Honeycomb, by Dorothy Richardson

I said I was going to do a series on less well-known English (British?) novels of the c20th, and I still intend to, but this isn’t really it, since this is rather part of my project to read Dorothy Richardson’s 13-volume stream-of-consciousness opus Pilgrimage. Honeycomb is volume 3, published 1917.

The story so far: a girl’s family has become impoverished so she has had to go out to work in a German boarding school (vol 1), an English school in North London [very close to where I work, in fact] (vol 2), and now to become a governess to two children of a family I take to be philistine nouveaux riches-types (I infer their nouveau-richeness from their behaviour and the heroine-narrator’s attitude to them, but it may not be the case, since it is never stated explicitly). As you may guess, the entire work is an exploration of what is called the woman-question (or something of the sort): that is to say, if a woman doesn’t marry, what role is left to her to play in society?

I much preferred volume 3 to the previous two volumes and seem finally to be getting in to the work. I feel this is perhaps because Dorothy Richardson is also starting to get in to the work. I’ve noticed, over the last two volumes, that her writing is becoming increasingly experimental. This experimentation is at the moment two-fold: 1) there are increasing stream-of-consciousness sections; 2) there are increasing, seemingly arbitrary jumps in the narrative.

With regard to the stream-of-consciousness: the whole first part of Honeycomb is told in an entirely normal style: she goes to a stately home and looks after some children (and their mother), meets their father occasionally when he comes down from London, meets some of their friends. There is nothing much to this section. But then, about halfway through the book – perhaps earlier – as she starts drifting back towards her own life (meeting up with men of her acquaintance, her sisters getting married, her mother becoming depressed and suicidal), the narrative increasingly becomes the train of Miriam (our heroine)’s thought. Let’s quote an example, eh? This is a passage about the impossibility of attaining escape from others, inspired by reflection on Thomas à Kempis:

If one were perfectly still, the sense of God was there.
Supposing every one could be got to stay perfectly still, until they died … like that woman in the book who was dying so happily of starvation … and then the friend came fussing in with the soup …
Things were astounding enough; enough to make you die of astonishment, if you did nothing at all. Being alive. If one could realize that clearly enough, one would die.
Everything every one did was just a distraction from astonishment.
It could only be done in a convent … It cost money to get into a convent, except as a servant. If you were a servant you could not stay day and night in your cell – watching the light and darkness until you died … Perhaps in women’s convents they would not let you anyhow.
Why did men always have more freedom? … His head had a listening look. His eyes were waiting desperately, seeing nothing of the things in the world … he wanted to stay still until the voice of things grew so clear and near that one could give a great cry and fall dead … a long long cry … Your hot heart, all of you, pouring out, getting free. Perhaps that happened to people when they were happy. They cried out to each other and were free – lost in another person. Whoso would save his soul … but then they grew strange and apart … Marriage was sort of inferior condition … an imitation of something else … Ho-o-zan-na-in-the-Hi … i … est … the top note rang up and stayed right up, in the rafters of the church.
“Did you ever notice how white the insides of your wrists are?”
Why did Bob seem to serious? … What a bother, what a bother.
It is a good thing to be plain … “the tragedy of beauty; woman’s greatest curse” … Andromeda on a rock with her hair blowing over her face …
She was afraid to look at the monster coming out of the sea. If she had looked at it, it would not have dared to come near her. Because Perseus looked and rescued her, she would have to be grateful to him all her life and smile and be Mrs Perseus. One day they would quarrel and he would never think her beautiful again …
Adam had not faced the devil. He was stupid first, and afterwards a coward and a cad … “the divine curiosity of Eve … ” Some parson had said that … Perhaps men would turn round one day and see, what they were like. Eve had not been unkind to the devil; only Adam and God. All the men in the world, and their God, ought to apologize to women …
To hold back and keep free … and real. Impossible to be real unless you were quite free … Two married in one family was enough. Eve would marry, too.
But money.
The chair-bed creaked as she knelt up and turned out the gas. “I love you” … just a quiet manly voice … perhaps one would forget everything, all the horrors and mysteries … because there would be somewhere then always to be, to rest, and feel sure. If only … just to sit hand in hand … watching snowflakes … to sit in the lamplight, quite quiet.
Pictures came in the darkness … lamplit rooms, gardens, a presence, understanding.

Some of which, of course, is more intelligible in context – but only some, and not always. There are other passages which are more obscure. And, as I say, the narrative becomes increasingly fragmented towards the end: there is no elision between the scenes any more; you are just thrown into the middle of them without any context – the section about her mother’s depression in particular, which is not in any way prepared in the foregoing – and you have to (re)construct a narrative yourself. This whole part reminded me much in fact of Nathalie Sarraute’s tropisms: seemingly innocuous moments of life described (or, alternatively, like Joyce’s epiphanies). But then that was all yet to come.

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5 thoughts on “Honeycomb, by Dorothy Richardson

  1. Hello obooki! Snap! I started reading Pilgrimage as part of a quest to read modernist classics; like so many of my projects it’s one that’s ground to an unimpressive halt and of the Richardson I’ve still only read the first volume. I’m delighted that someone else is reading her and I’m looking forward to your posts on her. As you say, the style of this volume seems very different to the first which was still on that borderland (I think) between first-person narrative and stream-of-consciousness. Which sentence makes it seem as if stream-of-consciousness was somehow an inevitable development from first-person narrative, it’s easy to think that it was.

  2. Hi Helen.

    Thanks for the comment. I think so far each volume has been like that: it’s started off quite normal and by the end become quite extreme (I don’t remember it as much in vol.1 to be honest), as if in each volume she’s having to work her way into the stream-of-consciousness style.

    I haven’t really been thinking what person Pilgrimage is in. A lot of it is in the third person, but from Miriam’s point of view – i.e. it’s describing the world as she is seeing it; and I think then drifts between this and Miriam’s actual thoughts. I’ll have to pay more attention.

    I have vol 1 & 2 of the Virago series (which contains up to bk5 – bk 4 is quite long); I had the chance to buy vol 3 & 4 (which are the remainder) but the copies were full of annoying pencil marks, so I had to desist. I can’t read books with pencil marks in them: I’d become too distracted trying to work out what the person who wrote them meant.

  3. I have, a couple of times, read a library book with an eraser in hand.

    I hope to get to Richardson some day. Up to book 3, at least.

  4. You are absolutely right and it is third-person and from Miriam’s point of view, with those lovely drifting moments. At least, the first vol. is. I grovel in shame! That’s what comes of being too lazy to stretch out your arm, lift up a book and check what’s inside before you begin spouting off.

    I find other people’s pencil marks positively oppressing.

  5. I was going to compare Richardson’s stream of consciousness with Joyce’s – that was my purpose in returning to it. Joyce recognised Richardson’s prior usage, but said his was different (or something of the sort); but they actually seemed closer to me than I imagined. I shall return to Joyce and think on the matter some more.

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