Everlasting Mannish Explanations: Deadlock by Dorothy Richardson

It seemed fitting this week that I was reading a book called Deadlock since both the U.S. and the U.K. are involved in awful, political stalemates. The deadlock, however, to which Dorothy Richardson is referring in her sixth chapter of Pilgrimage, is one that involves gender. Miriam is living on her own in a boarding house in London and fully supporting herself. She does not follow any of the expected norms for a female at the beginning of the 20th century—she is not dependent on any man, via marriage or other means, has no children and does not rely on extended family to assist her. Her life is completely her own and, as such, she makes some important observations about men and how they treat her.

Many of Miriam’s conversations in this book take place between her and a young, Russian Jew that is also staying at Mrs. Bailey’s boarding house in London. Mr. Shatov is an intellectual man who is very curious about English culture and their friendship grows through mutual interests in philosophy, language and literature. In a discussion about the different ways that men and women approach debate and arguments Miriam says to him, “That’s why arguments are so maddening; even small discussions; people go rushing on, getting angrier and angrier, talking about quite different things, especially men, because they never want to get at the truth, only to score a point.” In a different discussion with Mr. Shatov she uses Darwin to make her point about how men argue: “Someone will discover some day that Darwin’s conclusions were wrong, that he left out some little near obvious thing with big results, and his theory, which has worried thousands of people nearly to death, will turn out to be one of those everlasting mannish explanations of everything that explain nothing.” I think nowadays we have coined the phrase “mansplaining” for this sort of things. And when Miriam does speak up for herself against men, she runs into quite a bit of trouble so we can hardly blame her for having such opinions.

Another guest at the boarding house, Mr. Lahitte, a French gentlemen who is an expert of Spanish literature, asks Miriam to read his manuscript for a lecture that he would be delivering to an English audience. Mr. Lahitte’s delivery of his argument is bombastic, overwrought and superficial. Miriam gently tries to suggest that he make his speech appear more natural but she runs into his stubborn male ego. He insists that he is “master” of the subject and that “a certain bravura is imperative.” He pays her for her time and her help but it is unclear whether or not he actually takes any of her suggestions. She appears to be at a deadlock with this rather insistent, pompous, academic.

Miriam also dares to take up an argument with her employer, Dr. Hancock, whom she feels treats his female employees unfairly. She does many extra tasks around the office for the doctors, such looking after their library book lists, for which she receives no acknowledgement. When the doctor chides her for not carrying out one of these extra, non-work related tasks Miriam speaks up for herself and is frank with the doctor in a way that he would never expect from a woman:

I told him that in the future I would have nothing to do with his Mudie books. It was outside my sphere. I also said all sorts of things that came into my head in the train, a whole long speech. About unfairness. And to prove my point to him individually, I told him of things that were unfair to me and their other employees in the practice about the awfulness of having to be there first thing in the morning from the country after a weekend-end. They don’t. They sail off to their expensive week-ends without even saying good-bye, and without even thinking whether we can manage to have any sort of recreation at all on our salaries. I said that, and also that I objected to spend a large part of a busy Monday morning arranging the huge bunches of flowers he brought back from the country.

There has been a lot of debate recently about what has been termed “emotional labor”—the idea that women often take on extra, thankless and unnoticed tasks in the workplace and at home. It’s not surprising that Richardson’s observations about the division of tasks along the lines of gender at home and at work are still relevant in the 21st century. Unfortunately for Miriam, the doctors are so shocked by her blunt speech that they decide to sack her. There is an implication in the text, through her conversations with Mr. Shatov, that English men, in particular, do not appreciate a forward or unreserved woman who speaks her mind. Miriam has to apologize to save her job; she ends up in a deadlock with her employers, and no better off than she was before.

Mr. Shatov, however, is a counterexample to these other men; he is eager to debate with her and encourages her to speak her mind. He takes her to lectures and to his favorite German restaurant where he introduces her to beer. He also encourages her to start work as a translator and to sell her work to a publisher. It is not surprising that they fall in love. But their relationship ends up at an impasse not because of their different cultures or religions, but due to a personal revelation that Mr. Shatov makes to Miriam about his past. Whatever this indiscretion was—it is only hinted at in the text—-Miriam cannot get past it. Her final deadlock in the book is the most heartbreaking of all: “If only she could convey to him all that was in her mind, going back again and again endlessly to some central unanswerable assertion, the truth would be out. Stated. At last one man brought to book, arrested and illuminated. But what was it? That men are not worthy of women? He would agree, and remain pleading. That men never have, never can understand the least thing about even the worst woman in the world?” I did feel deeply sorry for Mr. Shatov who was attempting to be genuinely honest with Miriam and felt that he was doing the right thing by telling her about embarrassing details of his past. Her own prejudices and expectations, I think, turn out to be unrealistic and she loses a good man as a result.

On a final note, I’ve read this week that the death of the book blog has been announced by the Powers that Be. Once again, it seems fitting that I (who study two dead languages) am writing about a largely neglected, dead author, on what has been declared a dead medium.


Filed under British Literature

11 responses to “Everlasting Mannish Explanations: Deadlock by Dorothy Richardson

  1. shortstories729

    It is a paradox because she said men never wanted to get to the truth; yet, one provided a truth to her & was punished for it. Was that an intended paradox for her character? Also, who are the powers that be which announced the death of the book bloggers? Do you have a link to an article?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do think it was an intended paradox. She breaks free of many of the expected behaviors of her gender, but not in this last instance. As I pointed out, her own prejudices and views get in the way.

      The article about blogs was in the Jan. 9th issue of Vulture online.


      • shortstories729

        I found the article about “The Millions.” It seems like it is more about money or loss of exposure leading to potential money. It’d be nice to get paid for it, but books have intrinsic value for discussion nonetheless & the world is upside-down. It does get along the lines of Ray Bradbury. In 451, Faber said it wasn’t top down development as far as the destruction of books. The apathy developed from below, but there were still the exiles per say who valued the books for the sake of the books. It was never about the money for them.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I follow a small but lovely community of bloggers who read wonderful books and don’t care about money, bestsellers or any hype. My comment at the end of my piece was sarcastic.


  2. I love that final paragraph, Melissa. May both our governments be overcome by epiphanies shortly and see sense.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent post, Melissa, and you articulate much better than I did what I felt about this book. I was a little frustrated by Miriam’s rigidity; I understand her need not to conform to the expected female behaviour, and her confronting of mansplaining and the expectation she would do all the extra jobs is brave. However, she’s still a product of her upbringing, and her attitude to Jewishness is often problematic. And I agree that punishing a man for honesty whilst demanding that honesty is definitely a bit paradoxical – but then which of us is consistent in her behaviour?

    As for the death of the book blog – well, yawn! I get fed up with the commentators and their silliness. I read blogs that cover all sorts of weirdness and that’s probably got nothing to do with what they’re on about i.e. the monetised, blog tour kind of thing. Not for me – I’ll continue to plough my own furrow! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • The ending of this chapter was like a punch in the face. Miriam spent the whole book complaining about how men treat her but then succumbed to her own prejudices and weaknesses at the end. I felt so badly for Mr. Shatov!

      I think it’s funny how the death of things are always declared, the novel, the blog, etc. But I carry on anyway amongst the lovely community of blogs I follow!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. alilauren1970

    Great post, Melissa. I want to get back to reading Pilgrimage. I started the first volume, and I put it aside. I did find it quite immersive when I was reading it. I just finished The Transit of Venus (I’m a way slower reader than you are!), and it was one of those books that reminds me why I love great literature. There are mixed opinions on it, but it is definitely a desert island book for me. I now have a book hangover. The last time I adored a book this much was when I read The Death of the Heart a few years ago (and Bowen is quite a similar writer to Hazzard –and they are both similar to Henry James with their insight into human relationships and opaque writing). And, like you, I don’t think the book blog is dead. I come here to blogs like yours–and a select few others–where I can find a sense of community. I definitely don’t have the insight about literature you do, but I so enjoy reading what you write. I don’t have anyone in my real life (and I work at a college) who reads have the kind of books you and the other book bloggers do. So I value what you have to say. Most people I know read popular literary fiction, and I come here to find more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for your kind words. The book blogs I do follow are wonderful and like you I get lots of great reading suggestions from them. I do appreciate faithful followers and readers like yourself who also give me great book suggestions!


  5. Pingback: Communication in the Midst of Solitude: My Year in Reading—2019 |

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