Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Miriam found the word - Dorothy Richardson's Pointed Roofs

I first heard of the British novelist Dorothy Richardson, author of the thirteen volume Pilgrimage series, in Ford Madox Ford’s eccentric, exuberant literary history The March of Literature (1938), where he declares her the greatest living English writer, more or less, hoping that:

every one of my readers will at the earliest reasonable opportunity procure himself a copy of Miss Richardson’s Pointed Roofs, a beautiful book which, published in 1915, was drowned under the reverberations of the late war…  (848)

Richardson is “less willfully elaborate and much more verbally beautiful” than Proust.  We will just ignore the sentence on the same page where Ford “make[s] the same plea for the French novels of M. René Béhaine… the greatest of French living writers.”

I mean, greatest, whatever, but this sounded good, and the earliest reasonable opportunity turned out to be earlier this month, helped by a Twitter-driven readalong of all thirteen novels which can be found at the poundtag #PilgrimageTogether.

The subject is fictionalized autobiography, which in this first book means 17 year-old Miriam goes to a German girls’ boarding school, nominally to teach English.  It’s a genuine “study abroad” novel, a favorite genre of mine.  She stays for a year - rather less, really - and learns a lot.  Some things are awful compared to England, others the greatest thing in the world.  The mentality is authentically teenaged.

The setting provides some linguistic fun – I will link to examples provided by Languagehat – that I presume I lose when Miriam returns to England in the second volume.  Otherwise the language is the kind of precise, sensory prose that I associate with Flaubert and his descendants.  Lots of description, especially of hair and clothes, lots of unfussy but original and useful metaphor – “A great plaque of sunlight lay across the breakfast-table” (Ch. 4).  Or how about this one, for applause:

Gertrude Goldring, the Australian, was making noises with her hands like inflated paper bags being popped.  (Ch. 3)

I was surprised at how easy the prose was, for the most part, as in the first lines:

Miriam left the gaslit hall and went slowly upstairs. The March twilight lay upon the landings, but the staircase was almost dark. The top landing was quite dark and silent. 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 until Eve and Harriett came back with the parcels.

But there is a real innovation here; Richardson never bothers to tell me exactly who Eve and Harriett are.  They are Miriam’s sisters, and since I am able to figure this out there is no need to say so directly.  Trollope – you name it – would say “Eve, her oldest sister…” and so on.  Richardson is not as generous with information.  She trusts that I am paying attention.

The stream of consciousness passages are also innovations.  They are typographically distinct, with the ellipses signaling the shift:

Late at night, seated wide-awake opposite her sleeping companion, rushing towards the German city, she began to think.

It was a fool's errand.... To undertake to go to the German school and teach ... to be going there ... with nothing to give. The moment would come when there would be a class sitting round a table waiting for her to speak. She imagined one of the rooms at the old school, full of scornful girls.... How was English taught? How did you begin? English grammar ... (Ch, 2, and it goes on for a while)

Later, soon but later, Joyce and Woolf will realize that they can cut the “she began to think” business, and perhaps a lot more.

I have a strong taste for this kind of prose, “impressionist,” to use Ford’s term.  So good:

There was a large ostrich feather fastened by a gleaming buckle against the side of her silky beaver hat. It swept, Miriam found the word during the Psalms, back over her hair.  (Ch. 5)

I will read at least a couple more novels in the series (they are all pretty short), but I am puzzled about the metaphysics of the book.  What is the novel behind the novel?  I am not sure.  The collected edition begins with a four-page 1938 literary history that is so wrong I now think of it as a purposeful obfuscation, but I will save that idea until I have read a little more.

Maybe the novels are just fictional autobiography turned into fiction, written as well as possible, with an unusual feminine ethos.  Nothing wrong with that.  The sorts of elaborate patterning I associate with Flaubert are, if they exist here at all, still invisible to me.  So I will keep reading.

Thanks to #PilgrimageTogether for the push.


  1. I just used some Xmas funds to purchase vol 3 of this, so I finally have it all and can join in and read the rest of it.

    On the Wikipedia stream-of-consciousness page, it says that this is the first complete S-o-c book in English; and I thought, I don't really remember S-o-c in Pointed Roofs. It's not till about book 3, I think, that things start to feel unusual. I wonder if what you quote above is actually an innovation: I'm being to suspect that this kind of indirect thought is in fact so common no one even notices it.

  2. Of Dorothy Richardson I only know a comically mean-spirited barb by Hugh Kenner; although she was just an excuse to throw an even meaner barb at Woolf. Kenner was adamantly against the idea that anyone understood stream of consciousness but his boy Joyce.

    How much stream of consciousness is there in the novel?

  3. I'm so glad you're reading Richardson! I can't remember when I've been so impressed by a writer I'd never heard of. I hope you continue for at least a few more books -- as Obooki says, the first one isn't really representative of the series (naturally enough).

  4. I have no idea what the Wiki author means by "complete," but leafing, electronically, through the first three books, what I'm calling "stream" passages appear frequently throughout. They are typographically distinct - honestly, that's the innovation, all those periods - so I can easily pick them out:

    "A long letter to Eve.... Eve would think that she was showing off. But she would be excited and interested too, and would think about it a little. If only she could make Eve see what a book was ... a dance by the author, a song, a prayer, an important sermon, a message. Books were not stories printed on paper, they were people; the real people; ... 'I prefer books to people' ... 'I know now why I prefer books to people.'" (Honeycomb, Ch. 3)

    The difference between this and other people's depiction of interiority, some Galsworthy character wandering around London, say, may be pretty thin. But May Sinclair, in the 1918 Egoist review that attached "stream of consciousness" to Richardson, does not distinguish among the first three books:

    "In identifying herself with this life, which is Miriam's stream of consciousness, Miss Richardson produces her effect of being the first, of getting closer to reality than any of our novelists who are trying so desperately to get close."

    "Reality," it's always "reality." I pulled Sinclair's quote from this hash - sorry I couldn't find a better text.

    So, how much "streaming"? A couple of passages per chapter? The rest is more like the usual good post-Flaubert writing.

    I'll read at least two more. The readalong is at a book-a-month pace, although I see several people are racing ahead.

  5. I think my review of Honeycomb gives a better view of it than I can manage now. It's not just the s-o-c which changes, but also the general approach to writing. Anyhow, if you're reading that far, you can make up your own mind.

    I notice also from my review that I read book 3 nine and a half years ago. I read book 4 too at some point in those years, but I'm guessing a pace of a book-a-month may be a bit beyond me.