Backwater by Dorothy Richardson
And so I reach book two of Richardson’s wonderful”Pilgrimage” series, and I was even keener to read this after enjoying Louisa Treger’s excellent book “The Lodger” earlier this month.
“Backwater” picks up Miriam’s story after her return from Germany. Against an increasingly dysfunctional family background, Miriam takes employment as a teacher at a North London school run by the Misses Perne, presumably the backwater of the title. It’s a milieu in which she feels less than comfortable, constantly comparing the ‘hardness’ of the people in that area with those from her part of the city; and indeed the book has chapters of contrast, with Miriam some of time being at the school teaching, and at other times with her family during holidays.
Change is coming to the Henderson family: sister Eve is a live-in governess; Harriett is engaged to be married; quiet Sarah is still living at home. We see the girls against the backdrop of a dance they hold, where despite Miriam’s intentions to spend the night dancing with Ted (who seems to be her current beau), she instead spends much of the evening in the company of his visiting friend Max.
Back at the school, Miriam is struggling to deal with the divide between the two kinds of life, feeling a kind of alienation as she loses touch with her family during the teaching months. She is aware of the scraping, grinding poverty in the world, as people struggle to work and keep body and soul together, and this exists in both halves of her life. Literature becomes a crutch, and a way of escape, with her discovery of a lending library and the books of Ouida being particularly pivotal.
Ouida, Ouida, she would muse with the book in her hand. I want bad things – strong bad things… It doesn’t matter, Italy, the sky, bright hot landscapes, things happening. I don’t care what people think or say. I am older than anyone here in this house. I am myself.
As the book progresses, the girls have a last holiday together in Brighton, where Miriam meets another man who is interested in her, Mr. Parrow; and there is a sense that things are ending, as their mother has had an operation and their old house is having to be sold.
We learn, almost in passing, of the fate of Max. It becomes clear that Miriam will not be able to stand teaching at the Pernes’ for very long, as the stifling atmosphere and the religious convictions of the ladies are too much in conflict with her own intransigent nature. The book ends with Miriam preparing to take another decisive step as her family fragments.
Once again, the events of the book are filtered through Miriam’s perceptions, and the reader comes to realise quite what a sheltered life she’s led; which may, in fact, account for her difficulties in relating to people. Watching her having new experiences and revelations – such as smoking her first cigarette and reading her first newspaper – are fascinating; in particular the latter, when she comes to understand how women are discouraged from reading papers and kept from a wider knowledge of how the world works.
It’s also interesting to note how Miriam has no real self-awareness, no understanding of how she appears to others or affects them – a trait that was evident in the first book. She epitomises the human condition of trying to relate to other and failing, often not picking up the signals from others accurately and not realising how her behaviour will appear.
As in “Pointed Roofs”, Dorothy Richardson’s writing is quite wonderful. The stream-of-consciousness technique takes you right inside Miriam’s head and gives a remarkable immediacy to the narrative. Reading this, you experience the events, thoughts and emotions alongside Miriam in a way that wouldn’t be possible with a straightforward third-person omniscient narrator (or even, indeed, with a ‘normal’ first person narrative). Emotions, images and sensations are filtered through her consciousness so that in many ways you become Miriam and share her life. A wonderful achievement, and I can’t wait for volume 3!