Tuesday, April 2, 2013

It was not perhaps a 'good' self, but it was herself

Not sf, not poetry, so I'm going a bit out of my jurisdiction here.

I've only read the first two of its thirteen novels thus far, but I've come to the conclusion that anyone who takes writing, reading, thought, or the experience of living--i.e. anything--seriously needs to read Dorothy Miller Richardson's Pilgrimage. It is very much essential and I can think of no reason for its current relative obscurity other than, y'know, the usual entrenched systemic misogyny.

Excerpting can only do unforgivable violence to this work, especially because any given passage in context resonates with everything in the vaster bulk of what surrounds it. With that in mind, though, here's a passage from later on in the second novel, Backwater, coming soon after the protagonist, Miriam (who is "just eighteen" and only beginning to leave home), has stumbled across a lending library near the North London school at which she is teaching and living:

For the last six weeks of the summer term she sat up night after night propped against her upright pillow and bolster under the gas-jet reading her twopenny books in her silent room. Almost every night she read until two o'clock. She felt at once that she was doing wrong; that the secret novel-reading was a thing she could not confess, even to Miss Haddie. She was spending hours of the time that was meant for sleep, for restful preparation for the next day's work, in a 'vicious circle' of self-indulgence. It was sin. She had read somewhere that sin promises a satisfaction that it is unable to fulfil. But she found when the house was still and the trams had ceased jingling up and down outside that she grew steady and cool and that she rediscovered the self she had known at home, where the refuge of silence and books was always open. Perhaps that self, leaving others to do the practical things, erecting a little wall of unapproachability between herself and her family that she might be free to dream alone in corners, had always been wrong. But it was herself, the nearest most intimate self she had known. And the discovery that it was not dead, that her six months in the German school and the nine long months during which Banbury Park life had drawn a veil even over the little slices of holiday freedom, had not even touched it, brought her warm moments of reassurance. It was not perhaps a 'good' self, but it was herself, her own familiar secretly happy and rejoicing self--not dead. Her hands lying on the coverlet knew it. They were again at these moments her own old hands, holding very firmly to things that no one might touch or even approach too nearly, things, everything, the great thing that would some day communicate itself to someone through these secret hands with the strangely thrilling finger-tips. Holding them up in the gaslight she dreamed over their wisdom. They knew everything and held their secret, even from her. She eyed them, communed with them, passionately trusted them. They were not 'artistic' or 'clever' hands. The fingers did not 'taper' nor did the outstretched thumb curl back on itself like a frond--like Nan Babington's. They were long, the tips squarish and firmly padded, the palm square and bony and supple, and the large thumb-joint stood away from the rest of the hand like the thumb-joint of a man. The right hand was larger than the left, kindlier, friendlier, wiser. The expression of the left hand was less reassuring. It was a narrower, lighter hand, more flexible, less sensitive and more even in its touch--more smooth and manageable in playing scales. It seemed to belong to her much less than the right; but when the two were firmly interlocked they made a pleasant curious whole, the right clasping more firmly, its thumb always uppermost, its fingers separated firmly over the back of the left palm, the left hand clinging, its fingers close together against the hard knuckles of the right.

It was only when she was alone and in the intervals of quiet reading that she came into possession of her hands. With others they oppressed her by their size and their lack of feminine expressiveness. No one could fall in love with such hands. Loving her, someone might come to tolerate them. They were utterly unlike Eve's plump, white, inflexible little palms. But they were her strength. They came between her and the world of women. They would be her companions until the end. They would wither. But the bones would not change. The bones would be laid, unchanged and wise, in her grave.

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