Francesca Frigerio (Milan)
Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was raised in a typical middle-class environment, in which music was an essential aspect of the education of a young woman. Her talent as pianist was considerable and for a while she hoped to pursue a career in music, but her father’s bankruptcy in 1890 suspended any artistic dreams. Nevertheless, her passion for music never faltered. In a 1929 questionnaire sent by Margaret Anderson, to celebrate the last issue of The Little Review, one of the questions was: “What things do you really like?” Richardson answered as follows:
The cinema. Cafés. Any street any garden. Mornings. Sundays. Brown bread and Cornish butter. Soap. The cinema. Onions. Split greengages. Cigars. Berkshire bacon. The cinema. Münich Lager. Conversation. Dry champagne. Planter’s punch. Gilbert and Sullivan. Bach. Antheil. Bach. Wagner. Beethoven. Beethoven. Beethoven. Bach. Bach. The cinema. Quaker meetings. (Anderson, 349)
After a period spent teaching in Germany and England, she found a job in 1896 as a dental secretary in Harley Street. Despite financial difficulties, Richardson plunged into the city’s stimulating cultural and social milieu evoked in the pages of Pilgrimage, her series of thirteen novels published between 1915 and 1958.
An impressive, Proustian literary “reconstruction of experience focused from within the mind of a single individual” (Richardson, “Foreword” 10), the novels are imbued with music from beginning to end. Miriam Henderson, the protagonist, plays music, as do members of her family, along with acquaintances and friends who organize private musical evenings, balls, and recitals. Miriam’s cultural and social vivacity also leads her to theatres and concert halls where professionals play music. The detailed representation of London’s artistic life, including references to places where music was performed, names of composers and players, titles of musical works and musical magazines, helps establish a credible musical reality for the fictional heroine.
Bonnie Kime Scott observes that the ability to express herself in music was a defining feature of the ‘new woman’ and such women are often met in the narratives of modernist women writers (141), but none of these characters put as much emphasis on the verbalization of musical processes nor is piano-playing as important to them as it is to Miriam. As David Stamm observes, music prompts the strongest reactions from Miriam and the representation of musical performance is a sort of second, non-verbal voice for her. Therefore, to fully appreciate Richardson’s Bildungsroman, particular attention must be paid “to the evocative power of the music she plays or listens to and to the way immediate perception, reflection and subliminal feelings influence each other and make for her intense awareness of musical sounds” (Stamm, 5).
At the lexical and semantic level, Pilgrimage relies on images, phrases and terms drawn from music, with episodes and characters described as pianissimo and sotto voce, or of similes and metaphors pertaining to the aural sphere. At the structural level, the novels work out their own phenomenology of human perception, whose functioning does not belong to the dimension of linear progression, but rather has the cyclical and iterative character of musical forms. It is a text that urges the reader to tune his/her ear to the rhythm dictating its sentences, to the ellipses and silences fragmenting its pages, and to the material, almost tactile quality of the words.
Taken together, all these aspects make of Richardson’s novels a particularly rich and demanding example of interplay between literature and music, at manifold levels. At the beginning of Pointed Roofs, the first novel of the saga, Miriam wanders through her family home on the day before her departure for Germany while a barrel organ plays in the street. Thus music is established as an important presence and the reader is encouraged to be aware of it as a subtext in the more than two thousand pages that follow. Surprisingly, the musical substance of Pilgrimage has only recently received critical attention and the unexplored regions of the musical landscape charted in Richardson’s pages are rich and much work remains to be done (cf. Burford, Björkén-Nyberg, McVicker and Davis, Meyer, Stamm, and Thomas).
Given that Richardson claimed to have invented “a feminine equivalent of masculine realism” (“Foreword”, 9), her descriptions of musical practice as the performance of the (female) body, along with representations of the female body as the theatre for such performance, poses a question of particular interest. These complementary discourses about the formation of feminine identity in Pilgrimage provide a new context to examine the dialogue between music and literature. In other words, the literary appropriation of music is an attempt to find a different but related means to express the anxieties stirring in the ‘new woman’s’ body. By focusing on the physicality of music making, Richardson draws the reader’s attention to the discipline that regulates the female body. While a proper musical education was considered an essential endowment of a young lady, its performance and reception required a strict physical surveillance of the female to guarantee social stability:
] a socially required passivity at reception becomes a simulacrum of the socially correct meaning of the performance itself. Both the sonorities heard and the act of performance are disciplines. [
] Music in this guise acts as a sonoric surveillance on the body, holding it captive to contemplation with the social proscription of physical reaction. (Leppert, 25)
However, the representation of Miriam Henderson’s body in relation to music escapes such control and her transgression of the social and sexual codes violates conventional boundaries. Music becomes, for Miriam, the metaphorical site in which new forms of femininity, including her lesbian identity, are explored. This is especially the case when playing for or attending performances by other women.
Despite such musical adventures, the body has long been missing in the critical reception of Pilgrimage. Marginalised, denied, repressed, it seems to have developed all the symptoms of late-Victorian secretiveness, while, at the same time, it permeates a text aimed at modernist formal experimentations (cf. du Plessis, Kaplan, and Showalter). According to Walter Allen, for example, “There are whole areas of a woman’s experience—every woman’s experience—Miriam is not allowed to be conscious of. The bodily functions do not exist for her; in this respect, she is at one with the most conventional Victorian heroine of fiction” (Allen, 38). The physicality of Miriam Henderson was recovered when French feminist theories about the relation between the body and the écriture féminine met a renewed interest in Pilgrimage within Anglo-Saxon gender studies. Jean Radford points out “the body [
] can be ‘heard’ in Pilgrimage, if one reads for it, if one listens ‘differently’, as Irigaray says” (25). In her exploration of the political, social and cultural politics that shape Richardson’s text, Kristin Bluemel reasserts the importance of écriture féminine for the investigation of the body as a vehicle for feminine consciousness. Her concentration on the representation of Miriam’s sexual life raises the issue of her lesbianism, only hinted at in earlier scholarship (cf. Felber, and Watts) and opens a “lesbian narrative space” that opposes the limitations and strictures of the heterosexual ordering of conventional narratives (58). More recently Joanne Winning, in The Pilgrimage of Dorothy Richardson (2000), resolutely asserts Miriam’s homosexual identity. She situates her reading of Miriam’s body as signifying sexual difference in the context of the intersection of scientific and sociological discourses at the turn of the century, in which the body becomes less stable and harder to define.
In the light of such recent critical assessments, this paper searches for ways the gestural expressiveness of the body enters into a dialogue with the musical practices that form the heroine’s identity in Richardson’s novels. In a text already marked by the sonorous and material dimension of language Miriam’s physicality finds a powerful instrument of self-expression in musical performance. An anatomical map of Pilgrimage, drawn by recalling the discourses on sexuality and gender identity of the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras shows how reflection on music, and the representation of its practice, fosters the anxieties around the female body.
The musical body in Pilgrimage is also portrayed through a network of references to the visual arts, especially to Pre-Raphaelite paintings representing musical performances by women. In these paintings, musical instruments are a vehicle for erotic desire and become a site for both music making and love making (Cooper, 158). By emphasizing the interplay among prose, music, and the visual arts, Richardson shows the complexity of musical performance in which the gaze of the audience consumes the performer’s body at the same time it consumes the music it produces. In Richard Leppert’s footsteps, “my subject is the body as a palimpsest in musical practices—the discourse of the historical, gendered body in the visual representation of sonority”. That is, this paper is concerned with “the sight of the sound-producing body and the discourses of power, desire, and identity that the musical body encodes” (Leppert, xxvi). However, when read in light of the most recent critical assessments of Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics and iconography (cf. Bullen, Corbett, Prettejohn, and Psomiades) Richardson replaces visuality, as the privileged epistemological model, with a tactile physicality. She releases the female body from the scopophilic male gaze and makes it an active and propulsive force at the centre of a different network of feminine relations. From this perspective Richardson is consistent with the project that claims the necessary ‘otherness’ of feminine writing and calls into question the male-gendered nature of dominant expressive forms.
Nearly all of the series is set in London, where Miriam works as an English teacher in a ladies’ school; however the following analysis concentrates on selected examples from the first novel of Richardson’s cycle set in Germany. For a young woman from provincial England, Germany means the flare and sophistication of European culture and music. Therefore,
Germany makes available to Miriam a space in which, on one level, she can begin to make out the shape of her desires, the foundations of her education and the limitations of her self-knowledge. On another level, Germany offers at certain moments a particular mode of musical experience proves to be a crucial step in the definition of her sexual and cultural identity. (Watts, 15)
The title of the novel calls to mind John Ruskin’s theories of German gothic architecture and is especially suitable for a volume taking its protagonist to the gabled and musical, houses of Hanover. Compared with the traditional curriculum of a Waldstrasse School, Miriam receives her education according to Ruskin’s theories.
She began to wonder whether hers had been in some way an especially good school. Things had mattered there. Somehow the girls had been made to feel they mattered. She remembered even old Stroodie—the least attached member of the staff—asking her suddenly, once, in the middle of a music-lesson, what she was going to do with her life and a day when the artistic vice-principal—who was a connection by marriage of Holman Hunt’s and had met Ruskin, Miriam knew, several times—had gone from girl to girl round the collected fifth and sixth form asking them each what they would best like to do in life. Miriam had answered at once with a conviction born that moment that she wanted to ‘write a book’. (80)
The equation of Ruskin with modernity in education and the connections with the Aesthetic Movement and the Pre-Raphaelites—including Swinburne, Browning, and the painter William Holman Hunt, who were frequent visitors to the school—establishes the cultural framework for the novel. Thus the German school becomes a female hortus conclusus with its own rules and rhythms.
The description of the Vorspielen, organized early in Miriam’s stay in Germany, fills the entire third chapter and is the focus of the novel. The complex narrative of the musical soirée, during which the music Miriam hears stimulates a series of flashbacks, proves crucial for the transformation of Miriam’s ideas about music. Moreover, it introduces motifs that will be developed later in the cycle. This vast network of references, echoes, and allusions, eliminates the possibility of a linear reading: in Richardson’s textual maze the chronology of events gives way to the simultaneous presence of themes and images, creating a ceaseless mutual attribution of meaning.
The chapter opens with a morning view of the school resounding with the music of three pianos, one of which is played by Miriam. Against this background Richardson sketches the heroine’s meeting with two schoolgirls, Ulrica Hesse and Emma Bergmann, who represent the poles of her emotional and psychical life. In the evening students and teachers gather for a dinner during which Miriam relies on their excitement for the impending concert to avoid the scrutinizing gaze of the other guests: “She welcomed the event. It relieved her from the burden of being in focus—the relief had come as soon as she took her place at the gas lit table. No eye seemed to notice her” (36). Such efforts also help her to avoid making the other girls the object of her own gaze. Thus visual contact is replaced by a channel of communication based on touch and a growing feeling of physical intimacy: “She felt them. She felt Emma Bergmann’s plump presence close at her side and liked to take food handed by her” (38).
The schoolgirls’ performances are offered not only to Miriam’s intent ear but also to her exploring gaze, roaming freely over their performing bodies. The mirrors covering almost every wall of the room multiply and magnify the act of seeing. As the focus slowly shifts from the observation of traits and gestures to a growing awareness of the intense, material relationship between players and instruments, Miriam responds physically to the girls’ playing. The musical stimulus functions here as a catalytic agent for the player and the listener, ultimately resulting in a kind of tactile sensitivity. The progressive arousal of sensual impulses culminates in an account of her reaction to a Chopin Nocturne in highly eroticized language:
The pensive swing of the music changed to urgency and emphasis
It came nearer and nearer. It did not come from the candle-lit corner where the piano was
It came from everywhere. It carried her out of the house, out of the world. It hastened with her, on and on towards great brightness
Everything was growing brighter and brighter. [
] Miriam clutched her wool-needle and threaded it. She drew the wool through her canvas, one, three, five, three, one and longed for the piano to begin again. (43)
The erotic dialogue between performer and listener continues when Clara Bergmann replaces her sister at the piano. The girl’s hands arouse a second, violent reaction in Miriam’s body: “Miriam dropped her eyes—she seemed to have been listening for long—that wonderful light was coming again [
]” (44). Clara seems to play upon the listener’s body with “clever hands” that know which keys make the instrument sound (Ibid.). The association between music and femininity—between the body of a musical instrument and the female body—has a long tradition indeed, but Richardson advances the theme at a time when representing lesbianism could easily lead to social censure. In Winning’s words, here music speaks the unspeakable, the exclusive language of desire between women (12).
The energy awakened in Miriam’s body outlives the evening, filling her with an unforgettable happiness that continues through her stay in Germany. In the days immediately following the Vorspielen this feeling returns with special force whenever she sits at the piano to practice. Music runs through her fingers, which know it not by visual contact with the score, but as an apprehension that pulses through her body, especially her hands. Merely coming close to the instrument brings back the sensations of the Nocturne and once again her body gives itself up to the deep power of music. Her whole being, body and mind, behaves in accordance with music and is transported into a state of completion and perfection:
She felt for the pedals, lifted her hands a span above the piano, as Clara had done, and came down, true and clean, on to the opening chord. [
] her whole being beat out the rhythm as she waited for the end of the phrase to insist on what already had been said. As it came, she found herself sitting back, slackening the muscles of her arms and of her whole body, and ready to swing forward into the rising storm of the page. She did not need to follow the note on the music stand. Her fingers knew them. Grave and happy she sat with unseeing eyes, listening, for the first time. (56-7)
As Miriam’s pulsating fingers touch the pristine keys, a female, erotic pleasure takes shape, whose erogenous zones are located on the peripheries. Her body breaks all the conventions regulating a woman’s posture and gestures at the piano. In a reaction that clearly recalls the feelings experienced during Emma and Clara’s playing, Miriam responds passionately to the instrument and the chords she calls forth from it. “[I]nstead of being passively played upon, she now does the playing. Her body interacts in an intense, almost violent way with the inanimate but responsive instrument, allowing Miriam to orchestrate her own escape into freedom” (Bluemel, 64).
The fascinating power exerted by the ardent and sinuous movements of her hands turn them into signs for feminine seduction and instruments for music as well as love. This power is equaled only by that of her hair, another fundamental point of access to the feminine body and the relationship between music and sexuality. Here again, Richardson echoes late Victorian and fin-de-siècle imagery and language that returned, almost obsessively, to the portrayal of a woman’s hair as hypnotic and seductive. This is especially true in pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry, in which women used their hair to weave their discourse and hair combing was often associated with music:
Silent, the larger-than-life woman who dominated the literature and art of the period used her hair to weave her discourse; immobile, she used her hair at time to shelter her lovers, at times to strangle them. But always, as Rossetti’s Lady Lilith painting suggests, the grand woman achieved her transcendent vitality partly through her magic hair, which was invested with independent energy: enchanting—and enchanted—her gleaming tresses both expressed her mythic power and were its source. (Gitter, 936)
The word ‘comb’ designates the heckle for combing wool, the reed used for weaving the female pudenda, and the instrument for striking a lyre (Gitter, 936). Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as well as William Holman Hunt and Christina Rossetti, portray women displaying, arranging, weaving, and playing their hair. It flows, unconstrained, creating an organic labyrinth in which all boundaries between signifier and signified, between the body as the subject of the narration and the body spinning its own tale, are blurred:
Sometimes her weaving not only tells a story but is accompanied by story telling [
] More often, however, the weaving or hair combing is associated with music, whether the deadly song of the nixie, swan, maiden, or mermaid or the mournful songs of Desdemona and the Lady of Shalott. (Gitter, 938)
Richardson develops her own musical mythology of women’s hair with descriptions of its color, the many ways light makes it shine, and the instruments used to shape it in elaborate styles throughout the text. When Miriam, or one of the schoolgirls, plays music Richardson’s pen almost invariably dwells on the character’s hair, which becomes an instrument of self-expression and seduction, along with their posture and movements. Miriam finds Emma practising the piano a few hours before the Vorspielen. As she silently glides into the room to listen, her eyes are not directed to the schoolgirl’s face, intent on the score and unperturbed by the teacher’s entrance, but only to her hair, “the thick cable of string-coloured hair reaching just beyond the rim of the leather-covered music stool” (35). At the end of the piece Emma embraces Miriam in an unexpected hug that feels to Miriam “unlike any contact she had known [
]. She did not know that a human form could bring such a sense of warm nearness, that human contours could be so eloquent—or any one so sweetly daring” (36). Later in the evening, after the last performance, this sensation follows Miriam to her bedroom and brings with it “something of the wonderful light—the sense of going forward and forward through space” (50). A female presence again announces Miriam’s involvement in an explicitly erotic bond when Mademoiselle, the French teacher sharing Miriam’s bedroom, suddenly improvises a dance at the foot of the bed:
Her hair, hanging in short ringlets when released, fell forward round her neck as she bowed—the slightest dainty inclination, from side to side against the swaying of her dance. She was smiling her down-glancing, little sprite smile. Miriam loved her [
Miriam feels “wrapped in music” and the graceful but malicious movements of a Salomé whose wavy hair is curled in enticing coils bring to mind the representations of the “hair tents” let down over a lover’s head that dot turn-of-the-century iconographic and literary landscapes (Gitter, 941-2).
The day after the Vorspielen, as Miriam practises the piano, a student announces that it is Haarwaschen. She tells a puzzled Miriam that one of the rules of the school prescribes that hair washing be done in a sort of collective ceremony during which the school staff assists all those summoned. The girls comment on one another’s hairstyle, particularly the beauty of what they call a “classic” or “Grecian knot”, which triggers a chain of thoughts and images in Miriam’s mind:
Miriam’s mind groped
classic—Greece and Rome—Greek knot
a Grecian key pattern on the dresses for the sixth form tableau—reading Ruskin
the strip of glass all along the window space on the floor in the large room—edged with mosses and grass—the mirror of Venus [
] all on their hands and knees looking into the mirror [
]. (I: 63-4, emphasis mine)
The reference in this passage, undetected in Thomson’s Reader’s Guide to Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, is to Edward Burne-Jones’s The Mirror of Venus (1877), in which nine young nymphs, who look intently into a pool reflecting their beauty, surround Venus. In Miriam’s mind the enclosed and intensely self-absorbed female world of the painting replicates the musical world of the Vorspielen, and the pond replaces the mirrors that multiply the women’s exquisite image.
This excess of femininity, while meant to protect the young ladies from the evil male world, only stimulates the passionate forms of intimacy in which music plays a primary role. This is clearly stated by Miriam in a letter to her family in England:
If only she could bring them all for a minute in this room, the wonderful Germany that she had achieved. If they could even come to the door and look in. She did not in the least want to go back. She wanted them to come to her and taste Germany—to see all that went on in this wonderful house, to see pretty, German Emma, adoring her—to hear the music that was everywhere all the week, that went, like a garland, in and out of everything, to hear her play, by accident, and acknowledge the difference in her playing. Oh yes, besides seeing them all she wanted them to hear her play
She must stay
she glanced round the room. It was here, somehow, somewhere, in this roomful of girls, centering in the Germans at the end of the table, reflected on to the English group, something of that influence that made her play. It was in the sheen of Minna’s hair, in Emma’s long-plaited schoolgirlishness, somehow in Clara’s anger. It was here, here, and she was in it [
At the end of another evening of musical performances Miriam hears someone closing the great doors inside the schoolroom and catches a glimpse of four boys. The image recalls a famous painting by Burne-Jones, Laus Veneris (1873-8), which depicts the sensuous, colourful, and musically feminine world within the Venusberg while in the corner a window opens on the grey and cold winter of the knights (Prettejohn, 43). Richardson’s implied reference to the story of the Minnesänger, and the Christian hero of German folklore who becomes Venus’s lover, locates her firmly in the decadent tradition of late-Romantic Britain, which found in the myth of Tannhäuser one of the most fertile sources of inspiration for the hybridisation of genres and interart aesthetics (cf. Bizzotto). As Elizabeth Prettejohn states, the folk tale was part of a vast intellectual network linking literature and painting “through shared references to still other works of art and literature, both past and present [
] elaborated, with equivalent complexity, among the various artists and writers associated with Aestheticism” (41).
In Richardson’s Waldstrasse the female circle is exposed to the double gaze of Miriam and the boys looking through the door into the room. The association with music highlights the eroticism of the scene. As the hands on instrument and the images of their bodies on the walls multiply, it seems the essence of music for Miriam is conveyed by hand-instrument contact and by the sensuous and beautiful poses implied. Here musical performance is redefined as both a act lovely to see and a passionate form of non-verbal, tactile communication. Thus, as the novel closes, the isolation the Venusberg is challenged and the dangers and limitations of such an intellectual and physical enclosure become more and more apparent. The stay in Germany is a fundamental step in Miriam’s exploration of her identity as a musician and a woman. The evening also marks the beginning of a process of disillusionment leading her to acknowledge the illusory and suffocating quality of the self-centered world of Waldstrasse; a disconnected retreat from the historical moment in which women try to escape the rigid social roles into which they have been forced.
In the following novels Richardson’s heroine moves to London where she participates in a rich social and intellectual life with men and women, experiencing herself as a gendered subject. There too, music proves essential to Miriam’s exploration of her unstable sexual identity and the reclamation of a nuanced and fluid relationship with her body in the context of destabilizing definitions imposed on it by external discourses. Musical performances and Miriam’s musical body dramatize the construction of the female subject and create alternative models of female sexuality in which the piano, once the symbol of the essential endowment of all angels in the house, becomes an instrument for the expression of female identity.
1. In Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies he states, “And not only in the material and in the course, but yet more earnestly in the spirit of it, let a girl’s education be as serious as a boy’s. You bring up your girls as if they were meant for sideboard ornaments, and then complain of their frivolity. Give them the same advantages that you give their brothers.” (qtd. in Birch, 122). In the same regard Gatens’s states, “While it is undeniable that many other subjects predominate over music in Ruskin’s voluminous writings, this should not obscure the importance that the mature Ruskin attached to music in its moral and metaphysical significance and in the crucial place he felt it should occupy in general education. [
] He also wrote some musical compositions consisting in a group of singing dances devised for the pupils of a rather progressive girls’s school at Winninton Hall near Nortwitch in Cheshire, with which he was informally associated between 1859 and 1868” (77). Return to the article
2. Return to the article
3. To mention just a few examples, it was re-interpreted in Swinburne’s 1866 poem bearing the same title as Burne-Jones’s painting, by William Morris’s “The Hill of Dreams” (in The Earthly Paradise, 1866), Walter Pater’s “Two Early French Stories” (1873), but also in the paintings Venus and Tannhäuser (1896), by Lawrence Koe and In the Venusberg (1901) by John Collier. Return to the article
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