Pointed Roofs by Dorothy Richardson

Approaching Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” sequence can be daunting, until you break it down into individual volumes and realise that they aren’t actually that long. The first book, “Pointed Roofs”, was published in 1915 when Richardson was in her forties and is a slim volume, but one packed with meaning.

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In terms of plot, the storyline is simple; our heroine is Miriam Henderson, the 17 year old daughter of a genteel but impoverished Victorian family. She flees the nest to take up a post as an English teacher at a small girls’ school in Germany; here she experiences friendship and hostility, mixing with German, French and English girls and the occasional male. Miriam discovers the wider world and falls in love with the country of Germany; but her idyll is a short one, there are subtle difficulties and she returns home at the end of the term. But this simple, surface-level summary hides a book of incredible depth and complexity, and one which reveals insight into the female psyche in the way books had never done so before.

The book does, of course, draw on Dorothy Richardson’s life experiences, and it would be easy enough to conflate the book and its author. However, you could argue that all fiction is grounded in autobiography and it’s perhaps best to put this aside and simply consider the tale of protagonist, which is in itself fascinating.

Miriam is a girl coming to womanhood at the cusp of an age; the world is still hide-bound by many of the Victorian sensibilities and her father has to escort her to Germany for her own safety. The role of women is still restricted and the contrast between the view of Fräulein Pfaff and the young girls with their longing for a freer life is striking. They moon over boys in a way that would be instantly familiar to modern eyes; a way that is somehow naive, but is condemned by the school’s principal as immoral. Most of the girls are lining themselves up for marriage to a suitable man (the school is no doubt based on the finishing school at which Richardson herself taught) and even young Mademoiselle, the French teacher, seems to think only of relinquishing her independence to become a wife and chattel.

German Gothic house from Pinterest

German Gothic house from Pinterest

However, there’s another layer here in that Miriam herself does not fit in with the traditional world, either from the point of view of what is acceptable as a woman, or intellectually. She cannot make small talk, and finds superficial social gatherings unbearable. Instead, she is reaching out for something more, a new way of living and relating to others, and she finds herself out of keeping with most of the people with whom she comes into contact. She constantly misunderstands events or people around her, and her naivety is cleverly revealed by her reactions.

What the book does so brilliantly is capture Miriam’s inner voice; we perceive the world through her eyes and share her experiences and perceptions entirely. She is our filter and Richardson allows us to view the world with Miriam’s sensibilities. Prior to the modernist experiments in literature narrative had been linear, with more often than not multiple viewpoints or an omniscient narrator. Here, it is only Miriam who is narrating, and with her inner voice, with all its randomness and inconsistencies, flitting from subject to subject. Richardson writes like you might think, capturing Miriam’s flights of fancy, her distractedness and her misconceptions. It’s hard nowadays, in a world where there are seemingly no restrictions on how an author can write, to remember just how radical and revolutionary this was.

It’s also a technique that vividly brings alive the people with whom Miriam mixes, from Fräulein Pfaff, through the English and German pupils, the elusive and rich Ulrica, young Mademoiselle the French teacher, to the rather dubious Pastor Lahman (with whom Miriam almost strikes up a tenuous friendship). This latter relationship is an intriguing one; although we only receive hints, there is definitely an attraction and also the implication that Fräulein Pfaff is perhaps interested in the Pastor, which is probably at the root of their eventual falling out (although it may just be because the Fräulein is a man-hater and is disgusted by any hint of contact between male and female – the book is often nebulous). Often things are implied rather than stated outright, leaving the reader to interpret events or read between the lines. However, it becomes clear that Miriam and the Fräulein do not see eye to eye, with Pfaff becoming less pleasant to Miriam, and the latter’s departure becomes inevitable.

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Throughout the book, though, Miriam’s (and Richardson’s) love of Germany as a country shines through, and this element made the book deeply unpopular when it was first published in 1915. The descriptions of the countryside, the visits to churches, the old buildings and the sense of being somewhere different from the everyday world of England all give a vivid background to Miriam’s story.

Despite its reputation as a difficult book, I found “Pointed Roofs” remarkably easy to read; if you just relax and go with the flow of the language, you find yourself sailing through. There is the odd German phrase that isn’t translated or explained in the narrative (but there’s online translation to help with that), and the occasional time when you need to go back and check whether you’re reading Miriam’s feelings correctly.

Dorothy Richardson’s writing is remarkable and subtle, and her achievement amazing; in a literary world that was structured and predominantly male, to take the reader inside the female consciousness and experience, and in such a compelling way, was without precedent. “Pointed Roofs” is a wonderful introduction to the “Pilgrimage” series and I’m *so* looking forward to continuing with my read.

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