Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Dorothy Richardson's Honeycomb, and also her manifesto - where no plant grows and no mystery pours in from the unheeded stars

I’ve been cooking along with Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage novels, along with a few people on Twitter.  This month was the third book, Honeycomb (1917), in which our heroine Miriam, having made two attempts at teaching, becomes a governess, which also does not work out despite being a posh gig and the children not being so bad.  It’s the adults in the house who are unbearable, at least for a smart, restless, somewhat acid nineteen-year-old who really ought, at this point, to be a studying art history and English literature at a liberal arts college.  But that’s not an option in 1895.

The style of the novel is much like that of the earlier two novels, highly interior and Flaubert-like until it takes a curious turn at the two-thirds mark, only a hundred pages, since this is a short novel, when the family and children and philistine parents, all of the new characters in the novel, are abandoned, likely never to return.  Miriam goes to a family wedding for one long chapter, and spends the next and last caring for her deeply depressed mother.  After the radical break in the story, the narration itself becomes radically fragmented.  The withholding of information that I take as Richardson’s great innovation becomes more severe.   A shocking, life-changing event, for example, occurs in the white space just before the last paragraph in the novel.  I am not sure I would have caught it if I did not have some knowledge of what happens next in the series, and of Richardson’s biography.

What I am saying is that as much as I enjoy Richardson’s writing at the sentence level, I am no longer wondering why she is not read so much.  Most readers hate this sort of thing.  I like it all right.

The 1938 edition that collected Pilgrimage into four volumes begins with a remarkable four page – what is it – a defense, let’s say.  It is a remarkable text.  I have to keep in mind that it was written twenty years after the last novel that I have read, and that I have no idea what stylistic changes occur in that period as Richardson moves her Miriam up to the point where she (meaning, I guess, they) publish the first volume of their flowing novel.

Something must change in the style.  This is the first sentence, and paragraph, of the Foreword - the novels I have read so far are not written like this:

Although the translation of the impulse behind his youthful plan for a tremendous essay on Les Forces humaines makes for the population of his great cluster of novels with types rather than individuals, the power of a sympathetic imagination, uniting him with each character in turn, gives to every portrait the quality of a faithful self-portrait, and his treatment of backgrounds, contemplated with an equally passionate interest and themselves, indeed, individual and unique, would alone qualify Balzac to be called the father of realism.  (p. 9)

Ah, Balzac, she’s talking about Balzac.  And realism.  “Realism.”

Richardson pulls in Arnold Bennett as the “first English follower” of Balzac.  “Since all these novelists happened to be men” (9) Richardson deliberately searches for a feminine realism, which she believes she finds after much struggle.  The great conflict, as I understand her cryptic lines, is that if the goal is to allow “contemplated reality” to “hav[e] for the first time in her experience its own say,” then the subject of the fiction is completely arbitrary.  So Richardson writes about her own life by default.  It is a bit – a lot – like Gustave Flaubert’s friends arguing that given his aesthetic goals he should reign in his excesses by picking a boring local Normandy subject, like Balzac would pick.

Next Richardson invokes Proust, implicitly defending herself from charges of imitation, since she was writing her roman fleuve long before Du côté de chez Swann (1913) was published.   Fair enough, but was she aware of the Jean-Christophe books (1904-12, in English 1911-3) by Romain Rolland (Nobel Prize, 1915)?  And what is this: “the France of Balzac now appeared to have produced the earliest adventurer” (11) – in Proust!  Flaubert, a blatant influence on Richardson, is mentioned nowhere.  An example of the anxiety of influence.

Henry James suddenly appears.  Is this sentence (and again, paragraph) a parody?

And while, indeed, it is possible to claim for Henry James, keeping the reader incessantly watching the conflict of human forces through the eye of a single observer, rather than taking him, before the drama begins, upon a tour of the properties, or breaking in with descriptive introductions of the players as one by one they enter his enclosed resounding chamber where no plant grows and no mystery pours in from the unheeded stars, a far from inconsiderable technical influence, it was nevertheless not without a sense of relief that the present writer recently discovered, in ‘Wilhelm Meister,’ the following manifesto: [Goethe omitted].  (11)

The next page states that “feminine prose… should properly be unpunctuated” (12)  I love this Foreword.  It is filled with evasions, puzzles, and traps.


  1. Isn't she wonderful? And I should insert this into most of my book reviews: "Most readers hate this sort of thing. I like it all right."

  2. One of the little puzzles of Richardson is why she is not better known, given her innovations and the pleasures of her writing. But I now concede the point for ordinary readers. The narrative style asks for a lot of effort.

    Does the style of the novels converge on that of the dense Foreword? No need to answer; I will see for myself.