The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Pilgrimage 1 & 2: Pointed Roofs and Backwater

Pilgrimage 1 & 2: Pointed Roofs and Backwater. By Dorothy Richardson. Edited by Scott McCracken. Oxford University Press, 2020. c + 414pp. £125.

Reviewed by Joshua Phillips, University of Oxford

It has become increasingly difficult to read Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage in recent decades. This declaration is not a swipe at modernist difficulty, despite Pilgrimage’s richly experimental prose, its innovative approach to punctuation, and its nuanced depiction of its protagonist Miriam Henderson’s psyche. Richardson was certainly aware of her reputation for difficulty, writing—with no small degree of acerbic wit—in her foreword to the 1938 edition of Pilgrimage about “the chaos for which she is justly reproached.” Rather, my statement gestures towards the textual history of Richardson’s novel-cycle. The thirteen volumes that make up Pilgrimage are long since out of print and, unlike the works of many of her modernist contemporaries, have not received sustained attention from the scholarly editing community. To compound matters, Pilgrimage exists in two variant traditions. The new Oxford Edition of the Works of Dorothy Richardson, under the general editorship of Scott McCracken, does much to rectify this latter, textual, set of difficulties while shedding new light on the former, interpretive, difficulties.

The volume under review consists of the first two “chapter-volumes,” as Richardson termed them, of Pilgrimage: Pointed Roofs and Backwater, published in 1915 and 1916 respectively. These two chapter-volumes detail the start of Miriam Henderson’s Bildung as she flees genteel poverty in London’s Banbury Park. Banbury Park is a close analogue to North London's Finsbury Park neighborhood, where Richardson grew up. Richardson renders Miriam’s developing consciousness in a free-flowing style that May Sinclair described (borrowing from psychologist and philosopher William James) as “stream of consciousness” in her 1918 article “The Novels of Dorothy Richardson”—although Richardson herself disdained the term as a descriptor of her style. In Pointed Roofs and Backwater, Miriam takes up one of the few positions available to her as an educated but relatively penniless young woman seeking her freedom at the turn of the century: Pointed Roofs sees her teaching at a school in Germany, while Backwater sees her take up a similar post in an English school. Beyond providing her with a living, Miriam’s work as a teacher grants her a welcome degree of independence, and Backwater ends with the protagonist facing an uncertain, but nonetheless independent, future.

The next nine installments of Pilgrimage were published as single volumes from 1917 to 1935, at first yearly and then with decreasing regularity. These volumes were published by Duckworth and Company, although McCracken notes in this edition’s front matter that Richardson was “never really happy with the firm” (xlv). Richardson’s unhappiness with Duckworth might go some way toward explaining Pilgrimage’s complex publication history. In 1938, Dimple Hill, the final chapter-volume of Pilgrimage that Richardson lived to see printed, was published by J.M. Dent’s Cresset Press as part of a four-volume collected edition. A posthumous edition of the four-volume Pilgrimage was published by Cresset in 1967, which included the as-yet unpublished March Moonlight, the last installment of Pilgrimage that Richardson lived to write. This final edition was reprinted by Virago in 1979, and it is through the Virago reprint that most of Richardson’s readers know Pilgrimage.

The Cresset edition of Pilgrimage did not just consolidate Richardson’s manifold chapter-volumes into a handier format: rather, the edition represents a concerted effort by Richardson to revise and reshape her text, to create a “more regular and less experimental text” (xlviii).  Richardson herself discusses this effort in her compressed and elliptical preface to the 1938 edition which is, handily, included as an appendix to this new edition. As McCracken writes in his introduction, the four-volume Pilgrimage presents itself as a “self-conscious totality […] a formally consistent and integrated whole” (lxiii).

So, which Pilgrimage to edit? An editor who prioritised final authorial intent might well have chosen to use the 1938 edition as a copy-text. However, McCracken takes a different approach, explaining that “[w]hat the 1938 collected edition gained in consistency, it lost in smoothing over the experimental and inconclusive nature of Richardson’s art” (lxiii). The edition under review uses the first British edition of each chapter-volume as a copy-text, prioritising each volume’s aesthetic autonomy: the Oxford edition of Pilgrimage presents Pilgrimage not as a finished product but a continuous production, a text-in-process.  

Readers who seek to dig deeper into the work that Richardson did to “[smooth] over” the earlier editions’ experimentation can turn to the Oxford Pilgrimage’s detailed textual apparatus. The apparatus is spread over two appendices, the first collating both substantial and incidental variants across both the earlier, single-volume, editions and the 1938 collected editions of both Pointed Roofs and Backwater, and the second providing more discursive notes on substantial variants. Although the differences between the earlier chapter-volumes’ initial and later publications might be relatively slight, they demonstrate that, as Richardson continued to write, her experiments with punctuation and prose rhythm picked up steam. As such, this approach promises to bear fruit further down the line.

In addition to an exhaustive textual apparatus, this volume’s back matter features similarly exhaustive explanatory notes that shed light on Richardson’s immensely dense and allusive prose. The attention that these notes pay to Pointed Roofs’s complex weave of languages is particularly impressive. Richardson’s text incorporates large amounts of German and French, and, moreover, Richardson plays with pronunciation and register in ways that seem designed to flummox any annotator. But flummoxed McCracken is not. For instance, the volume’s gloss on the phrase “‘Oh, Mademoiselle! j’ai une potato, pardon, pum de terre, je mean’” (35) informs the reader not only that “pum de terre’ is an anglophone attempt to pronounce pomme de terre, but that a “potato here is a hole in a sock or stocking, which, on white legs, reveals a round patch of skin like a new potato” (292). The notes are similarly attentive to varieties of German: the phrase ‘“Gun’ Tak’ Fr’n’” (40) is not just glossed in the notes as “Guten Tag Fräulein” or “Good day, Miss.” Rather, the note explains that Frau Krause, the sentence’s speaker is, “like the school servants, […] probably a speaker of Low German” (293), signalling a linguistic and a class divide. Richardson’s play of languages does not stop at the Channel, nor does McCracken’s attention to Richardson’s language. Once Miriam returns to England in Backwater, we learn that ‘“dummel’” (154) is “Berkshire dialect” for “dumb, stupid, slow” (312).

Pilgrimage is an intensely literate, musical, and learned novel, and this edition’s notes to the first two chapter-volumes pay equally close attention to the rich interplay of musical and literary allusions – from organ-grinders playing anonymous Irish ballads (3, n. 282) to Areopagitica (193, n. 319) – as well as tracing sources for the material that Miriam Henderson and her colleagues teach. Some allusions go unglossed. Some are as simple as a mention of a “Miss Donne” who teaches poetry (55): most likely a reference to poet John Donne. Some are more complex, such as a reference to one of Miriam’s young students, a “brilliant little Jewess [who] knew the ‘principal facts and dates’ of the reign of Edward I by rote backwards and forwards” (196). The explanatory note for this sentence tells the reader that Edward I was King of England, and that he was born in 1239 and reigned from 1272 to 1307 (319). However, it omits that in 1290, he issued the Edict of Expulsion, which expelled England’s Jewish population. This must stand as a “‘key fact[]’” of his reign, and one that gains additional freight when it is recited by a Jewish child in a novel where religion generally, and Judaism in particular, signifies so richly. These, admittedly, are minor quibbles and any gaps in the notes speak less to editorial lapses than to the sheer inexhaustibility of Richardson’s prose.

The first installment of the Oxford edition of Richardson’s oeuvre represents no small undertaking, and it is no small book. It features 133 pages of near-comprehensive back matter and 100 pages of introductory material – not to mention the texts of the two chapter-volumes. The volume’s front matter details the composition and publication histories, initial reception of and contexts for the two chapter-volumes. A volume of this scale (and of this price, for that matter) is unlikely to make it to many undergraduate reading lists. But it excels as a critical edition and can justifiably be called the authoritative edition of the 1915 and 1916 versions of Pointed Roofs and Backwater. In its minute attention to matters of text, context, and reference, this volume stands as a major scholarly achievement, and will hopefully prove foundational to much future scholarship. I for one am eager for the next volume.

1. Richardson, Dorothy. “Foreword to the 1938 Edition of Pilgrimage,” included in the volume under review (pp. 347-53), p. 353. All further references to the volume under review will be made in the body of the text.

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