I was immediately drawn into the world that Dorothy Richardson creates for her heroine, Miriam Henderson, in Pilgrimage. Miriam is the third in line of four girls in a middle class English family who has fallen on hard times. When Pointed Roofs begins, Miriam is nervous about her impending trip to a German finishing school where she will teach English to wealthy, upper class English and German girls. She has accepted the position in order to relieve some of her family’s monetary woes, but at seventeen she is frightened to leave her safe environment that includes the constant love, support and guidance of her sisters.
Pointed Roofs is the first of thirteen chapters in Richardson’s semi-autobiographical novel that follows the life of Miriam Henderson. The thirteen chapters, published between 1915 and 1967, are rather lengthy—Pointed Roofs is 185 pages— and are self-contained volumes or novellas that describe different periods in Miriam’s life. Even though the book is written in the third person, May Sinclair famously labeled Richardson’s style of prose as “stream-of-consciousness.” We see the finishing school, her students, her supervisor at the school, and Germany from Miriam’s perspective which always contains a charming innocence.
One of the first things she notices at the German school, which comes as a great surprise to her, is the distinct lack of a daily schedule. Classes, outings, music performances, and baths are all announced spontaneously at the whim of the headmistress, Fräulein Pfaff. During her time as the English instructor at the school she only teaches one formal class to her students and after her single performance as an instructor there is an unspoken expectation that Miriam is to teach the girls English whenever they go on walks through town. Miriam comes to realize that the so-called education that these girls are to receive is rather light since all of them will end up as the wives of wealthy German men and will not have much use for a rigorous, academic curriculum. It makes her appreciate the education that she received at her English school which she realizes was muchmore serious and valuable.
The strength of Richardson’s narrative lies in her ability to make the most mundane tasks seem interesting and new as they are viewed through the eyes of young and insecure Miriam. Because she is shy and painfully self-conscious, the simple activities of sitting at meals, making eye contact and polite chit chat with the other girls become ordeals for her. She immediately notices that her pupils, especially the German girls, play the piano more beautifully than her because of their ability to relax and give themselves over to the enjoyment of music. One of the funniest scenes, as well as one of the most-telling of Miriam’s timorous character, is when she is summoned to have her hair washed. Leaning her head over the basin while she has eggs cracked and massaged into her hair is the ultimate indignity for her. She is trying to establish herself as an authority figure among the girls, some of whom she is only two or three years older; when she is lined up to have herself cleaned like the rest of them she feels she has taken a step back and her humiliation is further increased when she has to show up to tea with a wet, unruly mop of hair.
Richardson, through additional symbols and storylines subtly woven throughout the text, highlights the tension Miriam feels between her formerly, isolated life as a child in England and her new experiences as she attempts to become an adult in Germany. For example, her parents and sisters send her new, stylish blouses and a skirt which make her terribly uncomfortable because she is so used to the confined feel of a corset. As she is evolving into a different, more mature young woman, her clothes mimic the loosening of her previously, restrained life which has been given up for this new, freeing adventure. In addition, she finds herself alone in the saal with Pastor Lahmann who, by asking to see her glasses, makes a pathetic attempt at flirting with her. Miriam completely misses the reason for the Pastor’s attention and she is further baffled when Fräulein Pfaff, who comes upon them in the saal, appears angry and irritated with her. Even though she is an adult, on her own, in a foreign land, earning her own living, her charming innocence still lingers over all of her experiences.
Even though Richardson wrote this first volume more than 100 years ago, I identified with Miriam’s character on multiple levels. I am excited to see where the rest of Pilgrimage takes her and I look forward to reading the novel (I am actually reading the Virago editions which are divided into four volumes) going into autumn.
Please visit Times Flow Stemmed (special thanks go to Anthony whose enthusiasm for Richardson prompted me to being reading Pilgrimage) and Beyond Eden Rock for more detailed insights into and discussions of Dorothy Richardson.