Miriam wondered again and again whether her companions shared this sense with her. Sometimes when they were all sitting together she longed to ask, to find out, to get some public acknowledgment of the magic that lay over everything. At times it seemed as if could they all be still for a moment – it must take shape. It was everywhere, in the food, in the fragrance rising from the opened lid of the tea-urn, in all the needful unquestioned movements, the requests, the handings and thanks, the going from room to room, the partings and assemblings. It hung about the fabrics and fittings of the house. Overwhelmingly it came in through oblongs of window giving on to stairways. Going upstairs in the light pouring in from some uncurtained window, she would cease for a moment to breathe.
Whenever she found herself alone she began to sing, softly. When she was with others a head drooped or lifted, the movement of a hand, the light falling along the detail of a profile could fill her with happiness.
It made companionship a perpetual question. At rare moments there would come a tingling from head to foot, a faint buzzing at her lips and at the tip of each finger. At these moments she could raise her eyes calmly to those about her and drink in the fact of their presence, see them all with perfect distinctness, but without distinguishing one from the other. She wanted to say, ‘Isn’t it extraordinary? Do you realize?’ She felt that if only she could make her meaning clear all difficulties must vanish. Outside in the open, going forward to some goal through sunny mornings, gathering at inns, wading through the scented undergrowth of the woods, she would dream of the secure return to Waldstrasse, their own beleaguered place. She saw it opening out warm and familiar back and back to the strange beginning in the winter. They would be there again to-night, singing.
Pointed Roofs is so full of beautiful passages like the one above it is impossible to resist quoting them just for the sake of it. Published in 1915 but based on Dorothy Richardson’s six months teaching at a school in Germany in 1890, it received mixed reviews: the Observer called it a ‘Fine New Novel’, adding, ‘the whole is clear with a clarity as keen as the gables of the charming “pointed roofs”’ and the New York Times Book Review recognised a ‘remarkable’ achievement, while the Saturday Review Literary Supplement declared: ‘The book is a charted dissection of an unsound mind. It lays bare the workings of a sick imagination...’ (All reviews quoted from the Dorothy Richardson website.)
(Dorothy Richardson and classmates at Southborough House, Putney, c. 1890; from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Room, Yale University; can you guess which one is Dorothy? Click on the photograph to enlarge it)
In order to alleviate her family’s financial troubles, Miriam Henderson accepts a job as an English teacher in Fräulein Pfaff’s finishing school in Hanover for German and English girls. Her work turns out to be less than arduous: reading English with the German pupils and accompanying them on outings and errands. As winter warms into spring and then summer, so Miriam settles into the gentle domestic rhythms of the school, but always observing and questioning.
The book is narrated in the third person but exclusively from Miriam’s point of view, so that it could have been written in the first person. The prose flickers easily from perception to thought or emotion and back again, as you might see in the passage which opens this post. It creates a sort of intellectual or intellectualised sensuality. Here, one hot afternoon, the school is taking tea:
Funny German dresses, thought Miriam, funny . . . and old. Her mind hovered and wondered over these German dresses – did she like them or not – something about them [...] that made these German dresses utterly different from anything the English girls could have worn. What was it? It was crowned by the Bergmanns’ dresses. It had begun in a summer dress of Minna’s, black with a tiny sky-blue spot and a heavy ruche round the hem. She thought she liked it. It seemed to set the full tide of summer round the table more than the things of the English girls – and yet the dresses were ugly – and the English girls’ dresses were not that . . . they were nothing . . . plain cottons and zephyrs with lace tuckers – no ruches. It was something . . . somehow in the ruches – the ruches and the little peaks of neck.
A faint scent of camphor came from the Martins across the way, sitting in their cool creased black-and-white check cotton dresses. They still kept to their hard white collars and cuffs. As tea went on Miriam found her eyes drawn back and back again to these newly unpacked camphor-scented dresses . . . and when conversation broke after moments of stillness . . . shadowy foliage . . . the still hot garden . . . the sunbaked wooden room beyond the sunny saal, the light pouring through three rooms and bright along the table . . . it was to the Martins’ checked dresses that she glanced.
It was intensely hot, but the strain had gone out of the day; the feeling of just bearing up against the heat and getting through the day had gone; they all sat round . . . which was which? . . . Miriam met eye after eye – how beautiful they all were, looking out from faces and meeting hers – and her eyes came back unembarrassed to her cup, her solid butter-brot and the sunlit angle of the garden-wall and the bit of tree just over Fräulein Pfaff’s shoulder. She tried to meet Mademoiselle’s eyes, she felt sure their eyes could meet. She wondered intensely what was in Elsa’s mind behind her faint hard blue dress. [...] Once or twice she felt Fräulein’s look; she sustained it, and glowed happily under it without meeting it; she referred back contentedly to it after hearing herself laugh out once – just as she would do at home; once or twice she forgot for a moment where she was. The way the light shone on the housekeeper’s hair, bright brown and plastered flatly down on either side of her bright white-and-crimson face, and the curves of her chocolate and white striped cotton bodice, reminded her sharply of something she had seen once, something that had charmed her . . . it was in the hair against the hard white of the forehead and in the flat broad cheeks with the hard, clear crimson colouring nearly covering them . . . something in the way she sat, standing out against the others . . .
Miriam’s impressions are principally visual and this gives a painterly quality to the writing, most particularly in the description of the housekeeper. In contrast to the precision of her observations, her thoughts are messy, wandering. Richardson’s use of the ellipsis mimics the way that the thoughts trail off, pause, circle back, switch to something fresh. Miriam is unable to decide what it is that really differentiates the German dresses from the English, what it is that the housekeeper reminds her of or even which particular quality of the housekeeper it is – the way her hair reflects the light in combination with the curves of her bodice, the contrast of the brown hair against the white forehead and crimson cheeks, the attitude in which she sits – which strikes up the echo in her memory. She cannot find a conclusive interpretation for what she sees, resists it perhaps, preferring the open-ended. The right words don’t exist or she just can’t find them.
(‘Hannover Marktkirche met Rathaus’, undated photograph but probably taken around the time the novel is set; from here)
The novel proceeds in episodes – a musical evening, writing letters home on a Saturday morning, the school hairwash (Miriam is disgusted to find that an egg is used in place of shampoo), an encounter on the stairs, a snatched moment playing the piano, a trip to a café. This structure matches the prose style to create something close to lived experience, its fragmentary nature and constant state of flux. Focusing as it does on the day-to-day, it makes ordinary life beautiful and important.
The other characters in the book are elusive, filtered through Miriam’s consciousness. Many of the girls are not really individualised, they exist only as a few recorded impressions. Miriam is highly sensitive to whether or not they like her; she tries to read their behaviour for signs but not always very successfully, given her surprise at the affection her pupils show her at the end when she is about to leave the school. Central to life in the school is of course the headmistress, Fräulein Pfaff. Generally she presents a calm, pious, almost maternal façade, impossible to read, but some episodes witnessed by Miriam crack it open. Once she shocks Miriam by screaming angry taunts at the servant, Anna, and firing her. After a powerful thunderstorm which terrifies most of the girls, Miriam believes she regards her briefly as an equal: ‘It was as if they had embraced.’ She shares Miriam’s admiration for the lovely rich girl, Ulrica, and has a vitriolic hatred of ‘relations’ between men and women, to the extent that when she finds Miriam and one of the masters in conversation she appears disgusted.
(A very pointed roof; ‘Hannover Potthof’, undated print by ‘Bruck’; from here)
Setting the novel in a girls’ boarding school necessarily places female concerns at its heart. Pointed Roofs is essentially domestic in scope, and as a finishing school producing young ladies who are to be suitable middle-class wives, Fräulein Pfaff’s establishment is modest in its educational ambitions. Indeed, Fräulein Pfaff reveals as much in her outburst against the ‘impurity’ of talking about men – ‘Like a dawn, like a dawn for purity should be the life of a maiden. Calm, and pure and with holy prayer’ – and talks hysterically of ‘cleaning’ the school of ‘vile’ influences. But Miriam is a feminist, horrified at the contempt of the German masters to girls’ education, driven to contrast this school with the one she attended (based on Southborough House, a progressive school where Richardson was a pupil) which valued women’s intelligence and scholarship. When she fancifully toys with the idea of marrying a German, she is secretly repelled by the dutiful hausfrau figure she conjures up as her future.
So Dorothy Richardson takes women and women’s education as her subject matter and the consciousness of an individual woman as her vehicle (but also her subject), inventing a new form in which to do so. There are shades of Villette here, but the tone is much lighter and often humorous. Should anyone have managed to wade this far through my post, then go immediately from here and buy a copy. If you enjoy the work of Virginia Woolf or Katherine Mansfield, you will love this. Really. Dorothy Richardson ought to be much more widely read. I feel strongly. I may campaign.