Backwater, 2nd Chapter of Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Richardson (1916)

First UK edition of Backwater
First UK edition of Backwater

In Backwater (Internet Archive, Amazon), Miriam once again goes to work as a teacher in a girl’s school, but closer to home this time, on opposite Banbury Park in North London. (Dorothy Richardson’s real life equivalent was on Seven Sister’s Road, opposite Finsbury Park.) The book’s title reflects Miriam/Dorothy’s opinion of North London: “shabby, ugly and shabby.” She despises the same-ness of the houses, the little neat houses with little neat fences, all aspiring to a common denominator of conventionality. Although Miriam is still in an early stage of her journey of self-discovery, she already recognizes a great divide between herself and the people she meets in North London: “The people passing along them were unlike any she knew. There were no ladies, no gentlemen, no girls or young men such as she knew. They were all alike. They were . . . She could find no word for the strange impression they made.” Indeed, for her, there is almost an alien quality to them:

Off every tram-haunted main road, there must be a neighbourhood like this where lived the common-mouthed harsh-speaking people who filled the pavements and shops and walked in the parks. To enter one of the little houses and speak there to its inmates would be to be finally claimed and infected by the life these people lived, the thing that made them what they were.

Seven_Sisters_Road_Finsbury_Park_1907

Miriam joins the staff of Wordsworth House, which is run by the Pernes, three spinster sisters — Miss Deborah, Miss Jenny, and Miss Haddie, all “dressed in thin fine black material” and with “tiny hands and little softly moving feet.” Miriam quickly develops mixed feelings for the sisters. On the one hand, she finds a genuine spirit of Christian charity in them, and she appreciates the freedom they allow her in shaping the curriculum she teaches the younger girls in the school. But she also finds the sisters stereotypical in their conventional attitudes toward education, culture, religion … and women.

Likewise, the sisters find Miriam a bit of an odd fish. One Sunday, after she rejects the value of the Anglican service they have attended with the girls, she and Miss Haddie find themselves on opposite sides on the basic question of the role of clergy. Miss Haddie is ready to put all her trust in their vicar’s ability to see to their spiritual needs. Miriam disagrees: “Oh, but I think that’s positively dangerous,” said Miriam gravely. “It simply means leaving your mind open for whatever they choose to say.”

“Did ye discuss any of your difficulties with yer vicar?” Miss Haddie asks with concern.

“He wasn’t capable of answering them,” replies Miriam.

“Ye’re an independent young woman,” concludes Miss Haddie.

As usual, George H. Thomson helps explain the links between the fictional world of Backwater and its counterparts in Richardson’s own life. In an article for the Proceedings of the Dorothy Richardson Society, he writes,

Who were the Pernes of Backwater? They were a trio of maiden sisters named Ayre who conducted a private school in North London called Edgeworth House at 28 Alexandra Villas, which was also 28 Seven Sisters Road opposite Finsbury Park. In the Autumn of 1892 Dorothy Richardson began to teach in their school, her job was to look after the younger students. Her employers were Anna Mary Ayre, the Principal, and her sisters Emma Ainsley and Isabella Reed Ayre. A fourth sister, Fanny Ellen Ayre, had died in March 1892, six months before Dorothy Richardson arrived. And a fifth sister Annie Oxley Ayre, in 1884 at the age of 40, had married.

Miriam’s personal revolution against the conventions of her day is marked by several small victories in Backwater. She realizes, for the first time, that a young man is interested in marrying her — and quickly dismisses the idea as ridiculous. She discovers a source of cheap popular novels, including some by Ouida, and sits up into the wee hours reading in her room. Inspired by Ouida’s passionate — and politically liberal — romances, she thinks, “I don’t care what people think or say. I am older than anyone here in this house. I am myself.” And she smokes her first cigarette:

Her nostrils breathed in smoke, and as she tasted the burnt flavour the sweetness of the unpolluted air all around her was a new thing. The acrid tang in her nostrils intoxicated her. She drew more boldly. There was smoke in her mouth. She opened it quickly, sharply exhaling a yellow cloud oddly different from the grey spirals wreathing their way from the end of the cigarette. She went on drawing in mouthful after mouthful of smoke, expelling each quickly with widely-opened lips, turning to look at the well-known room through the yellow haze and again at the sky, which drew nearer as she puffed at it. The sight of the tree-tops scrolled with her little clouds brought her a sense of power. She had chosen to smoke and she was smoking, and the morning world gleamed back at her….

And she begins to experience a sense of herself that, at times, strikes her with near-ecstatic intensity: “She became aware of a curious buoyancy rising within her. It was so strange that she stood still for a moment on the stair…. It was as if something had struck her, struck right through her impalpable body, sweeping it away, leaving her there shouting silently without it. I’m alive…. I’m alive…. ‘It’s me, me; this is me being alive.'”

Miriam stays at the school for nearly a year and a half, but finds the gulf between she sensibility and that of the Pernes sisters too great to be endured, and once again, she moves on. As the sisters present her with an expensive umbrella in a farewell ceremony, though, she is surprised, to witness the effect she has had on the sisters and the students: “… the amazement of hearing from various quarters of the room violent and repeated nose-blowings, and away near the door in the voice of a girl she had hardly spoken to a deep heavy contralto sobbing.”


Backwater, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1916

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