Popular Library’s “That’s So ’70s” Take on Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage

As I mentioned in my introductory post on Pilgrimage, there have been five editions in which the complete set of chapters/novels were published:

  • A four-volume set with 12 chapters/novels, from J. M. Dent and Cresset Press in 1938
  • A four-volume set with 12 chapters/novels, from Knopf in 1938
  • A four-volume set with 13 chapters/novels, from J. M. Dent in 1967
  • A four-volume set with 13 chapters/novels, from Popular Library in 1976
  • A four-volume set with 13 chapters/novels, from Virago in 1979

Of these, by far the oddest is the mass-market paperback set from Popular Library, one of which I am now the proud owner of.

I kind of remember seeing these when they first came out. As an English major, I was vaguely aware of Dorothy Richardson, probably having seen a reference to her in some survey piece I had to read as part of Prof. Malcolm Brown’s course on the 20th century British novel, but knew not much more than that she was lumped with Virginia Woolf, who I considered (at the time, and in the words of one of my classmates) “too adjective-y.” But when I saw these on the shelf, probably of the University Book Store , is it any wonder that I quickly labelled and filed them away under “soft porn”?

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If I bothered to open any of the four volumes — and I’m sure I didn’t — nothing in the inside cover would have dissuaded me from that opinion. To help would-be readers out, Popular Libary provided one-line synopses of the chapters:

Pointed Roofs

“filled with the intrigues and hidden passions of a German girl’s school…”

Backwater

“a school of life and love in London, where two different men each demand that Miriam be his…”

Interim

“an escape from the bondage of the flesh into the ecstasies of the spirit…”

Deadlock

“in which Miriam Henderson plunges into an affair with a man of an alien race…”

The Trap

“a world of women who scorn men — an inverted world that welcomes Miriam with open arms…”

Dawn’s Left Hand

“introducing Miriam to the joys and the agonies of a passionate love between two women…”

Even now, it makes me want to wash my hands.

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And then there are the cover photos. OK, they are true on one point: Miriam is a woman.

But the books are set between 1893 and 1915. And Miriam is short (5′ 4″, according to Richardson). And not considered particularly good looking by any of the men she encounters. And a brunette. Who was probably lucky to wash her hair more than once every few weeks, and who certainly never used a conditioner. And, though I haven’t done my research on this point, I’m pretty sure she never used lip gloss, either. Or had her portraits taken by Bob Guccione.

Contrary to the tag line above each volume title, Pilgrimage was not a “towering novel of the female revolution.” If it was, the females lost, unless “level of self-knowledge” had more political power back then than it does now.

In case we unwary buyers weren’t convinced by the covers, the backs of the books further promised that this could the kind of soft porn you could read in public — sort of like Proust meets Emmanuele:

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Now, anyone who bothered to read the finer print below it would actually get a fairly objective description of Pilgrimage:

The magnificent novels that comprise Pilgrimage constitute one of the most enthralling and revealing [as in illuminating, not as in she takes her clothes off … a lot] fiction experiences of our time. Each novel is designed as a separate drama, but all form beautifully wrought links of a chain of being and becoming that lead its remarkable heroine, Miriam, through the major conflicts and decisions that have affected humanity, and most particularly women, in our century of crisis and change.

In this extraordinary work of art, Dorothy Richardson creates a style and projects a vision that give twentieth women both a voice and an identity. For this is woman’s fiction in the finest sense of the term — fiction that explores the many facets of modern life, whether sex or politics, friendship or art, though the eyes of a woman bent on changing the world as she changes herself. Long considered by leading critics one of the key achievements of modern literature, Pilgrimage at least reaches the American public in this four-volume edition.

The trouble is, if soft porn is what you have in mind, you could read all of the above and think this was a female version of My Secret Life (which was also, by the way, a fairly regular item in a liberated fiction section in the late 1970s).

There is little chance that this Popular Library series will make a permanent mark in publishing or literary history. Quality was never a hallmark of the company. As you can see from the above, the four books are actually even the same size, quite. When I got this set in the mail recently, I opened up the first volume and the brittle cover proceeded to break off completely from the binding. Another decade or two, and these puppies will self-destruct. And another scarifying ’70s relic will, thankfully, be lost forever.

2 thoughts on “Popular Library’s “That’s So ’70s” Take on Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage

  1. Popular Library titles from the 1970s are famous for disintegrating in one’s hands if one tries to read them. I have a copy of the 1973 PL paperback of The Stones Of Summer by Dow Mossman, nowadays known mainly because it was the subject of Mark Moskowitz’s 2003 documentary feature Stone Reader. I read that when the film came out, stacking up the pages as they fell away from the book, and put them all back together with a rubber band. A little later, Mossman came to a bookstore near me to promote Stone Reader and the reissues of his book that ensued from it. I handed with the PL book, rubber band and all, and he signed the title page. He didn’t mind its state at all – indeed, was happy that it showed I really had read his novel.

    The editor-in-chief at Popular Library at the time the Pilgrimage series came out there – as he had been for close to 20 years – was the late Jim Bryans. Bryans was a man of real taste and discernment in the literary field. In the ’70s, he also published Anthony Powell’s complete Dance To The Music Of Time series in four volumes, and all the books written to date by Peter De Vries. The covers of those books were somewhat different from Pilgrimage – perhaps because Powell and De Vries were living at the time.

    But then again, Fawcett’s mass-market paperback editions of Nabokov’s novels in the late ’60s and early ’70s include several that look like they would be more suited to romance fiction. Paul Maliszewski published an essay, “Paperback Nabokov,” in issue 4 of McSweeney’s magazine that explains why the covers were that way.

  2. I read a couple of the Popular Library De Vries releases and finished out Powell’s series with the third and fourth volume. Fortunately, I was able to accumulate copies of all the neat Berkley Medallion individual paperback editions, but they petered out with “Valley of Bones,” I think. Another cheapo line with some interesting titles (Daniel Fuch’s Williamsburg trilogy was one).

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