If only he would answer a question simply, and not with a superior air as if he had invented the thing he was telling about. She felt she had a right to all the knowledge there was, without fuss…

It took me a few months to get my hands on a copy of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, but I am delighted to finally have it, and have been enjoying, slowly, the first half of the first novel. My Virago Modern Classics edition contains the first three books of her 13-book project: Pointed Roofs, Backwater, and Honeycomb.

Having known absolutely nothing of Richardson before seeing Anthony’s mention of her, it is a treat to discover her writing and her project. To write so directly, so carefully, of a young woman’s consciousness; it was a revolutionary technique when it appeared in 1915. There is no filter – just Miriam and her view of herself vis-à-vis the world as she leaves home and goes to work as a governess at a school in Germany. Richardson was one of—or was—the first to use stream-of-consciousness, and she expresses what I can only call that “thin skin-ness” of someone who is alive to the world, and curious about one’s place within it. There are so many key moments of this: her awareness of her father playacting an English gentleman while on the boat, her fear that she’ll be seen to be a fraud as a governess, that excellent mortifying hair-washing scene in the German school, and one of my absolute favorites, when Miriam is listening to one of the schoolgirls play the piano and remembering a pastoral scene and a mill-wheel from her childhood:

She felt a little tremor in her throat. All at once she knew that if she went on listening to that humming wheel and feeling the freshness of the air, she would cry. She pulled herself together, and for a while saw only a vague radiance in the room and the dim forms grouped about. She could not remember which was which. All seemed good and dear to her.

What Richardson does so well is the interplay between Miriam’s self-awareness and her surroundings – how the people and the furnishings, how everything affects her so keenly. How she guards her outward emotions, as if afraid of them. That’s what I mean by thin skin-ness. When I think of the English writers I associate with this – Kavan, Woolf, Welch – they all came so much later.

I’m going to be a little annoying and mention Ramuz – who was a very close contemporary of Richardson (she was born in 1873, he was born in 1878), and I find he does the same seeing out from under the skin. So does Walser, also a contemporary. I’m not trying to argue the claim that Richardson was the first to employ stream-of-consciousness, I’m just curious how other writers around the same time, but from other literary traditions, were negotiating interiority through stylistic particularities.

And then there is Colette with her Claudine novels – perhaps an even more interesting comparison as she also wrote a series of semi-autobiographical novels about a woman making her way into the world. Colette’s Claudine novels feel so much lighter than Richardson, but they were published between 1900 – 1904. By the time Colette is writing in the 1920s and 30s, she’s focused on older women, on sexuality and marriage. If anyone knows of a formal Colette/Richardson comparison, I’d be keen to see it.

One of the elements of Pointed Roofs that I find both startling and marvelous is Miriam’s impatience with organized religion. She sees only artifice, and she hates having to pretend herself that she might enjoy going to church. I am so curious to see how this will develop over the 13 novels. And lastly, the various descriptions of men being impatient with women. There is a marvelous passage in which Miriam criticizes the male German schoolmasters who come to work with the pupils in her school, and how condescending they are, even scornful. And Miriam compares this with the men who taught her in England, with her own father as well, and finds her own schoolteachers were kinder, more interesting, took their pupils more seriously. But this leads her to a wonderful questioning and awareness of herself, and how she had learned and what she cared about:

She could only think that somehow she must be ‘different’; that a sprinkling of the girls collected in that school was different, too. The school she decided was new—modern—Ruskin. Most of the girls perhaps had not been affected by it. But some had. She had. That thought stirred her. She had. It was mysterious.

These first stirrings of her intellectual awakening here are exquisitely drawn, and I can’t wait to read on and see how this aspect of Miriam develops across the thirteen novels.