Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Oberland - Dorothy Richardson

A marked change here in this ninth novel of the sequence. To begin with (and in common with the four following) this is much shorter. By way of compensation it is much more intense. That is partly the framework (a holiday in Switzerland) and the time scale (two weeks instead of many months or years); but is also the preoccupation of the novel. Rather than London life always on the edge of financial hardship and her relationships with the people around her and how that is part of her growing social and personal awareness; this book is quite literally a holiday.

Two weeks in Switzerland away from all her concerns (although there is, as always, an underlying hint of all those things never spoken of) amongst people she has never before met and enjoying freedoms that were perhaps just a little bit daring for the time. A young woman alone tobogganing on the Swiss mountains, sitting on the hotel stairs discussing socialism with two young men... Most of all, however, are the vivid descriptions of the place. Miriam’s life in London, whilst full of life, beautifully conveys what living in a large city is like. There is a mild sense of claustrophobia in a world where the predominant colour is grey and all struggles are worthy. None of this is mentioned directly, yet the sense of it is always there, set against her youthful episode in Germany and here, thrown into shadowy relief by the electrifying beauty of the Bernese Oberland.

As a piece of sustained description alone (the precise capturing of the stuffy, overheated air within the hotel is remarkable) this would be a novel to recommend. Yet it does so much more than that on a very subtle level. Miriam, out of her normal environment, must confront her prejudices, defend her beliefs, and accommodate herself to unusual circumstances. And she flowers. There is still something of the petulant child about her at the beginning; something of the teenager who took that first journey abroad to earn her living. By the end, she seems to have become serene. Her thoughts flow in the same direction and much more smoothly (perhaps indicating that they run a great deal more deeply as well).

Yet for all her personal development we are not allowed to forget the world beyond, about Miriam’s concerns. These are brought back into sharp focus at the very end of the book with the simple but highly effective incident of the young man showing his sister a hole in his glove and telling her she must mend it.