Tag Archives: Pilgrimage

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.

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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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