Thursday, March 12, 2020

March Reads Part One

Backwater by Dorothy Richardson
Honeycomb by Dorothy Richardson

“It is jolly to talk about things,” she said, as the blood surged into her face.
He was grave again and did not answer.
“People don’t talk about things nearly enough,” she pursued.

Continuing with my Richardson project here, I'm making better progress than I usually do with similar endeavours (as in, I didn't wait a year or more to return to the task). I had got the sense from reading a couple reviews, either on blogs or on Goodreads, that Pilgrimage gets more abstract as it goes on, increasing its difficulty, I suppose. Thus, I was expecting a slow shift in later books and not immediately in "chapters" two and three.

Backwater picks up with Miriam back in England getting a job as a teacher for a North London private school (forgive me if I've mislabeled what type of school. The English school system is arcane and bewildering to me) where she immediately hates everything and everybody, a common theme so far in this novel sequence. Backwater is less episodic than Pointed Roofs but still not focused the way a "traditional" novel or Bildungsroman would be. Miriam is what one would call a New Woman, a specific term from the Late Victorian era: she resists traditional roles for women, she resists patriarchal rule such as Christianity, she smokes, and most importantly, she wants to choose. She wants choice in her own life. A background theme in Backwater is one of economics. Miriam is happy to be making her own money, even if it's to support her quickly impoverished parents, but the looming government regulation of teacher, including accreditation, means she will either have to submit to training or languish around the poverty line. Coincidentally, this kind of financial precarity mirrors my own situation (Victorian pun unintended): I have training but no one will take me on unless I get more training and I won't make any money until I get this training. However, to receive this training means spending money I don't have and facing some risk. Even with more training, Miriam and I aren't guaranteed jobs; there's a chance we both undergo more schooling and shouldering debt just to be in the same place as we were when we began. The world built by Pilgrimage is slowly modernizing, one of the many reasons why scholars find Late Victorian/Edwardian literature so discursively productive. Many of the structures and systems that seem natural to us have their origins in this period of intense modernization and the literature produced by this era can be illuminating as to how people felt about such leaps. For Miriam, modernization has its pros and cons: the trams, the noise, the increased industrialization of daily life is hard on the soul, but her freedom to move, to take trains by herself, to move around the city is not something she'd trade for anything. We recall that the Late Victorian era gave us the flâneuse (the female form of the flâneur). The flâneuse is the urban spectator (a perfect protagonist for a sequence of novels charting modernization) but also a fantastic symbol of the increased alienation suffered by people under the thumb of capitalism, especially this late-19th Century accelerated capitalism. Miriam's desire for independence is mirrored by her freedom to move, her freedom to choose to escape the doldrums of North London. Yes, she's classist (Backwater refers to the obviously uncool part of London where she works), and fairly mean to these lower classes ladies who run the school. Miriam is not a morally perfect character, and her classism is tempered somewhat by the novel's subtle clues that she is, indeed, a spoiled teenager experiencing angst. We're not to trust what she says as gospel.

The other discursively productive thread in Backwater is Miriam's reading as hobby. I was reading a bit about the rise of the middlebrow in The History of British Women's Writing 1920-1945 (here) which argues part of the genre's genesis comes from reading as an avenue for social mobility:
eager to promote a culture of book-buying in a section of the population who had not previously been able to afford it, the book clubs sought to transform ephemeral best- sellers into ‘modern classics’, decking them out in ‘dignified’ uniform bindings and employing in their advertising copy language carefully designed to evoke a life of cultured and leisured gentility. ("The Feminine Middlebrow Novel" by Nicola Humble. pp 100)
Again, we see a genre developing thanks to both aesthetic concerns and market forces. Hence, why we cannot pretend genres such as "realism" are stable structures built entirely of aesthetics. The combination of commerce and audience helped created a genre with its own tropes, interests, aims, and, of course, ideology. Humble's article tracks the developing genre through depictions of women reading in literature. She writes:
Repeatedly within its pages we find discussions of book collections and favourite books, of lending libraries and bookshops, of old favourites and new best-sellers, of the differences in practices, status, and incomes between male and female writers, of reading for pleasure and reading for instruction... (101)
Richardson's Miriam is no different. In Backwater, she visits a local library, a bookshop, reads seemingly countless novels, and, keeping with the artistic aims of the entire cycle, describes lavishly the physical objects of the books themselves, in other words, indulges in commodity fetishism (something I'm also incredibly guilty of). Around the halfway point, Miriam has discovered the pleasure of reading Ouida, a then-famous, but controversial writer. Richardson writes:
From that moment the red-bound volumes became the centre of her life. She read “Moths” and “In Maremma” slowly word by word, with an increasing steadiness and certainty. The mere sitting with the text held before her eyes gave her the feeling of being strongly confronted. The strange currents which came whenever she was alone and at ease flowing to the tips of her fingers, seemed to flow into the book as she held it and to be met and satisfied. As soon as the door was shut and the gas alight, she would take the precious, solid trusty volume from her drawer and fling it on her bed, to have it under her eyes while she undressed. She ceased to read her Bible and to pray.
Note the focus on the physical act of reading and even acts around reading. Richardson barely describes the contents of the books, presuming the reader, a middlebrow reader such as Miriam herself, would be already familiar with the novels themselves. Miriam goes through phases; she obsesses over Rosa Nouchette Carey and then Mrs. Hungerford, both of whom were new names to me. Part of the appeal of this Late Victorian-Edwardian literature is, as I say, the encroaching modernity (and modernism) but also a glimpse into the interests and social practices of people long dead. There are countless Victorian bestsellers and blockbuster hits that I've just never heard of. If they're not available from Penguin or Oxford or Dover, they're almost inaccessible to a layperson. None of Ouida's oeuvre are in print save the very famous The Two Flags from Valancourt (it's too expensive for me to take a chance on). There are print-on-demand schemes, but they're often simply printed scans of library books, warts and all. These are also expensive (which is odd considering their public domain status) and are bound terribly. 21st Century society doesn't have the same reverence for books as Miriam's era. We still love books but we're not a reading society anymore. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing; it simply is a thing. So novels like Backwater help us understand these reading publics and how they've developed and changed.

Honeycomb was a better read, aesthetically, but a lesser read in terms of themes and plotting. Miriam has quit her teaching position for a pseudo-governess position in a rich household in the suburbs, where there's actual nature and actual people. She barely teaches the precocious children; her job is mostly to keep them entertained, something she isn't great at, but tries. Most of the "action" as it were comprises episodes of her within this upper class household, attending the small week-end parties (hyphen used purposefully) and going shopping with the Missus of the house. Reading this 100 years on, I found it difficult not to read it as a satire about the rich, how awful they are, how useless they are. I also struggled to discern whether or not that's intentional. Miriam seems ambivalent about it. Some people she finds fascinating while others make her soul cry out. She describes Mr. Corrie, the pater, in withering terms, but also admires him in some ways. She seeks out his opinion but admits he knows nothing about anything, especially Miriam herself. He mispronounces the name of a French town and she corrects him, inwardly rolling her eyes. But she yearns for the Corries. Or is it that she yearns for their money?

The other series of episodes is Miriam being courted. There's Bob, who condescendingly refers to her as "my dear girl" and another dude named Mr. Grove. She feels the anxiety of marriage as two of her three sisters are engaged (and marry in a dual ceremony at the end of the book). Again, and again, Miriam is ambivalent. For every moment she feels a thrill at this companionship she resists the men and their clumsy advances. It's subtle but it feels like Miriam thinks these men are courting her because they should and since they expect marriage will happen, they put no effort into the actual courting. Mr. Grove is especially heinous and he seems to think being mysterious and self-deprecating is the way to interest Miriam. She's attracted to his religiosity but repelled by how sniveling he is.
Adam had not faced the devil. He was stupid first, and afterwards a coward and a cad ... “the divine curiosity of Eve....” Some person had said that.... Perhaps men would turn round one day and see, what they were like. Eve had not been unkind to the devil; only Adam and God. All the men in the world, and their God, ought to apologise to women....
This sort of sums up Miriam's proto-feminism: she sees the need for men, but she's offended and put upon by those men. They have ruled for far too long without facing reality (ie the devil).

Speaking of religiosity, both "chapters" 2 and 3 pick up on the thread seeded by Miriam's agnosticism from Pointed Roofs. In Backwater, Miriam confesses to one of the ladies who owns the school that she doesn't believe but she feels adrift nonetheless. The school mistress, Miss Haddie, gives her a Bible which Miriam reads faithfully and derives some comfort from its poetry and words of wisdom. But Miss Haddie's piousness and her spinster status co-mingle in Miriam's eyes. She feels she has to escape the "emotional tyranny" of North London, the claustrophobia of the school and the Church:
‘I was right—I was right,’ Miriam gasped to herself as the light flowed in. ‘I’m escaping—just in time.... Emotional tyranny.... What a good expression ... that’s the secret of Miss Haddie. It was awful. She’s lost me. I’m free. Emotional tyranny.’ ...
In Honeycomb, her ambivalent feelings towards Mr. Grove are stirred by his fervour. He wishes to join a brotherhood but the expectations of family and society are forcing him into the study of Law. Miriam feels incredibly conflicted about this. On one hand, she wants him to follow his dreams (“You have a dearest wish; that is a good deal”) but on the other hand, the cloister is too confined, too strict for Miriam ("[Miriam sees] the figure at her side shrouded in a habit, wrapped in tranquillity, pacing along a cloister, lost to her"). She can't decide if his faith or his self-pity repels her but she also can't decide if his convictions and morals attract her or not:
She did not really want to help him. She wanted to attract his attention to her. She had done it and he did not know it. Horrible. They were both caught in something. She had wanted to be caught, together with this agonising priestliness. But it was a trick. Perhaps they hated each other now.
“It is jolly to talk about things,” she said, as the blood surged into her face. 
There are no easy answers in either Backwater or Honeycomb and for that, I can't wait to read more. 

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