Dorothy Richardson Critical Essays


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Pilgrimage is a quest. The novel’s protagonist, Miriam Henderson, seeks her self and, rejecting the old guideposts, makes her own path through life. The book remains a problem for many readers, although since 1915 most of Dorothy Richardson’s technical devices have become familiar: unannounced transitions from third-person narration to the first person for interior monologue, shifts between present and past as experience evokes memory, and disconnected phrases and images and fragmentary impressions representing the continuous nonverbal operations of the mind.

Looking back on the period when she was trying to find a way to embody Miriam Henderson’s experience, Richardson described her breakthrough as the realization that no one was “there to describe her.” Impressed by Henry James’s control of viewpoint, she went one step further. The narrator and the protagonist merge; the narrator knows, perceives, and expresses only what comes to Miriam’s consciousness. Furthermore, the narrator does not speak to any imagined reader and therefore does not provide helpful explanations. The scenes and people are presented as they impinge on Miriam’s awareness—thus the most familiar circumstances are likely to be undescribed and the most important people identified only by name, without the phrases that would place them or reveal their relationship to Miriam.

Many readers are discouraged by the attempt to follow the book and make meaning of it; some are tempted to use Richardson’s biography to find out what “really” happened and others prefer to read isolated sections without regard to sequence, responding to the feeling and imagery as if it were poetry. Because there is no narrative guidance, meaning is continually modified by the reader’s own consciousness and by the extent of identification.

Miriam Henderson novels

The first three titles show Miriam Henderson in the last stages of her girlhood and form the prelude to her London life. Pointed Roofs covers her experience in Hanover; in Backwater, she is resident teacher in a North London school and still drawn to the possibility of romance with a young man from her suburban circle; in Honeycomb, she briefly holds a post as governess before her sisters’ weddings and her mother’s death complete the disintegration of her girlhood family.

The Tunnel begins Miriam’s years in London and introduces situations and characters that reappear in the next several volumes: the dental job; the room at Mrs. Bailey’s lodging house; the new women, Mag and Jan; and the dependent woman, Eleanor Dear; and a visit to her school friend, Alma, who has married the writer Hypo Wilson. In Interim, Miriam perceives the difficulty of communicating her current thoughts and experiences to her sister and other old friends. Deadlock treats her acquaintance—growing into an engagement—with Michael Shatov. In Revolving Lights, she has decided not to marry Shatov and becomes increasingly involved with Wilson.

The Trap shows her sharing a cramped flat with a spinster social worker and growing despondent about the isolation that, she realizes, she imposes on herself to avoid emotional entanglements. Oberland is a lyrical interlude about a holiday in Switzerland. In Dawn’s Left Hand, Miriam has an affair with Wilson and an intense friendship with a young woman (Amabel) who becomes a radical suffragist. Clear Horizon concludes much of the practical and emotional business that has occupied Miriam for several years; she disentangles herself from Wilson, Shatov, and Amabel and prepares to leave London. In Dimple Hill, she lives on a farm owned by a Quaker family, absorbs their calm, and works at writing. March Moonlight rather hastily takes Miriam up to the point of meeting the artist who would become her husband and to the beginning of her work on a novel.

This summary of events is the barest framework. Life, for Miriam Henderson, exists not in events but in the responses that create her sense of awareness. The books are made up of relatively independent sections, each treating a single segment of experience or reflection. Because of the depth with which single moments are recorded, the overall narrative line is fragmentary. Despite Pilgrimage’s length, it embodies isolated spots of time. Frequently, neither narration nor the memories evoked by subsequent experience indicate what events may have taken place in the gaps between. Furthermore, the book concentrates on those moments important to Miriam’s interior experience, and it leaves out the times when she acts without self-awareness—which may include significant actions that take place when Miriam is so engrossed by events that she does not engage in thought or reflection.

Richardson disliked the phrase “stream of consciousness” because it implies constant movement and change. She preferred the image of a pool—new impressions are added, and sometimes create ripples that spread over the previously accumulated consciousness. Thus, Miriam’s interior monologue becomes steadily more complex as she grows older. Her consciousness widens and deepens; fragmentary phrases show her making connections with her earlier experiences and perceptions; her understanding of past events alters with later awareness. The earlier volumes have more sensory impression and direct emotion; later, as Miriam grows more self-aware, she has greater verbal skill and is more likely to analyze her responses. Because of her more sophisticated self-awareness, however, she also grows adept, in the later volumes, at suppressing impressions or fragments of self-knowledge that she does not want to admit to consciousness.

In many ways, Miriam is not likable—readers are sometimes put off by the need to share her mind for two thousand pages. In the early books, she is a self-preoccupied, narrow-minded adolescent, oppressively conscious of people’s appearance and social class, annoyingly absorbed in wondering what they think about her, defensively judgmental. The wild swings in mood and the ebb and flow of her energies during the day appear to have little cause and to be unworthy of the attention she gives them. Most people, however, would appear unpleasantly selfish if their minds were open for inspection. Miriam creates her self by deliberate consciousness. The danger is that she tends to withdraw from experience in order to contemplate feeling.


The events of Pilgrimage span the decades at the turn of the century but, because of the interior focus, there is relatively little physical detail or explicit social history to create an objective picture of the era....

(The entire section is 2792 words.)