Tag Archives: Pilgrimage

Joy and Freedom: More Thoughts on Pilgrimage

It’s intimidating to try to write anything coherent or thoughtful about a book like Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. The magnitude and depth of the narrative and language is impossible to capture in any sort of post, no matter the length. But one thought that keeps coming to my mind as I read about Miriam’s journey is how greatly I admire her because as a woman living in the early twentieth century, she defies many of the expectations placed upon her because of gender. She isn’t looking for a husband, she doesn’t necessarily want children, she supports herself financially and she lives on her own. I’ve always been fiscally independent and haven’t relied on a spouse for monetary stability;  from a very young age I assumed that I would have my own career and I also think it’s an important example to set for my daughter whom I am raising with the same outlook. But I can’t imagine striving for what Miriam calls this kind of “freedom” in the early 20th century when all of the females around her, including her sisters, depend on marriage for personal, economic support.

Richardson’s protagonist does make several attempts to be successful at one of the few professions open to women in 1915, that of teaching.  After the German finishing school which is described in “Pointed Roofs”, Miriam also takes a position as an instructor in a small boarding school in North London, which she finds exhausting and depressing.  When Miriam resides in the country home of the Currie’s as their governess, her surroundings are more peaceful and her job is easier, but she still doesn’t feel that she is truly free.

It’s not until the fourth chapter in Miriam’s story, “The Tunnel”, that she feels true joy and happiness because of her free life in London.  She has a demanding job as a secretary in the office of a busy dentist, for which position she earns one pound a week.  This allows her to rent a room which, although is small and shabby, is entirely her own space; for the first time in her life she experiences bliss in the deliberate choice of living in solitude.  I find myself cheering for Miriam and eagerly reading each and every page of her story to see what decisions, as an independent woman, she will make next.

What makes Richardson’s text so brilliant is the layers of imagery that she builds in order to demonstrate Miriam’s challenge of traditional, gender roles.  For instance, Miriam decides to take up smoking cigarettes, which at the time is considered a distinctly masculine habit.  While rolling her father’s cigarettes she surreptitiously smokes one and thoroughly enjoys the little buzz that she feels.  When she is a governess at the Currie’s she boldly plays billiards and smokes with the men while the other ladies who are guests at the house sit quietly nearby and gossip.  And into the narrative of “The Tunnel” Richardson carries the image of Miriam as smoker to extend the idea that she is challenging traditional gender roles.  When she is trying on knickers and a new hat she is admiring her different look while she is smoking.  A line from Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva kept coming to mind in these various scenes with Miriam smoking as she takes new, additional steps in her life toward independence: “I want the vibration of happiness.  I want the impartiality of Mozart.  But I also want inconsistency.  Freedom? it’s my final refuge.  I forced myself to freedom and I bear it not like a talent but with heroism: I’m heroically free.  And I want the flow.”  The subtleties of language, nuances of words and flickering of images in the writing compels me to read Pilgrimage with a slowness and deliberation that few other books have warranted.

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Pilgrimage and Mourning the Loss of Summer Vacation

My levels of anxiety have been at an all-time high in the last few days as I contemplate all of the tasks that go into the beginning of a new semester.  The first week entails hours of meetings, listening to various speakers and leadership team planning.  My mind is swimming with thoughts of various administrative duties I need to perform, of ideas from leadership articles I have been required to read and of dread at the anticipation of sitting through hours of speakers that are supposed to motivate us for the new term.  But as I was reading Pilgrimage, Dorothy Richardson reminded me of the real purpose of my chosen profession, engaging with students.  The advice that is given to Miriam as she completes her first teaching job is just as relevant today as it was 100 years ago and it applies to every teacher, no matter the grade level or subject one instructs:

To truly fulfil the most serious role of the teacher you must enter into the personality of each pupil and must sympathize with the struggles of each one upon the path on which our feet are set.  Efforts to good kindliness and thought for others must be encouraged.  The teacher shall be sunshine, human sunshine, encouraging all effort and all lovely things in the personality of the pupil.

I am truly grateful for a lovely summer that involved lots of reading, swimming, sunbathing, traveling and spending time with my family.  I know how lucky I am to have this extended time off.  I just have to grit my teeth and get through the next week of “professional development” before I get to greet my always fabulous Latin and Ancient Greek students.

I hope all of my readers and visitors have also had a wonderful summer.

 

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Pointed Roofs: Some initial thoughts on Pilgrimage by Dorothy Richardson

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.

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