‘Most good men are something like chimpanzees.’
I’ve just finished reading Revolving Lights, the seventh novel in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series, and while I can’t say I’ve had an easy time of it, it is a powerful book. In the first section of the book, after attending a political meeting, Miriam muses about Socialism, Russian revolutionaries and Religion among other things, while traversing London on foot. There is a certain fluidity to this extensive first passage, as we follow the train of thought accompanying Miriam’s flânerie. She broods over her decision to end her relationship with Michael Shatov, feeling she cannot compromise her need for solitude – something which, in fact, leads her to attend a Quaker meeting later on in the book.
The second chapter sees Miriam in the company of Michael and his Russian friends, the Lintoffs. In contrast to the rhythmic flow of Miriam’s thoughts and ideas while walking alone, Miriam is constrained and isolated in their company. Once more, Michael expresses his wish that they marry, after his friend says that she is the type of Englishwoman that could make any man happy. Miriam’s response encapsulates the main theme of Revolving Lights, that for a woman to remain free and keep any sense of integrity, she must resist being framed by a man, and remain alone.
I know the sort of woman he means. Who accepts a man’s idea and leaves him to go about his work undisturbed; sure that her attention is distracted from his full life by practical preoccupations. It’s perfectly easy to create that impression, on any man. Of bright complacency. All the busy married women are creating it all the time, helplessly. Men see them looking out into the world, practical, responsible, quite certain about everything, going from thing to thing, too active amongst things to notice men’s wavering self-indulgence, their slips and shams…And all the time they have no suspicion of the individual life going on behind the surface.
Miriam’s qualms about female subjugation by men also gives her pause when considering affiliations with religion and politics.
Only the historic centuries had given men their monstrous illusions; only the crowding of the women in towns. But the Church will go on being a Royal Academy of Males.
Miriam goes to stay with her friends Hypo and Alma at their house by the seaside. Even though she is relaxed enough to enjoy the easy sociability of her hosts and the other guests, she is nagged by what she sees as the necessary compromises in the relationship between Alma and Hypo. In marriage,
…men, who have no inner convictions, no self, fasten upon an idea and let it describe life for them. Always a new idea. Always describing and destroying…because men must have a formula. Men are gossips. Science is …cosmic scandalmongering.
Whereas wives get to be
either bright obedient assistants or providers of illusion for times of leisure.
Her closeness to Hypo is revealed in her ease at discussing a book review she has written with him, and he tells her to have more faith in her ability.
You think too much. Life’s got to be lived. The difference between you and me is that you think to live and I live to think.
What astounds me about Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage is that she hasn’t settled for merely setting out a convincing argument for sexuality equality. Her richly drawn presentation of Miriam’s interior life – all thirteen volumes of it – is a defiant resistance to the novel as what she sees as the male written form. As anyone who has spend any amount of time in Miriam Henderson’s head will tell you, reading Pilgrimage is not exactly an escapist activity, but it’s a radical one, and even though it can sometimes be a challenge, I, for one, think it’s thoroughly worthwhile.