Before Joyce and Woolf, there was Dorothy Richardson, the writer whose work was the first expression of what was to be called ‘stream of consciousness’. And as first expressions go, it appeared pretty much complete and fully developed. For someone who was redefining the English novel (despite her experience of journalism), this is something to be celebrated. Sadly all the credit these days seems to go to Joyce and (often grudgingly) to Woolf. Richardson seems to have been forgotten.
Pointed Roofs is the first of an eleven novel sequence which records in detail the life of Miriam Henderson, a mirror of Richardson herself. Expressing her experiences – personal, spiritual, and intellectual – through her inner voice, Richardson explores a whole new technique for the novel. She also presents the female consciousness with a new and genuine voice – one which clearly states that a woman’s experience of the world is interesting, every bit as valid as a man’s, and vital to an understanding of human experience.
With all this theoretical baggage, it might be expected that the novel is heavy and stilted. Far from it. Beautifully written, it runs as effortlessly as a great river. The surface appears serene, but there are deep currents. Miriam leaves her family to become an English teacher in a German school for young ladies. At the fragile age of eighteen it is an adventurous thing to do, but something she feels to be absolutely necessary – an essential part of her growth as a person.
The text captures all the certainty and bewilderment of an eighteen-year-old on their first time away from home. Certainty that she knows how the world should be and how she herself should be, bewilderment because there is simply so much she does not understand, including her own emotional responses. She is only in Germany for a few months, but she grows, begins to flower, and begins to understand.
Each of the episodes, even the most apparently minor incidents, is vividly portrayed. The misery and humiliation of having her hair washed by the housekeeper, the hysterical atmosphere during the thunderstorm, the frisson of young girls becoming young women in a school where talk of boys is frowned on. These might not seem like much on which to build a novel, but they are so authentically drawn, one can sense the intensity and importance to the individuals involved.