Honeycomb by Dorothy Richardson
My monthly read of Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” continues with the third book in the sequence, and the final one collected in Pilgrimage Volume 1 from Virago – “Honeycomb”, originally published in 1917. The book opens with Miriam Henderson travelling to the country house “Newlands” to take up a position as a governess to the two children of the Corrie family. The Corries are monied – the husband is a QC – and the contrast with the pinched, impoverished existence Miriam experienced in the past is marked.
The household is a lively one, with regular visitors; including Joey, described as looking like an Oriental princess, and the Cravens, who have both had previous marriages. Miriam is swept away by the comfort and luxury, such a strong contrast to what her home life has become and also to her previous employments. However, she finds that she’s in a curious position, not exactly an employee but not a friend or member of the household, and this leaves her feeling awkward at times. As usual, Miriam finds that she stands apart, relating more to Mr. Corrie than some of the women, and playing billiards and smoking with them rather than making polite chit-chat.
But things in the Henderson household are undergoing another big change, as Miriam returns home for the weddings of Harriett and Sarah. The family have moved to a smaller, suburban house and Miriam is rapidly absorbed into the preparations for the joint ceremony. While everyone is involved in the excitement, it becomes clear that Miriam’s mother is unwell, and it is she who is given the responsibility of accompanying her ailing parent on a fateful trip to the seaside in an attempt to improve her health…
Well, Richardson just goes from strength to strength, and “Honeycomb” was an incredible read. The stream-of-consciousness narrative was obviously becoming a comfortable way for Richardson to express herself, and she writes effortlessly here. Again, we see from Miriam’s point of view and it’s absolutely fascinating watching her experience the world and coming to judgements about people and events. She’s matured a little and can cope with situations better; and she’s obviously an intelligent woman, wasted on the family she’s working for, as she soon realises.
That’s men, she said, with a sudden flash of certainly, that’s men as they are, when they are opposed, when they are real. All the rest is pretence. Her thoughts flashed forward to a final clear issue of opposition, with a husband. Just a cold blank hating forehead and neatly brushed hair above it. If a man doesn’t understand or doesn’t agree he’s just a blank bony conceitedly thinking, absolutely condemning forehead, a face below, going on eating – and going off somewhere. Men are all hard angry bones; always thinking something, only one thing at a time and unless that is agreed to, they murder.
As I read through “Honeycomb”, I realised that much of the book is concerned with one subject, that of marriage. Of course, the two sisters are undergoing that ceremony as part of the events taking place, but Richardson uses many of the experiences which Miriam has as a springboard to consider the whole subject on a wider level. Miriam watches the various guests at the Corries’ house, and indeed the Corries themselves, and comes to the opinion that marriage is the option women often choose simply to have a comfortable life, not to have to scrabble around making a living – which was a difficult road to take at the time. She sees all different types of union, some more successful than others, and Richardson lets her debate the pros and cons, trying to decide whether the sacrifice of independence is worth it to gain economic security. Certainly, Miriam attracts several admirers and it may be her independence and lack of interest in them that draws them to her; but she is uncertain whether she can give up her autonomy and ploughs on, making her own way through life.
The portrait of Miriam’s parents is fascinating, too, reflecting another kind of marriage which has not worked out so well. Mr. Henderson is a shadowy figure, responsible for the family’s financial ruin and by implication for the state of Mrs. Henderson’s health. Miriam is rather left holding the baby, so to speak, when she’s entrusted with taking her increasingly unstable mother away for a rest cure; and the consequences, which are only hinted at in the book, are tragic. In fact, I ended up drawing on my knowledge of Richardson’s real life at this point, as without that I think it wouldn’t be obvious what had happened.
“Honeycomb” was another fascinating piece of writing from Dorothy Richardson and I was once again drawn into the world of Miriam Henderson, seeing the world through the prism of her viewpoint. Richardson’s prose is hypnotic and quite beautiful in places and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that gets inside the head of a person or their thought processes quite like this. Really can’t wait for the next book!