Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 26, 2022

Pointed Roofs, (Pilgrimage #1) by Dorothy Richardson

Like Brona, (whose thoughts you can read here) when I saw a Tweet from Neglected Books about a Readalong for Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, a sequence of 13 semi-autobiographical novels, I was intrigued.  I had never heard of her but after confirming at Wikipedia that she was one of the earliest modernist novelists to use stream of consciousness as a narrative technique, I thought I might keep an eye on the project and (since we are still having postal delays) I put my hostility to Amazon to one side and bought a Kindle edition of the first of the series, Pilgrimage, so that I could be on time for the start of the Readalong.

Inevitably, I started reading before I was supposed to.  I am hopeless at Readalongs, I’ve failed the timing of every one I’ve ever tried.

Alas, it didn’t take long for me to feel underwhelmed.  Wikipedia also states that Richardson (1873-1957), is also considered an important feminist writer, because of the way her work assumes the validity and importance of female experiences as a subject for literature.  I try not to be disloyal to the Sisterhood but while I agree that any experiences can be a subject for literature, they must be rendered sufficiently interesting to maintain the attention of the reader.  I could not muster the slightest interest in Miriam Henderson and the petty dramas of the German boarding-school where she becomes a governess.

Yes, I was bored by Pointed Roofs.

(I kept thinking of Daisy White’s bright and lively response to her time in a French boarding school, which I read about in Je Suis Australienne, Remarkable Women in France, 1880-1945, by Rosemary Lancaster, which I reviewed here.)

Alarmed by my failure to engage with material so highly esteemed by other readers, I tried looking at the materials on the website set up especially for the Readalong.  Ok, I confess: yes, *yawn* there is a lot about clothes in Pointed Roofs, but I did not add to my ennui by looking at more stuff about women’s fashions.

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—she glanced at Elsa, sitting opposite in the dull faint electric blue with black lace sleeves she had worn since the warm weather set in. Even Ulrica, thin and straight now… like a pole… in a tight flat dress of saffron muslin sprigged with brown leaves, seemed to be included in something that made all 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. (Pointed Roofs: Pilgrimage, Volume 1 Dorothy Richardson, HardPress Publishing. Kindle Edition, pp. 109-110).

However I did read the background stuff about Richardson’s experiences of being a governess in Hanover, and I noted the List of Characters.

And then I read the post titled ‘Leon Edel on Learning How to Read Pilgrimage’. It was much more interesting than reading Pilgrimage itself.

Leon Edel was an eminent American literary critic and an expert on Henry James.  I bonded with him straight away when I read this:

Let us look at Dorothy Richardson’s Pointed Roofs, the first volume or “chapter” of her twelve-volume Pilgrimage. About the entire work there are extremes of opinion —some readers find it unreadable and “impossible” while others speak of it with high emotion. Whether we are able to read it or not we must accept its “pioneer” place in the history of the twentieth-century novel. Miss Richardson set herself a difficult experiment, perhaps more difficult in a technical sense than Proust’s: like her French contemporary she placed the reader in the mind of a single character, and with great tenacity of purpose held to her difficult task until it was completed. The twelve “chapters” deal exclusively with the pilgrimage of Miriam Henderson’s mind from adolescence to middle life.

At this point in the inquiry it seems to me that I can best discuss the entire question of the reader’s relation to the novel of subjectivity by drawing upon my own experience in the reading of Pointed Roofs. I read it first two decades ago and found I could develop no interest in Miriam Henderson and her emotional adventures in the German boarding-school to which she goes to teach the English language. The volume indeed discouraged me from reading any of its successors, and it seemed to me that the great defect of the book was that Dorothy Richardson had selected too dull a mind for her experiment. Returning to Pointed Roofs after two decades, I found once more that my interest lagged. The author was involving me in a world of chirping females, and I had to force myself to absorb the contents of each page. The heroine struck me as immature and wholly without interest.  (From The Modern Psychological Novel, Grosset & Dunlap (1964).

Now, to be fair to Dorothy Richardson and the enthusiasts who love her work, I have to acknowledge that having encapsulated my bored irritation so keenly, Edel then frays the bond by recounting his epiphany when he realises that Miriam is only 17.  This revises his whole opinion of the book and he re-reads it and thinks it’s terrific.

Well, I don’t know how Edel could have thought Miriam was in her twenties, because the one thing that did work for me in this novel was the representation of a naïve and inexperienced adolescent of strong passions and opinions, even if she does keep them to herself.  Perhaps Edel had never read My Brilliant Career. If he had, he might have recognised the tone.

Witness this confected drama over a soup spoon:

“Don’t let her do it, Miss Henderson.”

Fraulein Pfaff’s words broke the silence accompanying the servant’s progress from Gertrude whose soup-plate she had first seized, to Miriam more than half-way down the table.

Startled into observation Miriam saw the soup-spoon of her neighbour whisked, dripping, from its plate to the uppermost of Marie’s pile and Emma shrinking back with a horrified face against Jimmie who was leaning forward entranced with watching…. The whole table was watching. Marie, having secured Emma’s plate to the base of her pile clutched Miriam’s spoon. Miriam moved sideways as the spoon swept up, saw the desperate hard, lean face bend towards her for a moment as her plate was seized, heard an exclamation of annoyance from Fraulein and little sounds from all round the table. Marie had passed on to Clara. Clara received her with plate and spoon held firmly together and motioned her before she would relinquish them, to place her load upon the shelf of the lift.

Miriam felt she was in disgrace with the whole table…. She sat, flaring, rapidly framing phrase after phrase for the lips of her judges … “slow and awkward”… “never has her wits about her”….

“Don’t let her do it, Miss Henderson….” Why should Fraulein fix upon her to teach her common servants? Struggling through her resentment was pride in the fact that she did not know how to handle soup-plates. Presently she sat refusing absolutely to accept the judgment silently assailing her on all hands.

“You are not very domesticated, Miss Henderson.”

“No,” responded Miriam quietly, in joy and fear.

Fraulein gave a short laugh.

Goaded, Miriam plunged forward.

“We were never even allowed in the kitchen at home.”

“I see. You and your sisters were brought up like Countesses, wie Grafinnen*,” observed Fraulein Pfaff drily.

Miriam’s whole body was on fire… “and your sisters and your sisters,” echoed through and through her. Holding back her tears she looked full at Fraulein and met the brown eyes. She met them until they turned away and Fraulein broke into smiling generalities. Conversation was released all round the table. Emphatic undertones reached her from the English side. “Fool”… “simply idiotic.”

“I’ve done it now,” mused Miriam calmly, on the declining tide of her wrath.  (Pointed Roofs: Pilgrimage, Volume 1 Dorothy Richardson, HardPress Publishing. Kindle Edition, pp. 101-102).

*The book is littered with scraps of German, but a lot of them are like this, merely repeating what’s already been said in English.  The trouble is, you don’t know that until you’ve looked it up at Google Translate, and like Brona I got sick of doing that because it added nothing to the reading experience to find out what these German words meant.

Whatever, I think there are good reasons why this is a ‘neglected book’.  It’s listed in 1001 Books You Must Read, but the citation is less than enticing.  It’s basically a plot summary of the whole Pilgrimage series and it doesn’t say anything about the feminist agenda or ‘its “pioneer” place in the history of the twentieth-century novel‘.

To sum up IMHO, while Pointed Roofs may be of academic interest, that doesn’t make it worth the bother and I won’t be plodding through any more of it.

Author: Dorothy Richardson
Title: Pointed Roofs (Pilgrimage #1)
Publisher: HardPress, first published 1915
Source: Purchased for the Kindle from Amazon.


  1. Oh dear. I’ve got 3 of the 4 VMC paperback edition volumes on my shelf, but have never got round to them. I’m not surprised by your reaction: from what I’ve read about DR, I’d expect a slow, meticulously narrated account of her central character’s consciousness and experience. Edel is an astute reader of James (I’ve read his biography and some of the crit); maybe his original response was more spontaneous? If I do summon up the enthusiasm to start Pilgrimage I’ll try to give as frank and honest an account as yours. Ulysses and Mts D only cover the experience of single days; maybe attempting most of an adult life was too ambitious in this style.


    • I think it’s more than the period of time that’s a problem… both Mrs Dalloway and Bloom think about a whole lot of interesting things. Nobody would think that either of them were vacuous.


  2. I have no idea whether my reaction would be similar to yours, but I have too many books on my TBR that I really want to read to even consider joining in this readalong.


    • I think you’ve hit on part of the reason I was so annoyed: I am annoyed with myself for the time I spent on this when there are too many other interesting books to read. Historical curiosities are all very well, but I should have known better.


      • I use Project Gutenberg for these curiosities. Even though I dislike reading on the ipad, I will do so to try out something new like this. If I find I like it enough, I will then find a copy of the real book. If not, then all it has taken is the time and effort to download a file.


        • I hear you, but I don’t mind the money. It’s the time…

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I was tempted by this readalong too as I tried to read through the series on my own about twenty years ago and didn’t complete it (simply a case of too many projects at the time as I was also reading through the Brontes and a few other writers whose novels are better known). The distinction for these works as I recall is that she was prioritising the inner thoughts and musings of a woman in a style that was innovative for that time. Could be that it’s one of those stories more often admired than loved? Do you regret the one-time payment to the Bezosian Empire now? *giggles*


  4. Oh dear, sorry it didn’t work for you! I read the whole thing in my 20s and loved it; re-read most of it during the time of my blog and found it less pleasing though some of it has stayed with me vividly (I do believe it gets more interesting). But definitely life is to short so don’t bother with it if you aren’t enjoying it!


    • Hmmm, maybe…maybe… it’s like Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, and #DuckingForCover Wuthering Heights… all that emotion and passion suits a reader of a certain age, which *chuckle* I left behind a long time ago!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m with you on Sorrows AND Wuthering Heights. Both were tedious and immature IMO.


        • I *loved* Wuthering Heights when I was a misunderstood teenager. I had to read it again for Melbourne University’s Great Books course I did a little while ago and I found it unbearable.
          I read Sorrows about ten years ago and reviewed it on the blog where I commented that “It’s one of those books that appeals to readers of different ages in different ways. Young people experiencing their first grand passion only to suffer their first broken heart will identify with young Werther while the Aged Sage will smile knowingly at the younger self.” Having now read Pointed Roofs, I realise that I was more patient with Sorrows because it was about young unrequited love and we can all relate to that.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I may still be tempted to try the next chapter to see if things improve, but I’m in no hurry!


  6. You can only try things and see if it’s something you might enjoy. I did laugh at the term Leon Edel used, “chirping females”. A few of those are still around in today’s time. You’ll be into something you love again in no time I’m sure.


    • You are so right, I already am. Thomas Keneally’s Corporal Hitler’s Pistol. It’s not Great Lit, but it has wonderful quirky characters. And I had a good chuckle this morning over SAG which Irish Catholics in America apparently used to put on the back of their letters to the alarm of Those In Authority. Did it mean Strangle All Gentiles? Strike All Greed? Suffer Any Grief? No, it’s just an allusion to the Patron Saint of Letters who is (who knew?) St Anthony Guide!


  7. I READ THE WHOLE THING over 13 months and then I found out A Thing about it right at the end, not sure I can say about it. And Pointed Roofs was one of the more interesting volumes. I only managed because it was a readalong and a lot of the volumes were short. So well done!


    • Wow, that was a mighty effort! I’m intrigued to see that PR was one of the more interesting volumes: I had been starting to suspect that it might be more interesting as she gets older, but it seems not so…


  8. Wow, that was a mighty effort! I’m intrigued to see that PR was one of the more interesting volumes: I had been starting to suspect that it might be more interesting as she gets older, but it seems not so…


  9. Like Tredynas Days I have this buried in the TBR and keep meaning to get to it. Oops. I’ve never had much patience with overwrought emotion (I hated Wuthering Heights when I read it aged 12) so maybe this isn’t the book for me!


    • I hear you. But interesting, though, that you had it on your shelves. I had honestly never heard of this book…

      Liked by 1 person

Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: