit hall and went slowly upstairs.
In my very first spur-of-the-moment bookish decision of 2022, I decided to join in #PilgrimageTogether. It popped up on my Twitter radar at the end of last year. It’s aim, to read all thirteen novels in the Pilgrimage series written by Dorothy M. Richardson. My aim was far less ambitious. All I wanted to do was read the first instalment, Pointed Roofs to see how we got on.
There was something about the idea of reading one of the very first examples of stream of consciousness writing by a woman that appealed to me. Although, Richardson herself did not see it that way. She disliked the term stream of consciousness a lot, referring to it as ‘the shroud of consciousness‘ and a ‘lamentably meaningless metaphor‘ (Windows on Modernism: Selected Letters of Dorothy Richardson, ed. Gloria G. Fromm. Athens, Georgia, U. of Georgia Press, 1995).
Dorothy Miller Richardson (17 May 1891 – 17 June 1957) wrote thirteen semi-autobiographical novels between 1915 and 1957 (the thirteenth novel was published posthumously in 1967). In the literary world they are considered an important example of modernism, so why have they fallen from view?
The books, or chapters, as Richardson preferred to call them, were based on her own life experiences between 1893 – 1915. Documenting the female experience in literature was an important consideration in Richardson’s creative process. A story about an independent woman who desired freedom, education and income was not the usual fare in 1915. Neither was a woman who embraced the purposeful, rewarding nature of the world of work. Or the idea that a woman might also benefit from unhurried, unburdened time to reflect and create.
There was no one about. It would be quiet in her room. She could sit by the fire and be quiet and think things over.
Our protagonist is seventeen year old Miriam Henderson, the third daughter of four, just like Dorothy was, whose father had fallen on hard financial times. As a result Miriam applies for a teaching position at a school in Hanover, Germany, and is accepted.
Pointed Roofs goes on to detail the six months that Miriam spent teaching English at said finishing school for girls. We go through pretty much everything that Miriam goes through. All her doubts and fears about leaving home for the time, as well as concerns about being just out of school herself with no idea how to teach. Fortunately for Miriam, all she is expected to do is to engage in conversational English with the girls.
After her initial feeling of relief, disillusionment sets in as Miriam realises how unstructured the finishing school was compared to her own education in a progressive school inspired by the teachings of John Rushkin (an active, dynamic approach to learning that focused on doing and seeing clearly. Moral aesthetics, accurate thoughtful comparisons, and orderly habits were central tenets to his ideas of a purposeful education).
The really hard part though, Miriam quickly discovered, was learning to live with others who are not your family.
Miriam is a modern woman in the making, keen to take advantage of the new freedoms slowly becoming available to women. Many of the older women at the school are far more traditional and conservative. Many of the younger women and girls are purely focused on marriage, something that feels completely alien to Miriam. She struggles with this sense of not belonging or being understood, throughout the entire six months.
She wanted to go on, to see the spring. But must she always be pretending? Would it always be that…living with exasperating women who do not understand…pretending…grimacing?
I didn’t always understand what was happening either.
Assumed knowledge plays a significant part of the narrative – from elements of family history, to cultural references that a modern reader has to hunt down to understand, as well as an abundance of French and German phrases and dialogue, that eluded this reader most of the time. Normally I use one of the translation apps to get me over these bumps, but by about a third of the way through, I gave up – there were simply too many foreign phrases and it was stopping my reading flow.
In Richardson’s Foreword to the 1937 J. M. Dent edition of Pilgrimage she explained how she used this kind of detail as a device to delay or impede ‘meaning-construction’, to slow up the reading and ‘hold up the development of the whole’. She succeeded!
Miriam’s time in Germany was obviously a formative experience although I suspect her enthusiastic response to German culture may be part of why Richardson’s writing did not find favour with the public, being published as it was, at the beginning of World War One.
Music and clothes seemed to be Miriam’s preoccupations in life (as opposed to getting a husband). She talked and thought about both a lot! There were descriptions about her own clothing and that of others. The arrival of new blouses that are free flowing cause Miriam some consternation.
Minna and Miriam ambled gently along together. Miriam had discarded her little fur pelerine and her double-breasted jacket bulged loosely over the thin fabric of her blouse. She breathed in the leaf-scented air and felt it playing over her breasts and neck. She drew deep breaths as they went slowly along the Waldstrasse lime-trees….Every breath she drew was like a long yawning sigh. She felt the easy expansion of her body under her heavy jacket…”perhaps I won’t have any more fitted bodices,” she mused.
The one Australian character did not fare well under Miriam’s gaze. Gertrude Goldrings ‘hoarse hacking laugh‘, her eyes that ‘cut like sharp steel‘ and her ability to make ‘noises with her hands like inflated paper bags being popped‘ did not amuse or impress Miriam at all.
Miriam is not the most likeable character in literature. I had to keep reminding myself that she was only 17 throughout Painted Roofs, and as such, her petulance, arrogance and lack of self-awareness were understandable. One can only hope she grows out of these traits as she matures! Although, Miriam does not appear to like anyone either. Everyone came under her critical gaze at some point.
those men’s sermons were worse than women’s smiles… just as insincere at any rate… and you could get away from the smiles, make it plain you did not agree and that things were not simple and settled… but you could not stop a sermon. It was so unfair.
Pointed Roofs ends with Miriam’s return to England. We are all left feeling rather defeated and disillusioned by the experience.
Will I continue?
Probably, but I’m not in a hurry. I’m intrigued rather than wowed.
For more insights into the Richardson and her writing visit the Reading Pilgrimage website.
Title: Pointed Roofs Pilgrimage, Volume 1 Author: Dorothy M. Richardson Imprint: Project Gutenberg (from Duckworth & Co. 2nd Impression 1921) Published: May 25, 2018 (originally published 1915) Format: eBook Pages: 313
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.