For those reviewers who were growing weary of the “gas-light drabness” of Pilgrimage’s London novels, Oberland (Amazon) offered a refreshing change of scenery — literally. For reasons that, in typical Richardson fashion, are never quite explained, Miriam Henderson has been given the gift of a two week trip to a resort in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland, and the action — and, by Pilgrimage’s standard, this is certainly the most action-packed book in the series — is entirely set within the space of Miriam’s trip. So, in terms of time covered, this is also the most condensed chapter.
Oberland is based on a trip Richardson made to Adelboden, a resort town, in 1904, on a recommendation and at the expense of her employer, Dr. J. H. Badcock. In Miriam’s case, the time is two years later, in February 1906. When Richardson was writing the book, therefore, she was looking back some twenty years, from the perspective of a woman over fifty, and the increasing distance between author and subject as time went by — when added to the not-insignificant hardships she was dealing with as a nearly penniless writer — is certainly one of the reasons why progress on Pilgrimage grew slower and slower.
Oberland most differs from the rest of Pilgrimage in its treatment of landscape. The great snow-covered mountains that surround Miriam are completely unlike anything she has ever seen:
The leap of recognition, unknowing between the mountains and herself which was which, made the first sight of them — smooth snow and crinkled rock in unheard-of unimagined tawny light — seem, even at the moment of seeing, already long ago.
They knew, they smiled joyfully at the glad shock they were, sideways gigantically advancing while she passed as over a bridge across which presently there would be no return, seeing and unseeing, seeing again from the first keen vision.
Looking out on them from her hotel room, she imagines them saying to her, “Watch, see, if you can believe it, what we can do.” And when she wakes the next morning, she feels “It was as if all her life she had travelled towards this radiance, and was now within it, clear of the past, at an ultimate destination. The bold, bright light that bounces off the mountains and all the snow-covered slopes around her, is such a contrast with the rare bursts of sunshine she enjoys in London that Miriam experiences a spiritual glow whenever she ventures out during her stay.
There is more outdoor activity in Oberland than in the rest of the series in total. Many of the guests go skiing, a sport which had just begun to become popular among visitors, although Miriam is never persuaded to try it. Tobogganing (or what Americans would call sledding) is the favorite among the less athletic, and Miriam takes her first runs down the slopes after a little convincing, and takes up the sport with the same enthusiasm as she did cycling. For the more sedate, there is always a leisurely glide around the town’s large skating rink. And, towards the end of the book, she watches a ski-jumping (referred to as sky-jumping) competition, which Richardson describes in a much more visually dramatic style than has been typical:
Here he came, in black against his snow, deep velvety black against the snow, gliding past the little hut with a powerful different gait. . . . From the edge of the shelf he leapt high into the air and seemed to stand there against the sky, in a dream. Down he swooped, sailing, dreaming, to the track, rose smoothly from the terrific impact and smoothly went his way. . . .
All the Swiss, though some were rough and ungainly, moved with that strong and steady grace. But Zurbuchen was the best. It was he who would live in her memory, poised against the sky like a great bird.
Miriam comes to the Hotel Alpenblick, a small, over-heated pension at which a variety of guests, mostly English but including one American and an Italian businessman whom everyone takes for Russian. This little interior world is the counterpart to the bright, white outdoors. Unlike the preceding chapters, much of the social interactions in Oberland are related directly or through observation, and far less is refracted through Miriam’s subsequent thoughts. Closely observed, though, it remains, and I wonder if Richardson was, perhaps, trying to emulate Henry James rather than the unique interior style of her previous books.
Yet this is still Richardson and Miriam we are dealing with, and even in the invigorating and liberating mountain setting, the fierce battle to retain individuality carries on. Approached by a silly but warm-hearted English woman named Mrs. Harcourt, Miriam is both pleased and on guard. As they exchange introductory chit-chat, a warning voice tells her to withhold: “Even a little talk, a little answering of questions, would falsify the past. Set in her own and in this woman’s mind in a mould of verbal summarizings, it would hamper and stain the brightness of to-morrow.”
However, it is Mrs. Harcourt who alerts Miriam to the last stunning sight of her trip:
“Look out of ve window!”
Sitting up in bed, she saw hanging in mid-air just outside the window a huge crimson lamp, circular in a blue darkness. Sleepily she cried her thanks and leaped awake to dwell with the strange spectacle, the gently startling picture, in its sudden huge nearness, of the loveliness of space. The little distant moon, enormous and rosy in blue mist, seemed to float in the blue as in blue water, seemed to have floated close in sheer unearthly kindliness, to comfort her thoughts, on this last day, with something new and strange.
Richardson struggled to get Oberland published. She had become frustrated with the poor sales and lack of promotion by Duckworth, which had published the first eight books in Pilgrimage, and H. G. Wells encouraged her to think that she would do better with other firms. After wasting nearly six months on unsuccessful approaches to three other publishers, she ended up settling for Duckworth’s offer, which was worse than anything she’d taken before: instead of giving £10, half of their previous price, they gave her a royalty of 7.5% of sales. Knopf, her U.S. publisher, was only slightly more generous at 10% royalty. Duckworth sold under 300 copies; Knopf less than 500.
The U.K. reviews were few and negative. In the U.S., Earl Aldrich dismissed it in The Saturday Review: “Oberland, vivid though it be, is after all only a very limited travel book — the thing that a female author might send in sections to a friend, and later publish because he public wanted some personal impressions.” The New York Times gave the book first place in a full-page review of new fiction, gushing that, “It is scarcely possible to say enough in praise of a book of such rare, such quietly dazzling beauty.” Unfortunately, next to the review, they also printed a photograph of an American author, also named Dorothy Richardson. This mistake would be repeated several times during Dorothy (M.) Richardson’s life, and it always drove her nuts. “I shall write advertising,” she wrote in frustration the first time it happened. And in The New York Post, Conrad Aiken made the generous prediction that Richardson was entitled to “as precise and permanent a place in the history of literature as it is ever possible to predict for a living author.”
The book was even short-listed for the Prix Femina Anglais, although it lost to H. M. Tomlinson’s Gallion’s Reach. Richardson herself admitted that the book was “slight.” Writing to her friend, the novelist E. B. C. Jones, she explained that, “It is due partly to the need to condense that grows with each vol. & partly on M’s becoming more out-turned really living, partic. for this year or so, much more on the surface than she did.” “Each episode could have filled a single volume in the old wudgy manner — but I should have been in my grave before M’s fortnight was at an end & there are things calling ahead.” And years later, the novelist Eva Tucker, who was otherwise a tremendous advocate for Richardson’s work, told an interviewer that Oberland “doesn’t quite hang together for me as part of the series. It seems a bit out of step of out of place in Pilgrimage as a whole.”