Dorothy Richardson’s ‘Backwater’

Backwater is the second in the thirteen novel series that comprises Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. It’s been a number of weeks since I’ve finished it and even after such a short period of time my memory needed refreshing over what took place. That’s not meant as a criticism, but it is an indication that these are novels in which plot plays a secondary role to the thoughts and feelings of the novel’s protagonist, Miriam Henderson.


Having left her teaching position in Germany, at the end of Pointed Roofs,  Miriam, reluctantly takes up a new position as a teacher in a girls’ school in London. The school is run by three sisters, Deborah, Jenny and Haddie Perne, and while they are pleasant enough to Miriam, she struggles to connect with any of the girls in her charge. Still only eighteen years of age, she has grown in confidence in her ability to teach, but feels trapped by her situation during term-time, and can’t fully enjoy the holidays as she resents how transient her freedom is.


The beauty of the book lies in its capacity to evoke such a powerful sense of solitude. Even when Miriam interacts with others, we see those experiences through her eyes, and then ruminate over them through her own reflections on them. This only emphasizes the gulf between her and those around her. There is even a sense of a loss of closeness between her and her family. She has grown up since her time away, but in the process has become distant and aloof.

She tried to remember when the strange independent joy had begun, and thought she could trace it back to a morning in the garden at Babington, the first thing she could remember, when she had found herself toddling alone along the garden path between beds of flowers almost on a level with her head and blazing in the sunlight. Bees with large bodies were sailing heavily across the path from bed to bed, passing close by her head and making a loud humming in the air. She could see the flowers distinctly as she walked quickly back through the afternoon throng on the esplanade; they were sweet williams and ‘everlasting’ flowers, the sweet williams smelling very strongly sweet in her nostrils, and one sheeny brown everlasting flower that she had touched with her nose, smelling like hot paper.                                                                                                    She wanted to speak to someone of these things. Until she could speak to someone about them she must always be alone.

I love how the passage above paints an idyllic childhood memory in slow sepia-tinted detail, then like an icy plunge, contrasts it with aching loneliness. I think Richardson has keenly observed the awkward interstitial ‘no mans land’ of growing up, a process which is rarely linear and smooth. Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Miriam ricochets from maturity to petulance in a moment, and that sense of disorientation is captured brilliantly.

I’ve begun to really look forward to my monthly date with Dorothy Richardson. Next up will be Honeycomb, so watch this space!

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