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A Strong Female Sensibility

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Clear Horizon by Dorothy Richardson

I’m playing catch-up a little bit with my reviews, as I did a *lot* of reading over the Christmas period, but didn’t get round to writing up my thoughts. However, I was really pleased to get back to reading Richardson after a bit of a break – the holidays were the ideal time to read her, as I had longer uninterrupted chunks with the book! This is the first of three titles left to read before I finish the series, and “Clear Horizon” was first published in 1935.

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The book opens with Miriam still at Mrs. Bailey’s, and a new edition to the boarders has arrived in the form of Lionel Cholmley (is he the young man from the end of the previous story? Who knows?) However, he soon disappears from view so whether he will be significant in the future remains to be seen. In fact, “Clear Horizon” is a book where on the surface of it not much happens, but if you read carefully, Miriam goes through some major changes. For a start, there is a possible pregnancy (Hypo commenting that she is “booked for maternity”) and then it transpires that she either is mistaken or loses the baby. Miriam seems to become disillusioned with Hypo and makes a kind of break with him, viewing him more cynically than she has in the past. She introduces Michael Shatov to Amabel, possibly as a kind of match-making process (I can’t help wondering if this is an event that will have future implications?)

As well as drawing back from involvement with Hypo, Miriam begins to distance herself a little from Amabel and regard her more critically. Amabel has thrown herself into the suffragist movement, marching with them and being arrested. Miriam is not prepared to commit to that kind of action, preferring instead to continue her association with the Lycurgans. She visits Amabel in prison, but recognises that the latter is acting and posing all the time; and Miriam is no longer charmed by her behaviour.

Closer to home, Miriam’s sister Sarah is ill; what kind of complaint is never specified but it is a serious one, and Miriam’s old flame Dr. Densley advises an operation which will kill or cure. The family is of course impoverished (lack of money is a recurring theme in the books) but Densley has managed to arrange treatment at a minimal cost. Densley has been one of the constants in Miriam’s life, and she (and we!) get to speculate what her life might have been like had she accepted his proposal.

However, Densley identifies that Miriam is run down (she’s been burning the candle at both ends as usual) and so he recommends a break. Fortunately, she has some money put aside and makes a decisive break, leaving everything behind – job/Hypo/friends – to go off we don’t know where for some kind of rest cure. She refers to this as a nervous breakdown but whether it actually is, like so much in these books, is ambiguous! So the book ends with Miriam on the verge of more changes, as she takes her leave of the dentists’ practice and particularly Mr. Hancock.

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I was surprised initially at how positively I responded to “Clear Horizon”, particular as I know some other readers have struggled. As usual, the story is couched in her usual allusive, elusive style and there is some beautiful prose. Her use of language when Miriam is off on her mental flights of fancy is evocative, and it was wonderful seeing Miriam relish more than anything London and her solitude and freedom. These latter are vital to her wellbeing, and there is the sense that whatever sacrifices she’s made, she’s chosen the way of life that’s essential for her.

I actually ended up enjoying this book a lot more than I expected, immersing myself in Miriam’s world and the changes going on in her life. I think after the strictly masculinist outlook of Tolstoy I was in need of a strong female sensibility and Miriam, with her refusal to compromise and her relentless quest for her own space and independence, was a perfect read for me at this time. I feel that I tuned in to what Richardson was trying to do in her writing, and although there are the usual frustrations, nevertheless this was a very positive reading experience and I think I have the impetus now to push on to the two final books before too long!

December ramblings…

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I can’t believe we’re coming to the end of 2016, but like many I won’t be sorry to see the back of this year – it’s been a difficult one all-round.

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Reading-wise, I am behind (of course!) on the few limited challenges I hoped to take part in. Although I’ve reached the last volume of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage sequence, I still have a few titles to go. I’ve decided not to beat myself up about it – if I end up finishing it over Christmas, or it stretches into January, that’s fine. Any deadlines I set my reading are ultimately my own and I’m not going to stress about it.

One title I *do* intend to start very soon, however, is this one for the final part of HeavenAli’s wonderful Woolfalong:

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I haven’t read “Jacob’s Room” for about 35 years, and my poor old copy is developing crumbly pages – so this lovely new edition, picked up recently in London, will be just the thing.

Apart from that, I’m trying not to plan too much for December’s reading. I have a couple of lovely British Library Crime Classics lined up, plus a wonderful sounding collection of funny ghost stories from Jerome K. Jerome – just right for the cold dark nights! 🙂

The aftermath of Switzerland

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Dawn’s Left Hand by Dorothy Richardson

It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to realise that I have slipped just a little behind with my read of Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” sequence of novels. I seem to be struggling to fit in reading at the moment, in the aftermath of the intensity of the 1947 Club; however, the recent excellent BBC4 Virago documentary spurred me on to pick up volume 4 recently and tackle the next book in the sequence – “Dawn’s Left Hand”.

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The book picks up pretty much where the previous one had left off, with Miriam travelling home from Oberland. She seems to be finding leaving Switzerland a wrench, and in fact the place and its effects permeate much of the early section of the book. As usual, Miriam finds it hard to relate to fellow travellers en route, but is often too kind to shun them.

Back in her familiar London she takes up her old life, in more ways than one. Early in the book she visits an old acquaintance, Dr. Densley, an old beau who seems to still hanker after Miriam. She’s still working at the dentist practice, and she makes a break with Selina, her co-tenant, to return to her old boarding house. The relationship between the two women, always vaguely defined at best, seems to have completely broken down and given the chance to up sticks Miriam takes it.

Into Miriam’s life comes a new friend in the form of a French woman, Amabel, who develops quite a passion for our heroine. They meet at Miriam’s club and it is clear that she is still mixing with the Lycurgans. However, Miriam is distracted by her affair with Hypo, which appears to come to some kind of fruition, resulting oddly enough in a gulf seeming to develop between her and the Wilsons. The book ends on a strange note, with a meeting on the steps of Mrs. Bailey’s that may or may not be a major one – perhaps the next book will reveal all!

“Dawn’s Left Hand” is another short entry in the Pilgrimage sequence, and I wondered if it was almost too short to stand on its own and that maybe it would have been better attached to “Oberland” (or may “Clear Horizon”, which comes next, but that remains to be seen). Again, so much of the book is Miriam’s emotions and reactions to things, her contemplating the distance between men and women, and her relishing her solitude once more. As usual, Richardson does her trick of dropping huge events (deaths, dramatic adventures of relatives) into the narrative as passing comments, so as to retain the focus on the narrator’s state of mind. We are treated to Miriam dipping into the first person now and then, and the affair with Hypo is so discreetly written that if you didn’t read carefully you might miss it. Miriam in many ways seems torn between Hypo and Amabel, and I presume the latter was based on her friend Veronica.

I wondered a little about the title and when I did some research online, came up with this quote from Omar Khayyam (translated by Edward Fitzgerald):

Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry
‘Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry

It made me think if this was a little reference to Miriam deciding to take life on and embark on the affair with Hypo before she became older and love might pass her by – certainly, as I may have said before, there is the risk with her rigidity that she cuts herself off slightly from human interaction and the sacrifice that entails and it will be intriguing to see where the story goes next.

As always, the descriptions of London were lovely and atmospheric, and I enjoyed much of the time I spent in Miriam’s company. However, I got the feeling this was something of a bridging book, taking Miriam into a new phase of her life with the Hypo affair and the introduction of Amabel. I’ll be interested to see where the story takes me next!

All Virago/All August – Catching up with Dorothy!

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Behind her closed door she stood alone.

I have indeed let my reading of Dorothy Richardson’s great series of books, “Pilgrimage”, slip behind a little and I need to catch up with June’s book (“Revolving Lights”), July’s book (“The Trap”) and also that for the current month (“Oberland”). I have finally found the time and space to read them, so I thought I would do a composite type of post, covering them all!

Revolving Lights

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“Revolving Lights” opens with a long stream-of-consciousness chapter with Miriam mixing with Mr. Leyton’s female cousins, debating with herself deeply about her relationship with Michael Shatov. She’s acutely conscious of the differences of attitude between men and women, and frustrated by his inability to understand the problems they would face if they married. Despite meeting a Russian couple, the Lintoffs, who have a ‘mixed marriage’, Miriam is still unconvinced and makes the break with Michael – her need to be alone is one of the strongest things in her psyche. There is a weight lifted from her by this break, but she’s exhausted and goes to spend a month with the Wilsons in the country. Here, she mixes with literary types, particularly Edna Prout, and grows closer to Hypo – interestingly enough, she seems to be developing a writing career of sorts, writing reviews. The book ends on a further note of change, with her dentist boss Mr. Hancock going it alone and taking Miriam with him.

The Trap

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“The Trap” heralds more changes, as it opens with Miriam moving to new lodgings, sharing with a Miss Holland. In the same area of London, it appears, the rooms are not particularly inspiring and involve actually sharing a bedroom, with a curtain down the middle – not something I’d expect Miriam to be particularly keen on, as she likes her own space, but she appears cheerful enough about it. It’s not clear straight away why she’s made the move, though a later sentence would suggest for reasons of economy – but then there is always much that isn’t clear with Richardson. So Miriam settles in, attend Lycurgan meetings and dances, socialises with Miss Holland and Dr. Densley (is he a suitor as well as  her doctor?), copes with exhaustion and takes great joy in being a member of a women’s club. Michael Shatov makes fleeting appearances, as does the poet Yeats (who apparently lives just over the road!) and all the while Miriam continues her interior dialogue with herself. Densley is of the opinion that her exhaustion could be cured by marriage and settling down, which Miriam dismisses. However, there is a sense that she’s becoming set in her ways and certainly her outlook is often inflexible. Inevitably, there’s a falling out with Miss Holland and the book ends with the hint that Miriam may be moving on again.

Oberland

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“Oberland” brings a change of scene as it opens with Miriam setting off on for a holiday in Switzerland, a trip that had been mentioned in passing while she was at the Wilsons’ as her ideal visit. And here we see the real strength of Richardson’s writing as she captures brilliantly the feeling of travelling and the effect of the landscape on Miriam as she arrives in Oberland. Switzerland comes vividly arrive and Miriam obvious loves the place; she toboggans and walks in the mountains; makes tentative friends with other residents; and spends quite a lot of time attracting men! In fact, she’s something of a flirt, drawn to a brooding Italian whose views are very much opposite to hers, and also to a young American whose free and easy New World manners are more in touch with her personality. However, it does seem as if she’s toying with them a little, and there are hints of Hypo in back in London “waiting for her decision” – on what we don’t know, but presumably it will be a love affair of some sort.

Short enough to be classed as a novella, “Oberland” was probably the easiest of these three books to read – shorter chapter, shorter paragraphs, less inner musings and more outward looking. We still experience Miriam’s way of thinking and her view of the world, but in a form that’s easier for the reader to assimilate.

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So, having read three Pilgrimage novels in quick succession, I’ve had a concentrated dose of Miriam and I have to say that it did cross my mind that she’s a person who seriously overthinks things! Accepting that we all have random thought processes, constantly picking up subtleties around us and analysing motives and the like, Miriam takes this to an extreme degree, so much so that I did wonder how much it was interfering with her life. However, putting this aside, there are great riches to be found in the books.

For a start, some passages are quite beautiful, and in particular Richardson vividly brings alive the summer stay at the Wilsons. The landscape and the garden and the sleeping out on a summer night are wonderfully painted scenes, with Miriam contemplating the large things of life. And as always, Miriam/Richardson celebrates London and the life there in some wonderful sequences – Miriam’s refuge is often the streets of the capital, where she is at home and very much at one with herself. Switzerland too had a strong presence and Miriam always responds to landscape.

Dorothy Richardson in 1932

Dorothy Richardson in 1932

Bizarrely, in places Richardson starts to switch from the third person to the first person, and towards the end of “The Trap” a whole sequence is done in first person – which rather unsettles the reader. Another oddity is her constant way of dropping important bombshells into the narrative as passing comments; I’m thinking of one particular huge life-changing event in “The Trap” which happens so much in metaphorical parenthesis that you might actually miss it… There are also the ongoing frustrations of references to past events we know nothing about – for example, as Liz pointed out, the mention of Miriam having spent time with cousins in Cambridge is the first we hear of it, and this kind of sudden detail can be disconcerting.

On a slightly negative point, I found the constant emphasis on race in the first of these three books a little frustrating. I suppose that nowadays we’re used to people of all races and faiths and creeds marrying without a second thought, but Richardson seems to define, and often condemn, people, particularly ones of Jewish origin, because of that heritage. Granted that it’s a way of life and belief that is alien to her, nevertheless I felt slightly uncomfortable with her categorisations here. And in “Oberland” in particular, her consciousness of class differences comes to the fore. I ended up perceiving a real danger that Miriam’s outlook and character can be too rigid – she obviously is looking for a life companion of some kind, or else why would she spend so much time pursuing the various menfolk, but any relationship has to completely on her terms. There is no room for any kind of compromise in her outlook and that could well have a detrimental effect on her life long-term.

So a fascinating series of three books – and I’m keen to see where Miriam’s journey takes her next, as “The Trap” ended on a note of ambiguity as far as her future sharing digs with Miss Holland is concerned. I’m glad I used All Virago/All August to catch up, and as the final four volumes are really quite short, hopefully I’ll have no problem completing this challenge…

(Liz’s review of “Oberland” is here and you can find the rest of her reviews on her blog too)

Goodbye, July – and August reading plans!

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I’m really not sorry to see the back of July – it was a long and busy month, and I spent a lot of it reading one book, Dostoevsky’s “The Adolescent” (the review for which will be appearing in the next Shiny New Books). It wouldn’t normally take me so long to read 600 pages, but I *was* busy and I *was* tired! The minute I finished work for the summer, I raced through the rest of the book….!

So, with July out of the way, do I have plans for August? Well, yes – there are a number of challenges up this month and I’d like to take part if I can.

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First of all there’s All Virago/All August, which the LibraryThing Virago group organise. I never go for reading nothing but Viragos for the month, because I would fail – like Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, I prefer the approach of “Very Virago/All August” and just read the ones that fall in with my mood. This month, I hope to catch up with the Dorothy Richardsons I’m behind on, and also read a large and interesting-looking Edith Wharton, “Hudson River Bracketed”.

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I’d also like to keep up the impetus with the Penguin Modern Poets project; the next one is volume 6 and it features two poets I know of (and at least one I’ve read) so it should be an interesting experience.

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August is also Women in Translation month. Goodness knows I have a ton of books by translated women, but choosing will be hard! There are two lovely Irmgard Keun titles lurking on the shelves so I may pick one of them.

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There’s also “Grand Hotel” which I’m doing for Shiny. Plus I may well re-read my favourite Colette, “Break of Day”, as I picked up the Capuchin edition in a charity shop!

woolf orlando recollections

Last, but most definitely not least, I want to dip into HeavenAli’s #Woolfalong; the current phase is biography of all sorts and I’m considering “Orlando” or possibly “Recollections of Virginia Woolf”. Knowing me, I may end up reading neither of these, but I do want to read something Woolfish soon!

So those are the plans for August as they stand on the first day of the month – watch this space to see what materialises! 🙂

Reading “Pilgrimage” : An Update

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June is the month when I’ve been supposed to be reading the next book in Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” – “Revolving Lights”. However, I confess I’ve got a bit behind and in all honesty I shan’t finish it this month so the review will follow in July.

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There are a couple of reasons for the hiccup: firstly, I spent a *looong* time reading a review book “The Glory of the Empire” from NYRB and so got quite behind; and secondly, “Revolving Lights” itself. Having glided through the last Richardson, this one is proving much harder – the opening chapter is an enormous stream of consciousness one, where you have to guess who’s talking about who and what most of the time and it isn’t an easy read. I’m not going to beat myself up and force myself to read it quickly just to meet a deadline – I’ll probably do as others on the Virago group are doing and space it out a bit it a time while reading something else. Much as I admire Richardson’s work, at the end of the day writing a book is about communicating *something* and there are times I wish she’d made things a little easier for the reader….

Men are from Mars…

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Deadlock by Dorothy Richardson

My reading of Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” series continues with the first book in volume 3, “Deadlock”, and I’ve just managed to squeeze it in before the end of the month! To be honest, I struggled a little with the last book and so I was vaguely apprehensive about picking up this one; however, I found no problems with it and loved it, so it just goes to show that attitude of mind may have something to do with your appreciation of a book!

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In “Deadlock”, Miriam is still living in Mrs. Bailey’s lodging house and working at the dentists’ practice, and the book opens with a comet visible over London – maybe Halley’s comet, from 1910? However, the focus in this book will not be on either of the usual aspects of her life (although they’ll feature) but on the coming of a new element into Miriam’s world – that of love. Mrs. Bailey has a new lodger, the Russian Mr. Shatov, and Miriam is introduced to him as being someone who can help him with his English. The two seem to develop an immediate rapport; they’re able to discuss philosophy and novels and the deeper things with no problem, and it may be that because Shatov is not English the two can develop an intellectual relationship in a way Miriam couldn’t with a traditional English man. They visit the British Museum to enrol him; walk, talk and have meals together; and Shatov is jealous when Miriam is embroiled in another lodger’s attempt to prepare a lecture on Spanish Literature. The book is not all about Miriam and Shatov though; she visits her sisters, now living in a seaside town where Eve has struck out on her own and is running a shop; and Harriett and Gerald are running a boarding house. In one brilliant sentence, Miriam reveals that the latter’s marriage has foundered, with the pair staying together for the sake of their child; and Eve’s situation is seen as no better, with Miriam considering her as playing at being independent, rather than really succeeding in this.

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Through all, of course, runs Miriam’s great love of London, the backdrop for her life. She visits lectures, walks the streets and revels in her independence. As her friendship with Shatov deepens (and he becomes Michael instead of simply Mr. Shatov) it also becomes more complex; when he declares his love for her and she reciprocates, despite her happiness she perceives problems. Michael Shatov is a Russian Jew, and that in itself is not a problem; what *is* a problem are his attitudes towards women, which despite his respect for her intellect, he can’t help but display. Things are thrown sharply into focus with a discussion as to whether women should be satisfied being wife and mother, which Miriam obviously cannot accept, and the reader is left feeling that the relationship is alas doomed.

“Deadlock” was absolutely fascinating to read, and I realised even more so with this book how Richardson is choosing to allow us sight of the parts of Miriam’s life she wants us to see. For example, at one point Miriam translates some Russian stories from German to English and shows them to an unnamed *him*, receiving a disparaging comment about the content (though not her translation). It is only clear from the mention in this section of Alma that this must be Hypo Wilson and so obviously Miriam has kept up contact with them – not that we would know this from anywhere else in the story! A lot of what we learn about Miriam’s life almost takes place in parenthesis – for example, when she tells Michael at length about a cycling accident she had. The dentists’ practice features more as an irritant than anything else, almost a dead-end with no prospects of any change, and at one point Miriam is sacked (though I think reinstated!) for expressing displeasure at her employment terms! This is particularly interesting, as the dialogue that follows hints that her employers have seen her as more of a part of their extended family, and the lines have been blurred between employee and friend, which she may have misunderstood. Miriam’s friends Mags and Jan appear in passing, and it seems that normal life for Miriam goes on as usual, with Richardson simply pointing her magnifying glass at the parts of her story concerning Michael Shatov as that is her focus in this book.

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Much of the book is a dialogue between the opposing viewpoints of Miriam and Shatov, and although she’s maturing she still seems unworldly in many ways; at one point, as Miriam is about to leave for a day with the Brooms, Shatov reveals rather obliquely some hinted-at past indiscretion (presumably previous lovers?) This throws Miriam into a terrible tizz for the day, but from the reader’s point of view it would be unrealistic of her to expect a worldly, well-travelled Russian of that period to have had no liaisons. But their intellectual exchanges are fascinating, and of course I found Shatov’s championing of his Russian authors (‘Tolstoi’ and ‘Turgayneff!’!) irresistible. It seems that the two may have gone as far as an engagement, as Miriam visits a woman who has married someone Jewish to gain insight into the attitudes she might encounter; a visit that is in many ways anticlimactic, though it does serve to reinforce the limitations of Miriam’s mindset.

Richardson really hit a kind of peak with this book, exploring so well, as it does, the differences between men and women and their attitudes. Despite Shatov declaring himself a feminist, at the end of the day he will fall into the expected patterns of his caste and would want Miriam as a wife and mother. Miriam would be unable to accept that traditional role and so although there is a meeting of minds, it is unlikely to enable a lasting union. “Deadlock” is an excellent addition to the Pilgrimage sequence, and I’m actually very keen to hit the next book soon to see how Richardson resolves the relationship between Miriam and Michael.

(For other views, Liz’s review is here.)

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