Tuesday, May 17, 2022

If writing meant that, it was not worth doing - The Tunnel, fourth book of Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage

The Tunnel (1919) by Dorothy Richardson, the fourth book in the Pilgrimage series, is what I will write about here.  There are always interesting things in these books.

1. Our autobiographical heroine is now in London, working in a dentist office and living in a little room in St. Pancras.  The genre of the novel is “young woman in the city.”  The previous novels, where Miriam was a teacher in Germany, a teacher in North London, and a governess, were all false starts, but Richardson, and thus presumably Miriam, will work as a secretary – office manager, maybe – for the dentists for ten years, so maybe this roman is finally going to start fleuving.

Three false starts in the first three novels is just one more reason why Richardson is neglected.  Patience testing.

2.  Richardson’s method continues to be relentlessly interiorized, inside Miriam’s head all the time, and fragmented, with lots of the usual writing that connects scene to scene missing.  The reader is tossed into the pool headfirst, over and over again.  A mass of material results – lots of extraordinary social detail, like all of the stuff where Miriam learns to ride a bicycle, and lots of questionable but at least provocative thinking from young Miriam.  I have been wondering, though, how it is all being shaped by Richardson.  Really, if it is shaped.  My prejudice is that all else equal, shaped is more artful than unshaped.

Both Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf reviewed The Tunnel in 1919.  Both were, at that point, the authors of one book each, so this is early, before their major works.  But I assume they were both better readers than I am, and both vote that Richardson’s novels are unshaped.

Mansfield: “Only we feel that until these things are judged and given each its appointed place in the whole scheme, they have no meaning in the world of art.”

Woolf: “We want to be rid of realism, to penetrate beneath it, and further require that Miss Richardson shall fashion this new material into something which has the shapeliness of the old accepted forms.”

These are both positive, if skeptical, reviews.  Many thanks to Neglected Books for collecting these reviews among so much other useful material.

3.  In real life, Richardson reconnected with a high school friend around this time (1894 if I am dating the time of the novel correctly).  The friend was recently married to a young writer who turned out to be H. G. Wells.  I mean, he always was, but in 1894 he had not yet published a novel, just a mass of short stories and newspaper writing, so he was not yet, you know, H. G. Wells.  Anyway, this sounds so unlikely to me, but it happened, and if it happened it went into Pilgrimage, so there is some fascinating stuff about Miriam hanging around with the Wells circle.

One way Pilgrimage is perhaps shaped is as a portrait of the artist as a young woman, and much of that theme is developed in the “Wells” chapter.  For example:

[T]he business of the writer was imagination, not romantic imagination, but realism, fine realism, the truth about ‘the savage,’ about all the past and present, the avoidance of cliché . . . what was cliché? . . . (Ch. 6, 122 ellipses in original)

Rows and rows of ‘fine’ books; nothing but men sitting in studies doing something cleverly, being very important, ‘men of letters’; and looking out for approbation.  If writing meant that, it was not worth doing. (Ch. 6, 130)

To write books, knowing all about style, would be to become like a man.  Women who wrote books and learned these things would be absurd and would make men absurd.  (Ch. 6, 131)

Many great lines in Chapter 6.

I’ll save #4 for tomorrow.  Zola and Gissing tomorrow.


  1. One way Pilgrimage is perhaps shaped is as a portrait of the artist as a young woman

    Yes, that's the organizing principle of the whole series, and a good one it is -- thrilling, even.

  2. I love it when a person turns out to be a writer!

  3. Hat, you've read the whole thing. If I pretend that I do not know anything about Richardson's life, and that I do not guess that the character is that close to the author, at what point does Pilgrimage really look like a Kunstlerroman?

    The fact is that I have a lot of knowledge that Woolf and Mansfield did not. My understanding is that most reviewers thought the previous novel completed the trilogy! So The Tunnel was a surprise, and no one would have guessed that the final count would be thirteen novels.

    Although there are clues. Once I imagine that Miriam is some version of the author, it is clear enough that she will become a writer, since I am reading the evidence.

    Imagine if Joyce had simply extended Portrait to 2,000 pages, published over twenty years.

    1. Good lord, I hope my comment didn't come across as some sort of smug reproach ("You mean you're only just figuring this out?!"). I pretty much followed your path of understanding as I read; I'm just burbling my enthusiasm, as usual.

    2. Oh, not at all. It is a genuinely curious problem, reading Mansfield et. al. keeping in mind the limits of what they knew.

      More and more, I am wondering if it is in fact a key part of the "neglect" of Richardson. Proust, by contrast - a fascinating contrast in so many ways - gives readers an enormous amount of direction about where the whole thing is going. Richardson's aesthetic is so pure. Many readers must have felt like they were groping in the dark. Many - most - readers must have given up.

  4. I think the shaping principle is essentially indicated by the title: Pilgrimage. It's a journey for enlightenment, and I do think that each volume tells you something new about Miriam, and that Miriam perceptibly changes, and that Richardson is always seeking a more effective way to convey the quality of Miriam's experiences of the world, in a way that seeks to bring the reader into contact with Miriam's personality, and to share with the reader Miriam's epiphanies, the moments in which she feels in contact with a living universe. One of the central conflicts in the work is Miriam's difficulty in feeling in contact with the universe while feeling in contact with people, and her longing to combine them. I suppose the work is, in itself, an attempt to do that. If the shaping principle is the attempt to reach a goal that by nature is never reached or passed, the advantage is that the work is going somewhere and the disadvantage is that it never gets there. It is a Kunstlerroman, but I'm not sure I can imagine Richardson making a glorious climax out of Miriam sitting down to write Pilgrimage. I don't think I felt that it was unshaped in that the content was haphazardly chosen, or that Richardson wasn't attempting to say exactly what she meant. As it went on, I increasingly disagreed with Richardson's ideas about the most effective way to express herself, but I didn't get the impression that she had given up on effectiveness.

    I don't really think Pilgrimage is a dead end. I mean, in the sense that it's never reached a wide audience or, that I'm aware of, directly influenced an important writer, it is, yes. In the sense that it has, like most works, a style that is of its time. But there have been autofiction projects since that have similarities, and on the most basic level, descriptions of people looking at things and feeling things, and feeling that those feelings are very important, are infinitely repeatable. I think myself there's plenty of jumping off points for a writer reading Pilgrimage to have thoughts that might lead to something -- about those moments when one's perceptions of the world feel meaningful, as if momentarily coming into close contact with life itself, and the ways in which those are intermingled with mundanities, and the ways in which different personalities will create different life experiences, and how all of those experiences are filtered through individual, subjective perception, and the ways in which experience is represented or reproduced by stylistic choices. Or Miriam's feelings about gender and the difficulty she feels there to be in communication between men and women and understanding between them. I may be thinking of far broader and more basic things than you had in mind. If any of that is particularly important to a writer, who read Pilgrimage and was interested in its distinctive treatment of those things, I don't really see why they would feel that there's nowhere else to go with it. I recently read Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett, a somewhat autobiographical novel which, in its preoccupation with the narrator's reading life and the way it interacts with the rest of her life, reminded me a little of Pilgrimage.

    1. The character of Miriam, as a grumpy, determinedly individualistic introvert who is nonetheless passionate about finding ways to love the world, is one that, while irritating to plenty, has the potential to be very relatable to others. The "false starts" you mention seem more a feature than a bug to me in that respect. But of course most of those potential readers will never find Miriam. The success of My Struggle by Knausgard seems to suggest readers can have the patience for the narration of seemingly irrelevant material if they are primed to do so by the feeling that they are partaking in something zeitgeisty. I think it's hard to tell how much of Pilgrimage's lack of readership is to do with its lack of accessibility and how much happenstance meant it never acquired the kind of cultural momentum or mystique which can persuade surprising numbers of people to at least attempt demanding works. A lot of accessibility can be added onto a work later by cultural priming.

      I read an autobiography by Bryer, a friend of Richardson, who briefly touched on Pilgrimage and said she thought that it was neglected because at the time she was writing (midcentury) the period it dealt with fell into the drearily overfamiliar kind of old-fashioned. I think that's a real phenomenon that may be relevant to part of Pilgrimage's reception history, but of course the 1890s came out of that long ago. She also said that Richardson had meant the book to be for people like the young Miriam, working hard for little pay, forced to fall back on their inner lives. She regretted that this had not really worked out as she'd hoped. I can't remember whether any regret about the inaccessibility of the style was implied.

      I don't remember exactly what Harold Biffen hoped to achieve with Mr Bailey, Grocer, but I don't think Richardson's aim is to capture the mundane, so much as the way in which the profound can lie behind the mundane. I think her point may be that a dentist's practice is interconnected to everything else in life.

  5. Many thanks for these thoughtful comments. You are directly addressing the questions I have been asking.

    I have wondered what would have happened if the war had not interfered, and Proust had finished his autobiographical trilogy in 1914 and then started a new novel. I have been wondering the same thing about Richardson - is there a way for the project to not be lifelong? Could Richardson, like Joyce, have developed - changed - her style?

    The idea that readers, especially post-war readers, found the 1890s and the Georgian period just too uncool is plausible, really quite plausible. I love the period detail, but if I were a Huxley reader, right on top of the new thing, right, I can see the problem.