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.