Pilgrimage, By Dorothy M. Richardson. Four Volumes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $10.00.
Over a hundred years ago Goethe declared in “Wil-helm Meister” that the novel should proceed slowly and that the principal character’s thought-processes must, by one device or another, retard the development of the whole. It was of course Henry James who, with his finespun web of analysis, notably applied this theory in his ma-turer novels. And later this technique was further developed in the now familiar stream-of-consciousness novel. What was secretly going on in a character’s mind was, with certain refinements of language and an entire absence of explanation, to be given pitiless and often incomprehensible publicity. The reader, like Othello in the play, was supposed to be saying: “I prithee, speak to me of thy thinkings, as thou dost ruminate.” But Iago’s rumination ended in action, as drama must. In the old character-novel psychological probing often ended in dramatic situation and incident; in the novel of the inner consciousness type, action is reduced to a minimum or preferably to zero.
The mental processes of an individual, exposed and prolonged through two thousand pages, form the “Pilgrimage” of Dorothy Richardson. This extended psychic adventure of Miriam Henderson begins in a German girls’ school where she is a teacher, continues in England for a year or two while she is a governess, and reaches its full development in her service as secretary to a London dentist. Most of this epic of the inner life is concerned with Miriam as an office girl. Association with various groups, in a London boarding house, at the suburban homes of relatives and friends, and in Socialist gatherings, broadens her intellectual and social interests. Reading important philosophical works of the day and discussing them with an able Russian Jew, her most persistent lover, Miriam becomes a thoroughly emancipated young woman. Outwardly the passing years are uneventful, but inwardly they are fruitful, not so much in durable satisfactions as in the absorbing delights of reflection and social intercourse. The one high experience, a trip to the Swiss Ober-land, is a memorable escape from urban drabness into an atmosphere of exhilarating serenity. This bracing adventure, depicted with clarity and momentum, she longs to repeat. But just here Miriam’s long cerebration is broken off in mid-career, and “Pilgrimage” stops.
Miss Richardson (Mrs. Alan Odle of London) spent twenty-five years writing the twelve novels, or “chapters” as she prefers to call them, which make up this four-volume “Pilgrimage.” Throughout she has relentlessly observed and recorded “the conflict of human forces through the eye of a single observer”; she has reconstructed “experience focused within the mind of a single individual.” Thus she has carried on in her own way the tradition of Balzac, James, Proust, and other practitioners of the subtle art of psychic revelation, or contemplative consciousness as she would name it. The result is an extraordinary performance in fluency, imagination, and vitality. The sheer labor, mental and physical, involved in this literary parturition must have been immense. Many pages show a fine sense of poetry: there is frequently great beauty of phrasing, a beauty that is heard and seen in the rhythmical modulation and imagery of her prose. This idyllic passage, for instance:
They wandered silently, apart, along the golden-gleaming street. She listened, amidst the far-off sounds about them, to the hush of the great space in which they walked, where voices, breaking silently in from the talk of the world, spoke for her, bringing out, to grow and expand in the sunlight, the thoughts that lay in her heart.
“Pilgrimage” is an adventure of personality, the author’s autobiography projected through the mind of Miriam Henderson. It is all an “interior monologue” carried on evenly and consistently, the very heart of the ambling narrative. “The central core of the mind,” says Miss Richardson in a rare critical comment on her work, “though more or less continuously expanding from birth to maturity, remains stable, one with itself through life.” What the thoughtful reader gets as his reward from the perpetual pulsing of Dorothy Richardson’s mind is a vivid sense of the ultimate significance of things and people, however commonplace they may be. But that a London office girl should be thinking thoughts worthy of a Hamlet is a terrible strain on his sense of probability. Does Miss Richardson succeed in creating an illusion of reality in her heroine?
“Pilgrimage” is not easy reading. Time and again one is tempted to give it up. One has a feeling of struggling through a turgid, chaotically eddying stream. And were it not that now and then a green islet appears, whereon one may stand, and for which one thanks God and takes courage, discouragement born of weariness and futility would conquer a high and solemn resolve to go on with Miriam and her thinkings. For Miriam, it must be confessed, is more interesting to her lovers than she is to the cold, dispassionate reader. Indeed, one wonders whether a woman who is constantly letting down buckets into the wells of the subconscious and hauling them up again for the refreshment of thirsty intellectuals would be able to hold her admirers.
Viewed as a literary tour de force alone, “Pilgrimage” is a remarkable achievement, a significant contribution to that fictional genre which is really a hybrid, being neither a story nor a psychological essay. It is a distinguished example of spiritual autobiography, a notable revelation of the depths of the subconscious mind. All great novelists, to be sure, reveal the workings of the subliminal consciousness, but few have so exhaustively and intensely realized the subjective possibilities of the feminine mind as the author of “Pilgrimage.” For here, Goethe’s “eternal feminine leads us on.”