“I know now why I prefer books to people” – or, Why you should read ‘Honeycomb’ by Dorothy Richardson
Honeycomb is the third novel in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series, and as with the preceding novels, only a week after finishing it, I was left scratching my head trying to recall what happened in it. This is by no means a criticism, as the plot is very much the sidecar to the real driver of the book, Miriam Henderson’s rich interior life.
Having left her post as teacher in a North London school, forced once more by her impoverished family’s circumstances Miriam faces another new situation and the anxiety and challenge of becoming a governess to a family in the country. In contrast to the dull isolation of her last position, ‘Newlands’, her new home, is rich, warm and luxurious. Richardson vividly evokes the sumptuous surroundings, the sense of light and space, as well as Miriam’s delight at the delicious food.
Miriam finds the family of her charges – the Corries, along with their friends – pleasant enough company, but is startled at their lack of cultural appreciation. Eschewing the fine arts, Mrs Corrie preferred to search for beauty in her frequent shopping trips than in music and literature.
“Ich grolle nicht, und wenn das Herz auch bricht,” sang Miriam, and thought of Germany. Her listeners did not trouble her. They would not understand – the need, that the German understood so well – the need to admit the beauty of things… the need of the strange expression of music, making the beautiful things more beautiful, and of words when they were together in the beauty of the poems. Music and poetry told everything – whether you understood the music or the words – they put you in the mood that made things shine – then heartbreak or darkness did not matter.
Despite the improved home comforts, Miriam finds herself trapped in a cultural desert yearning for meaning and ideas.
She struggled in thought to discover why it was she felt that these people did not read books and that she herself did.
In a wonderful passage that had me shouting out ‘Yes!’ and punching the air, Miriam muses about how she reads books not for the story ‘but as a psychological study of the author’. This is exactly why Richardson’s plots being forgettable is so inconsequential, the insights into her own thoughts and feelings that we glimpse through Miriam’s interior life are dazzlingly rich.
….things coming to you out of books, people, not the people in the books, but knowing, absolutely, everything about the author. She clung to the volume in her hand with a sense of wealth. Its very binding, the feeling of it, the sight of the thin serrated edges of the closed leaves came to her as having a sacredness… and the world was full of books… It did not matter that people went about talking about nice books, interesting books, sad books, ‘stories’ – they would never be that to her. They were people. More than actual people. They came nearer. In life everything was so scrappy and mixed up. In a book the author was there in every word.
After reading this, it comes as no surprise when Miriam writes to her sister Eve,
‘I prefer books to people’…. ‘I know now why I prefer books to people.’
I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to disagree with her when she puts it like that.
Miriam initially finds solace in the rare occasions spent in the company of Mr Corrie, a successful lawyer whom she initially identifies as being a ‘like-mind’. However, she is disappointed to discover that he is more interested in winning an argument, even by pure sophistry, rather than the pursuit of truth.
Miriam returns home to attend the weddings of her sisters, followed by a vacation with her mother. Mrs Henderson’s mental state has deteriorated dramatically in Miriam’s absence and the novel ends in bleak despair with no sense of resolution. I do hope ‘The Tunnel’, the fourth novel in the series, will bring with it renewed hope, for Miriam’s sake.