Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Zola and Gissing in Dorothy Richardson - ‘You understand about books, don’t you,’ she said wistfully.

The Tunnel is by far the longest book in the Pilgrimage series – almost 300 pages! not actually long – and it contains the longest chapter in the series, Chapter 3, 43 pages long, a day at the dentist office.  Per the usual Richardson method, there has been no previous hint that Miriam is working in a dentist office, and it will likely take a reader a page or two to figure it out her employer is a dentist, not a doctor.  “’Morning, pater, got a gas case?’” (32).

Chapter 4, 25 pages long, sees Miriam walk home and visit some friends after work.  It is a day in the new London life of Miriam.  The two chapters together are a quarter of the novel.

I associate this “typical day at work” device with Zola, who used it frequently, repeatedly in the department store novel The Ladies’ Paradise but also in L’Assommoir, The Belly of Paris, and Germinal.  The “typical” day establishes an underlying rhythm to which Zola can add counter-rhythms and disruptions.  That is essentially what Richardson is doing.

Perhaps, though, you remember the piece I wrote a month ago about the curious preface Richardson wrote for the 1938 edition of the (almost) complete Pilgrimage, in which she makes the curious claim that Proust is the first successor to Balzac in French “realism,” skipping Flaubert, a blatant influence on Richardson, and also Zola.  So I am reading this chapter thinking “Ah, the Zola device,” when I get to the part where Miriam begins discussing novels with the wife of one of the dentists, in particular hoping Miriam will help her pick some books from Mudie’s Lending Library, and particularly in particular:

‘We’ve been reading such an awful one – awful.’

Miriam began fingering her gold-foil [dentistry detail]. Mrs Orly was going to expect her to be shocked. . .

‘By that awful man Zola. . . . ‘

‘Oh, yes,’ said Miriam, dryly.

‘Have you read any of his?’

‘Yes,’ said Miriam carefully.  (62-3)

Which is the first I’ve heard of that.  Miriam, our writer in formation, is reading Zola, in French.

‘You understand about books, don’t you,’ she said wistfully.

‘Oh, no,’ said Miriam.  ‘I’ve hardly read anything.’

‘I wish you’d put those two down [on the lending library list].’

‘I don’t know the names of the translations,’ announced Miriam conceitedly.  (Ch. 2, 63)

Richardson likes to put adverbs after the word “said,” but these are unusual intrusions by the narrator.  The particular novels Miriam recommends are Lourdes and La Rêve (The Dream).  She is being conceited.

But my point is that this is obviously Richardson’s nod to her predecessor, this appearance of Zola amid the bookkeeping and appointment tracking and anesthesia that makes up the typical day.

I could only think of one example of a British novel that used the same device: Mr. Bailey, Grocer (c. 1891) by Harold Biffen, an example no less important because it is imaginary.  It is a novel “so dedicated to the principles of mimetic realism that nothing happens in it at all” as Adam Roberts describes it in his perceptive piece on George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), in which Mr. Bailey, Grocer appears.  The imagined novel is so conceptually perfect that there is no reason to read Gissing’s novel, and certainly not the novel itself, to understand it.  Mr. Bailey, Grocer has become a touchstone for me, or maybe more like a boundary stone for the limits of fiction.  Richardson often seems to be getting close to Mr. Bailey, Grocer, the novel of the most perfectly described ordinariness.

I don't know that Richardson read Gissing, but it did surprise me when the second proper name in The Tunnel, after "Miriam," was "Mrs Bailey," her landlady, not, at least at this point, married to a grocer.

New Grub Street is well worth reading for other reasons, the main ones described by Roberts.  Another Gissing novel, The Odd Women (1893), is even more relevant for The Tunnel.  Set at almost exactly the same time as Richardson’s novel, it is about young women who learn stenography and typing in order to have an independent life without marrying or being a governess.  Or a life acceptable by their class­ – the novel is deeply classist.  Half of the novel is about a woman who marries badly to avoid the terrible alternatives, and the other half about the odd woman who trains the odd women but finds herself tempted, against her convictions, by marriage. 

I see why the status of The Odd Women has grown over the last thirty years, even if it is not exactly a great novel (Gissing, as a prose writer, is good but kind of heavy).  I recommend it to any reader of Pilgrimage.  I recommend New Grub Street to everyone who can stand Victorian novels.

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