When Dorothy Richardson told people in the nursing home in which she died in 18th June 1957 that she was a writer, they thought she was suffering from delusions. By then, twelve volumes of her experiment in autobiographical fiction Pilgrimage had been published and she was still working on the thirteenth, which came out posthumously in 1967.
Few fictional heroines can be identified as closely with their author as Miriam Henderson in Pilgrimage. Concerned with states of being rather than doing, Richardson dips in and out of Miriam’s consciousness as she matures from being a teenage pupil-teacher in pre-First World War Germany into a mature Londoner on the brink of marriage. She veers between the humility of constant astonishment that there should be anything anywhere to a kind of greed that needed to feel the whole world round her all the time. Both this astonishment and this longing for total immersion stem from Richardson’s sense of social disorientation after her father’s bankruptcy in 1893 and mother’s suicide two years later. Cut off from the person she thought she was going to be; she alternates between onlooker and participant, between writing in the third and the first person. Virginia Woolf accused her of indulging the damned egotistical self but what she was trying to do was to stamp her own existence on a world that had betrayed its promises.
Left to fend for herself, suspended between attachment to traditional family values and the realisation that she had become a woman without background, Dorothy/Miriam defines and redefines the borderline between loneliness and solitude. In the process, living in what might be called lower Bloomsbury (Endsleigh/Tansley Street), she finds exits and entrances for herself on the stage of the London scene. It ‘held a secret for whose full revelation she could wait forever.’ For instance, Yeats might be glimpsed through a window ‘dark and pale and tall and shouting at the storm … ’ or she can find shelter in the yellow light of the street lamps where she stands ‘listening to the reflection of the fostering light’. Like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway after her, Miriam walks through London, wrapped in metaphysical speculation, scene after scene unfolding with each nuance of the changing light caught as in a series of Monet paintings.
As the dances and tennis parties of her adolescence, the joys of floating about in a hansom in the West End in the season, pale into the past, Dorothy/Miriam survives as governess, teacher, dentist’s receptionist, reviewer and essayist. She identifies with people who, like herself, are adjusting to social and political displacement, including Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. She gives English lessons to one of them, Benjamin Grad/Michael Shatov, takes him to the British Museum. ‘It is one of my heartmost dreams of England to find myself in midst of all these leeter-aytchours …’ he tells her. The way Richardson reproduces the exact cadence of idiom and accent of both foreign and native speakers of English is one of the great pleasures of reading Pilgrimage.
Dorothy/Miriam and Benjamin/Michael become soul mates. They are happy wandering round London together, in and out of the British Museum, where, to her astonishment, he sips his milkless tea through lumps of sugar held between his lips, making his fractured English even more indistinct. She introduces him to Emerson, he enthuses her for Tolstoy. They discuss philosophy and politics, including Zionism.
Michael’s Jewishness has not signified for Miriam until their friendship deepens into love and they consider a possible permanent shared future. Miriam loves Michael, and finds the thought of life without him hard to contemplate. She has met his Jewish friends and gone so far as to find out what becoming a Jewish wife might involve. It is then that what she calls her inexorable Englishness surfaces, even though she claims that foreigners always tell her she is the only English person who understands them. That Englishness is of paramount importance to her because it is the one aspect of herself that has not got lost in her dislocated life. Michael’s otherness becomes insuperable. She cannot communicate to him ‘the immediate truths that shine, independent of speculation, all about her in the English light, the only thing worth telling to inquiring foreigners … English people did not shine. But something shone behind them.’
Race and nationality are not the issue when Dorothy/Miriam happens on H. G. Wells/Hypo Wilson, who is married to an old school friend. In fact, he urges her to marry her Jew – ‘You know English and Jew makes a good mix.’ She is excited by his distinguished mind though she disagrees with pretty well everything he says, appalled by his insistence that the species is more important than the individual. And yet she cannot help feeling that ‘while he talked, everything changed in spite of yourself’. The difficulty here is his mechanistic world view, his simplistic socialism. ‘My dear Miriam, there will be socialists in the House of Lords’. She likes to think of herself as a Tory anarchist, someone who wants to preserve the old decencies while doing away with social injustice. When he introduces her to the Fabians/Lycurgans, who are not nearly radical enough for him, they very soon give her the feeling of living in a void.
For her, the truth laid bare by common sense is incomplete, leaving vital things out of the picture. ‘Slow things with slow, slow fruit … Why did scientific people suppose that something supplying hints, whenever one was not looking for them, hints that overpower the voices of reason, is more strange and mysterious than anything else?’ The real nature of the world is not to be explained by science. She knows there is no such thing as nothing, that there is something alive and positive in silence.
Here the core and centre of Pilgrimage is touched, something that penetrates the spirit of Richardson’s work far more deeply than the labels of Modernism and Feminism, under which it has been shelved and largely forgotten. ‘The present writer groans, gently, resignedly, beneath the reiterated tap-tap accusing her of feminism’ she wrote in her introduction to the 1938 Dent edition of Pilgrimage and, more forcefully, in Deadlock, the sixth volume of Pilgrimage, ‘Feminists are not only an insult to womanhood, they are a libel on the universe’. She wrote to her friend Koteliansky that a woodlouse could see Miriam is not a feminist.
The struggles against poverty, against the social and political constraints of being a woman at the turn of the twentieth century, against the conventional form of the novel, never became ends in themselves for Richardson. They were obstacles in the way of her quest for words that opened up deeper and deeper levels of existence, of her search for what she, like Emerson, called the active soul.
It was John Cowper Powys, in his essay about her (Village Press 1931), who was one of the first to appreciate what she was trying to do. ‘She has drawn her inspiration neither from man-imitating cleverness nor from narcissistic feminine charm but from the abyss of the feminine subconscious.’
The leitmotif for Pilgrimage – and not enough attention has been paid to the significance of that title – is adumbrated in Richardson’s first book Quakers Past and Present (1914) where she contrasts the artist’s and the mystic’s search for reality.
‘The artist lives to a greater or lesser degree in perpetual illumination … but he remains within the universe constructed for him by his senses … the great mystics … have consciously bent all their energies to breaking through the veil of sense, to making a journey to the heart of reality … a setting forth to seek something already found.’
Dorothy/ Miriam becomes a kind of freelance mystic, belonging to all faiths and to none. She can be stirred by the ringing Nun danket alle Gott of the Lutheran church in Germany, so much more powerful than the English ‘Now thank we all our God’ with its unnecessary pronouns. She can feel the perfection of life in a Catholic church, realises the transcendental significance of the Buddhist O-mmmmmm, appreciates that a Japanese flower arrangement is like a sort of mathematics. Believing that inner and outer should co-exist, she cannot separate God and humanity, which is why the Quaker belief in that of God in everyone spoke to her so strongly.
It was in Quaker stillness that she came closest to finding what she was after. In Dimple Hill there is a rare description of a Quaker Meeting in fiction based on her experiences with the Penrose/Roscorla Sussex Quakers with whom she stayed recovering from a miscarriage after her friendship with Wells/Hypo had turned into a brief affair. (‘His body was not beautiful, she could find nothing to adore … ’) She felt at ease with the spiritual rhythm of a Quaker Meeting though she never took the final step of becoming a member of the Society of Friends. The craving to be allowed to continue the pilgrimage untrammeled by commitment left her anchorless. ‘It is only by the pain of remaining free that one can have the whole world round one all the time.’
She made her writing her church, words were her faith. ‘All that has been said and known in the world is in language … language is the only way to express anything and it dims everything.’ She spent her life attempting to brighten the dimness, struggling to find an all-embracing, multi-faceted way with words that would stress the importance of non-verbal communication and overcome the limitations of space and time: ‘No longer seeing experience chronologically we can compose it after the manner of a picture with all the parts in true perspective.’
When Richardson began writing Pilgrimage, the gap between the time of writing and the subject matter was about twenty years. The past still seemed more intensely real than the present. But all too frequently financial and domestic pressures got between her and the continuation of Pilgrimage. She had to make ends meet with translation and journalism – including essays on ‘Women and the Future’ (1924), ‘Women in the Arts’ (1925) for Vanity Fair, ‘On Punctuation’ (1924) for The Adelphi. She was also looking after her unworldly tubercular artist husband Alan Odle whom she had married in 1917. He was not expected to survive long but sustained by her physically and spiritually, he lived until 1948.
So the distance in time between what she was writing about and the moment of writing increased. It became more and more difficult for her to re-immerse herself in the life of Miriam Henderson who, unlike her author, had been left untouched by two world wars.
Nevertheless, in her life as in her work Dorothy Richardson continued the pilgrimage. It has been said that she was afraid of an ending but for her the essence of the pilgrimage, this finely honed struggle for perfect realisation, is that it never ends though there are moments when seeker and sought are one, becoming ‘ … the enchanted guest of spring and summer.’