The Tunnel by Dorothy Richardson

Starting the second volume of Dorothy Richardson’s classic modernist work Pilgrimage was a little daunting, as this particular book only contains two titles – “The Tunnel”, the longest in the sequence so far, and “Interim”, a much shorted work. I was slightly apprehensive about how I would deal with the longer one, but pushed on nevertheless.

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“The Tunnel” finds Miriam Henderson in a new phase of her life; having taken a room in London in the Euston area, she’s found employment in a dental practice in Wimpole Street. We later find out that this was obtained through a family connection, and indeed the practice is more like a little family. There are Mr. and Mrs. Orly; their son Mr. Leyton; and Mr. Hancock, for whom Miriam seems to do most of her work. All three dentists have very different styles of working, and Miriam has to undertake a bewildering array of duties: book-keeping, handwritten correspondence, preparing materials for the surgery, cleaning and sterilising instruments – I’m not sure she’d be allowed to do all that in a modern surgery! But despite the nagging feelings of inadequacy and of always being behind with her work, she enjoys the place. In particular, she holds Mr. Hancock in high regard, lauding his dental skills.

Outside of work, her great joy is in being in London and being free. She visits friends Mags and Jan; eats a meagre meal at an ABC cafe (money is always a problem); visits Harriett, now expecting her first child; and the world opens up to her a bit more as Mr. Hancock takes her to some free lectures, expanding her mind and her thoughts even more. All this we see, of course, through Miriam’s mind, with all its randomness, stream of consciousness and digressions, and this can sometimes be a little hard to follow. Nevertheless, what builds up is a rich, nuanced image of a life being lived; striking out on her own, Miriam still experiences highs and lows, but as long as she has her little room and London, she seems to cope.

Things are not always as straightforward as she would like, however. Despite her wish to be a modern, independent woman, she is still judged by others; and there is a fascinating sequence revealing the fact that her visiting lectures with Mr. Hancock unchaperoned is considered shocking by his visiting relatives. And she still experiences social difficulties and finds herself sucked into uncomfortable situations because of a kind heart. As the story progresses, Miriam’s sister Eve suffers some kind of nervous breakdown, and while convalescing she comes across Miss Dear, a nurse, and Miriam is draw into the latter’s circle. Miss Dear is a quietly demanding person; initially seeming vulnerable and in need of help, Miriam finds herself visiting regularly, reading to her while she’s ill and raging inwardly at the invasion of her private space and time. Yet Miss Dear is revealed as a complex and quite manipulative person, misleading and making use of others. However, Richardson is never really judgemental, recognising the difficult position women often found themselves in, either having to look for a man to be a ‘protector’ in real and financial terms, or trying to make a living in a man’s world. Miriam herself earns little and seems to be permanently hungry, a theme reiterated through the book.

Important events take place in the tunnel, not least the meeting between Miriam and Hypo Wilson (a portrait of H.G. Wells), when Miriam visits them Wilsons in the country. Hypo has married an old school friend of Miriam’s (although friend seems perhaps a slightly strong word here, as the relationship doesn’t appear to be particularly close); and through this connection Miriam is drawn into a world of writers and books, expanding her horizons even more. No doubt the Wilsons will recur in later books!

Rational dress

And of course there are bicycles! The liberating effect of cycling for women really can’t be underestimated. At the time, women were burdened with heavy clothing, dependent on walking or buses or trains to get anywhere, and when the craze for cycling took off it had a knock-on effect. The Rational Dress Movement, which had general links to other emancipation elements, opposed the ridiculous kind of clothing worn at the time, and encouraged the wearing of a kind of baggy trousers which would be more suitable for a cycle. Certainly, Miriam and her friends are known to sneak out in their knickerbockers for exhilarating cycling jaunts, and at one point in the book Miriam makes a long journey on two wheels to Marlborough!

The book ends with changes coming at Miriam’s lodgings. Mrs. Bailey, the landlady, is going to turn it into a boarding house rather than rented rooms (I’m not quite sure of the distinction here!) but Miriam is welcome to stay. Miss Dear has plans for the future which have been deviously made, and the future is still ambiguous for Miriam. I can’t wait to see where she goes next!

Despite the occasional opacity of the narrative, once I got going with “The Tunnel” I found it hard to put down. I remembered Miriam’s work in the dental practice and the bike riding from my first read, and Richardson’s prose creates such wonderfully vivid images – a few lines about Mr. Leyton, for example, conjures him up brilliantly!

The clattering of boots on the stone stairs was followed by the rattling of the loose door knob and the splitting open of the door. Mr. Leyton shot into the room, searching the party with a swift glance and taking his place in the circle in a state of headlong silent volubility. By the way he attacked his lunch it was clear he had a patient waiting or imminent.

Once again, Richardson succeeds in bringing to life how it was to be a woman in the early party of the 20th century; the obstacles and the difficulties; the joy of new discoveries; and the strength it took to forge an independent path. Roll on the next book! 🙂

*****

(As an aside, I should note that I was rather ironically suffering with an abscess and root canal treatment while I was reading “The Tunnel” – and I *so* appreciate the advances in modern dentistry…..!)

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