Virginia Woolf’s Flâneuse, Street Haunting

Today, Street Haunting from The Death of the Moth and other essays, an essay of Virginia Woolf’s that I hadn’t read before, written in 1927 and published two years after Mrs. Dalloway. This is Woolf’s flâneur, or perhaps flâneuse.

Woolf’s narrator also recalls Dorothy Richardson’s London, the shared freedom of Woolf’s narrator and Richardson’s Miriam Henderson to walk the streets of London and feel their connectedness to other inhabitants of the city.

A fragment, my favourite perhaps, of the essay. The whole text can be found here.

“But here, none too soon, are the second-hand bookshops. Here we find anchorage in these thwarting currents of being; here we balance ourselves after the splendours and miseries of the streets. The very sight of the bookseller’s wife with her foot on the fender, sitting beside a good coal fire, screened from the door, is sobering and cheerful. She is never reading, or only the newspaper; her talk, when it leaves bookselling, which it does so gladly, is about hats; she likes a hat to be practical, she says, as well as pretty. 0 no, they don’t live at the shop; they live in Brixton; she must have a bit of green to look at. In summer a jar of flowers grown in her own garden is stood on the top of some dusty pile to enliven the shop. Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world. There is always a hope, as we reach down some grayish-white book from an upper shelf, directed by its air of shabbiness and desertion, of meeting here with a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it (the book was published at his own expense); was infinitely prosy, busy, and matter-of-fact, and so let flow in without his knowing it the very scent of hollyhocks and the hay together with such a portrait of himself as gives him forever a seat in the warm corner of the mind’s inglenook. One may buy him for eighteen pence now. He is marked three and sixpence, but the bookseller’s wife, seeing how shabby the covers are and how long the book has stood there since it was bought at some sale of a gentleman’s library in Suffolk, will let it go at that.”

Not Small After All

“Then there could be no doubt that as a novelist [Mary Carmichael] enjoyed some natural advantages of a high order. She had a sensibility that was very wide, eager and free. It responded to an almost imperceptible touch on it. It feasted like a plant newly stood in the air on every sight and sound that came its way. It ranged, too, very subtly and curiously, among almost unknown or unrecorded things; it lighted on small things and showed that perhaps they were not small after all. It brought buried things to light and made one wonder what need there had been to bury them. Awkward though she was and with the unconscious bearing of long descent which makes the least turn of the pen of a Thackeray or a Lamb delightful to the ear, she had – I began to think – mastered the first great lesson; she wrote as a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself.”

A passage from Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which I reread as preparation for a first reading of Three Guineas. (The picture above, incidentally, is, sadly, not of my edition. If you have a spare £20,000 a complete set of Virginia Woolf first editions could be yours, which seems a far better use of such a sum than a reasonably smart car, or desert island holiday.)

It doesn’t need me to point out how incisive is Woolf’s dissection of women’s inequity, but in the twenty years since I last read A Room of One’s Own, I had forgotten how elegant and witty her exposition. The passage above sums up so many of the qualities I enjoy in a writer, Dorothy Richardson comes closest to mind. Reading this essay again makes me wish to reread Woolf, and to read, like Three Guineas, some of the work I’ve missed.

The Power of Sentences

Sometimes I think Pilgrimage changed my way of reading. Or maybe my way of thinking. Perhaps both. I’ve always read slowly, meditatively, but this tendency has intensified of late. Maybe it’s age, or the coming of autumn.

This week I’ve been reading Jen Craig’s Panthers and the Museum of Fire and dwelling on its sentences, allowing their meaning to flow, layers of meaning emerging from her sentences on a first reading, and differently on the second, when the drum beat of newness is decreased. Her book already feels like a friend that I don’t wish to leave anytime soon. What strikes me most about Panthers and the Museum of Fire is the way Jen Craig uses sinuous, snakelike sentences to slow down and complicate the reading experience.

I like to think that Dorothy Richardson taught me how to read her prose, and in doing so made me a participant in the creation of prospect and meaning, with a satisfying double awareness, of not only the places her writing can take me, but also of the extraordinary artistry and integrity of the language that takes me there.

That Retiring Figure

It is the richness of character development that is the genius of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. I know of no other fictional character than Miriam Henderson where a reader participates so fully in their psychological development. The expansiveness of the narrative allows room for Richardson to enrich her character but it is more than the length of the work that allows this exceptional amount of character development.

It isn’t unusual in modern fiction for a writer to elevate deep character development over plot, nor for narrative complexity to be used to advance development of character, but by constraining a reader’s viewpoint so narrowly through Miriam Henderson’s interior, a reader is compelled to frequently alter one’s narrative expectations as they see her character reflected and shaped by and through her complex social network. As Miriam Henderson’s character arc unfolds slowly before our eyes it is impossible not to think of how the certainties of our twenties become the uncertainties of middle age.

‘The old life and death struggle between conflicting ideas had died down. She could see the self who had lived so long upon that battle ground, far off; annoying, when thought of as suffered by others. But it was not without a pang that she looked back at that retiring figure. It had been, at least, with all its blindness, desperately sincere. She was growing worldly now, capable of concealments in the interest in social joys, worse, capable of assumed cynicism for the sake of advertising her readiness for larks she was not quite sure of wishing to share. And thought was still there, a guilty secret, quiet as a rule. Sometimes inconveniently obtrusive at moments when she wished to approximate to the approved pattern of charming femininity.’

I’ve finished The Trap, after taking a little time to read Gloria G. Fromm’s decent Dorothy Richardson biography, and so begin the final volume in the Dent|Cresset edition of Pilgrimage.

The gradual socialisation of the male

“But the blaze of light [Mrs Stetson] brings is by showing that women were social from the first and that all history has been the gradual socialisation of the male. It is partly complete. But the male world is still savage.”

Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (Revolving Lights)

“But not until this giant force could ally itself with others and work cooperatively, overcoming the destructive action of male energy in its blind competition, could our human life enter upon its full course of racial evolution. This is what was accomplished through the suppression of the free action of maternal energy in the female and its irresistible expression through the male. The two forces were combined, and he was the active factor in their manifestation. It was one of nature’s calm, unsmiling miracles, no more wonderful than where she makes the guileless, greedy bee, who thinks he is merely getting his dinner, serve as an agent of reproduction to countless flowers. The bee might resent it if he knew what office he performed, and that his dinner was only there that he might fulfil that office. The subjection of woman has involved to an enormous degree the maternalising of man. Under its bonds he has been forced into new functions, impossible to male energy alone. He has had to learn to love and care for some one besides himself. He has had to learn to work, to serve, to be human. Through the sex-passion, mightily overgrown, the human race has been led and driven up the long, steep path of progress, over all obstacles, through all the dangers, carrying its accompanying conditions of disease and sin (and surmounting them), up and up in spite of it all, until at last a degree of evolution is reached in which the extension of human service and human love makes possible a better way.”

Charlotte Perkins (Stetson) Gilman, Women and Economics

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.