The Key to Freedom? No More Interest in Men. Dorothy Richardson’s ‘Interim’.

When I embarked on Interim, the fifth novel from Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series, I knew to expect some confusion around the plot and sense of place in the novel from other reviews I’ve read. I seem to be a book behind Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings), Jane (Beyond Eden Rock) and Liz (Adventures in Reading, Writng and Working from Home) who are also currently reading the series, but I’m finding their responses to the novels good preparation for what lies ahead. I do so love Richardson’s prose, and her ability to vividly conjure the internal life of Miriam Henderson is magical, but increasingly, the novels aren’t always easy to make sense of.

Miriam is still working at the dental surgery, but this is barely mentioned in Interim which focuses far more on her home and social life. My following of the plot felt fragmentary, and having finished the novel a few weeks ago I struggled to remember what happened overall when I came to write this post, although several passages from my reading stood out in my memory like jewels.

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At the beginning of the novel, talk of childhood toys stirs a yearning nostalgia in Miriam.

‘Do you remember looking at the kaleidoscope? I used to cry about it sometimes at night; thinking of the patterns I had not seen. I thought there was a new pattern every time you shook it, for ever. We had a huge one with very small bits of glass. They clicked smoothly when the pattern changed and were very beautifully coloured… Oh, and do you remember those things – did you have a little paper theatre?’                                 They were all looking at her, not at the little theatre. She wished she had not mentioned it. It was so sacred and so secret that she had never thought of it or even mentioned it to herself all these years.

I thought this captured so well that sense of childhood as a place of sanctuary lost forever, and I wondered whether its inclusion at the very start of the novel points to the meaning of the novel’s title. Miriam is no longer a child, but while scraping together an independent if impoverished life, she is uncomfortable socially, seeming to not yet have fully emerged into the world. Her aching solitude is still very much the focus of the novel, and her private space is described as essential in summoning the strength to be free.

The room was full of clear strength. There must always be a clear cold room to return to. There was no other way of keeping the inward peace. Outside one need do nothing but what was expected of one, asking nothing for oneself but freedom to return to the centre. Life would be an endless singing until the end came…No more interest in men. They shut off the inside world. Women who had anything whatever to do with men were not themselves. They were in a noisy confusion, playing a part all the time…In the end you came away empty with time gone and lost. To remember, whatever happened, not to be afraid of being alone.

One of my favourite aspects of Interim was Richardson’s descriptions of music especially in relation to Miriam’s piano playing, and her experience of listening to recitals.

She came shyly back to the piano and sat down and played carefully and obediently piece after piece remembered from her schooldays. They left the room triumphantly silent and heavy all round her. If she got up and went away it would be as if she had not played at all. She could not sit here playing  Chopin. It would be like deliberately speaking a foreign language suddenly, to assert yourself…The notes sounded soft and clear and true into her mind, weaving and interweaving the sight of moonlit waters, the sound of summer leaves flickering in the darkness, the trailing of dusk across misty meadows, the stealing of dawn over grass, the faint vision of the Taj Mahal set in dark trees, while Indian moonlight outlining the trees and pouring over the pale façade; over all a hovering haunting consoling voice, pure and clear, in a shape, passing, as the pictures faintly came and cleared and melted and changed upon a vast soft darkness, like a silver thread through everything in the world.

How amazing is that? In amidst the fluidity and of the hazy narrative sometimes these gems just emerge with such beauty and clarity, they make me catch my breath, and make the reading of Pilgrimage such a joy, even if it gets bewildering at times.

The rest of the novel sees Miriam enjoying the company of some of the other boarders in her lodgings with Mrs Bailey, and going to recitals and lectures. Alas, the intellectual stimulation she finds in her conversations, particularly with the male boarders, is soured when she discovers their narrow-mindedness and quickness to misjudge her friendship with Mr Mendizabal.

When I began Pointed Roofs, the first Pilgrimage novel, I was quite outraged at Richardson’s subsequent fall into relative obscurity. However, with each novel plunging deeper into a hazy ‘stream of consciousness’, the moments of confusion within the novel increase. Richardson evocation of Miriam’s thoughts and feelings is truly remarkable, yet at times it is unclear where Miriam is, what she’s doing and with whom. That said, I still look forward to each volume, for the beauty of Richardson’s writing, the way she can crystallize moments of experience so we can bask in their wonder, and her profoundly observed study on what it is to be female in a life sanctioned by men.

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