Richardson’s In-Between Spaces

It isn’t so easy to find words for a concentrated sort of illumination that comes from reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, a sense as one progresses through the book that one is learning to read her work, and, in turn, understanding something new about others and oneself.

That Kübler-Ross model, much criticised today, the notion of stage theories of grief, superseded by this idea that we live in a state of middle knowledge, not really truly living but unable to acknowledge the reality of death. An absence of certainty: is reality socially constructed, or objective? Richardson teaches us that it is both, that women intuit these in-between spaces more readily than men.

In a fascinating essay Tim Parks writes that novels may “open our eyes to different worlds of feeling from our own”. Richardson, more than any other writer I’ve read, articulates a part of life that escapes and exists unnamed. For obvious reasons, it isn’t always clear but she is writing of in-between spaces, a world where science and language are incomplete. In Pilgrimage, she is mapping a shadowy geography of interstices that defy our certainties and that shelter life left out from a more open and sunlit terrain.

Conning over the store of ideas . . .

“The surrounding golden glow through which she would always escape into the recovery of certainty, warned her not to return upon the lecture. But she could not let all she had heard disappear unnoted, and postponed her onward rush, apologising for the moments about to be in spent in conning over the store of ideas. In an instant the glow had gone, miscarried like her private impressions of the evening. The objects about her grew clear; full of current associations; and she wondered as her mind moved back across the linked statements of the lecture, whether these were her proper concern, or yet another step upon a long pathway of transgression. She was grasping at incompatible things, sacrificing the bliss of her own uninfluenced life to the temptation of gathering things that had been offered by another mind. Things to which she had no right?”

Another rich passage from Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, from the Revolving Lights chapter. I could quite easily spend a day contemplating, gathering associations and making notes on this paragraph alone.

Richardson uses language exquisitely, writing clear, poised sentences. Her use of language appears quite modern, but occasionally her word usage reminds that she was writing almost a hundred years ago. Who today would write that she was “conning over the store of ideas”? Almost lost is this use of con as to know or commit to memory. We are poorer without it, limited only to its slang: to swindle.

I’m also intrigued by the broad sweep of this passage, of the comparative worth of insight a person arrives at independently, compared to those “offered by another mind”

Onward with Pilgrimage

It was this that—almost—lured me away from Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage: “Yourcenar reconstructed his library.” Long-term readers of this blog (both of you) will know of my attraction to libraries in fiction. That Marguerite Yourcenar, as part of her research for her Memoirs of Hadrian, reconstructed Hadrian’s Library persuaded me, nearly, to take a break from Pilgrimage.

Despite my antipathy to historical fiction, the first chapter was strong, promising, but then the jitters set in. All I wanted was to know what was happening in Miriam Henderson’s world, or rather what she was thinking about what was happening. Hadrian can wait. He’s waited long enough. Onward with Pilgrimage.

Melissa is reading Yourcenar, so if of interest, do read her excellent review of Two Lives and a Dream.

Dorothy Richardson’s Deadlock

This morning I finished Deadlock, the 6th novel of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. Each of the series is better than the ones before. Deadlock feels substantively different, with Richardson going deeper into Miriam Henderson’s contemplation of practical philosophy, feminist metaphysics and theology.

As Richardson’s narrative becomes more abstract, her treatment of time thickens the narrative present; her way of using second-person interior monologue, the term Richardson preferred to stream of consciousness, captures so effectively this sense that one is observing another’s thought.

Although it becomes difficult to establish a chronology of time, Richardson advances her story despite this sense of disorientation, which matches those moments in life when so much is unsettled that time seems to race past, when one yearns for those duller times when time appears to stand still.

Enviable cool clear radiant eyes . . .

“Behind the serenity of her smooth white brow, behind her cold wide clearly-ringed sea-blue eyes, was the dominant intelligence of it all, the secret of the strange atmosphere that enveloped her whole effect; so strong and secure that it infected her words and movements with a faint robust delicate levity. In most women the sum of the tangible items would have produced the eye-wearying, eye-estranging pathos of the spectacle of patience fighting a lost battle, supplied so numerously all over London by women who were no longer young; or at least a consciously resigned cheerfulness. But she sat there with the enviable cool clear radiant eyes of a child that is held still and unsmiling by the deep entrancement of its mirth.”

Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage

Something More

“She struggled in thought to discover why it was she felt that these people did not read books and that she herself did. She felt that she would look at the end, and read here and there a little and know; know something, something they did not know. People thought it was silly, almost wrong to look at the end of a book. But if it spoilt a book, there was something wrong about the book. If it was finished and the interest gone when you know who married who, what was the good of reading at all? It was a sort of trick, a sell. Like a puzzle that was no more fun when you had found it out. There was something more in books than that . . . even Rosa Nouchette Carey and Mrs Hungerford, something that came to you out of a book, any bit of it, a page, a sentence–and the ‘stronger’ the author was, the more came. That was why Ouida put those others in the shade, not, not, not because her books were improper. It was her, herself somehow. Then you read books to find the author! That was it. That was the difference . . . that was how one was different from most people . . .”

Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage

Starting Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage

For her achievement with the thirteen novels that make up Pilgrimage, Dorothy Richardson ought to be recognised as one of the world’s great novelists. Though I confess to only having read the first four in the sequence, I enjoyed them more than any other novel I’ve read. I don’t make the statement lightly.

By the end of her first novel, Pointed Roofs, I’d started to understand what Richardson was trying to do; as I concluded the third, Honeycomb, the originality and profundity of these novels left me with that feeling of new life that comes after immersion in an icy, dark, deep winter lake. For sustained immersion is what Richardson achieves, into the consciousness of her protagonist Miriam Henderson. In May Sinclair’s review of Pilgrimage, she applied, for the first time, the term stream-of-consciousness to a novel–though Richardson disliked the term.

Other novelists use similar techniques–Joyce, Woolf, Lispector–with differing degrees of effectiveness, but I’ve never been as convinced as I am with Pilgrimage that I am plunged into another’s consciousness, channeled through the pen of Richardson. This is what literature is for, at least for this reader, an opportunity, however brief, to meet the consciousness of another, momentary respite from our solipsism and isolation.

I’m likely to be reading Pilgrimage for some time, as these are not novels to be rushed. Richardson takes all sorts of liberties with time. You must be on your guard to get most of the essence of Miriam Henderson’s encounters with the world. Making sense of the world through the eyes of another is no less taxing than trying to understand people and situations oneself. But her writing is beautiful and exciting. The way Richardson describes the play of light in a room, the minutiae of everyday life, the fragmentary nature of her brushes with others offers a fresh, bracing perspective.

If you have opportunity and an interest, track down John Cowper Powys’s Dorothy M. Richardson. It is a forty-eight page celebration of depth, a fan’s deep and loving appreciation of Pilgrimage. At one time, I might have dismissed it as hyperbole but no more. To borrow from Constance Garnett’s Karamazov, the experience of reading Pilgrimage, so far, is not a matter of intellect or logic, though these novels have enough of both, it’s more about loving life–and literature–with one’s inside.