Pointed Roofs

by Sam Alexander

Often credited as the first stream-of-consciousness novel in English, Dorothy Richardson‘s Pointed Roofs (1915) is the first of thirteen books comprising Pilgrimage, a multi-volume novel to which Richardson devoted herself until her death in 1957. Pilgrimage follows the life of its protagonist, Miriam Henderson, from March 1893 through the autumn of 1912, and Pointed Roofs covers the first four months of this time period.


Manuscript page of Dorothy Richardson’s Pointed Roofs. Source: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Bibliographic Record Number: 39002037500239.

Perhaps because its time frame is so short, the novel has been particularly vulnerable to the complaint that “nothing happens” within its pages. At its opening, Miriam has secured herself a position as a teacher of English in a German girls’ school, and is preparing to leave her childhood home at Barnes for the new position. After a trip with her father by boat and train, Miriam arrives in Germany. The rest of the novel simply records her impressions of day-to-day life at the girls’ school. Major events include a concert, a poetry reading, a thunderstorm, and group trips to an English church, a Catholic church, a public bath, and a medieval German town full of the “quiet peaked houses” from which the novel takes its name.

The narrative focus centers on Miriam’s struggle to belong, to form friendships and do her duty, part of which is to converse sociably despite being a self-identified “misanthrope.”[1] Miriam eventually suffers persecution at the hands of her supervisor, Fraulein Pfaff, who comes to see her as a rival for the love of one of the few men at the school, Pastor Lahmann. This development (which the reader detects as dimly as Miriam herself) gives the story an ending, since it leads Fraulein Pfaff to expel Miriam.

Although most of the story takes place abroad, Richardson shows the reader just enough of Miriam’s English home to convey important facts about her heroine’s background: Miriam’s mother, Mrs. Henderson, is ill, the Henderson family is in financial difficulty, and Mr. Henderson is in some way responsible for this difficulty. The family’s fortunes take a small turn upward with the engagement of Miriam’s sister Harriet to a young man with good prospects. As the novel closes, Miriam is on the train back to England, looking forward to attending the wedding.


Such background information is difficult to glean, due to the “unswerving adherence to the single point of view” that, as Leon Edel points out, Richardson inherited from Henry James and intensified in her own work.[2] We do not learn the origin of Miriam’s journey, information which has significant bearing on the reader’s understanding of her character, until she is in Rotterdam, well on the way to Germany. This event enters the text not in chronological order, but rather at the point when it becomes relevant to Miriam’s thoughts, as she reflects on her father’s attempt to convince a porter that she will be attending a German finishing school (rather than working at one):

She thought of her lonely pilgrimage to the West End agency, of her humiliating interview, of her heart-sinking acceptance of the post, the excitements and misgivings she had had, of her sudden challenge of them all that evening at dinner […] of her fear and determination in insisting and carrying her point and making them begin to be interested in her plan. But she shared her father’s satisfaction in impressing the Dutchman. She knew that she was at one with him in that. She glanced at him. There could be no doubt that he was playing the role of an English gentleman. […] Well, after all, it was true in a way […] she was going to finish her education abroad … in Germany…[3]

Here, the reader learns that Miriam’s “pilgrimage” is a voluntary if hesitant flight away from her troubled home and toward personal independence; however, Miriam frequently vacillates between ideas and positions despite her strong will. At the beginning of this passage, Miriam recalls her difficulty in arranging her voyage, foregrounding her father’s hypocrisy and dishonesty in using a journey that he originally opposed to satisfy his own desire to come across as an “English gentleman.” The narrative voice becomes increasingly subjective, however, and the reader plunges directly into Miriam’s shifting opinions as she realizes that she shares her father’s desire and tries to justify it in the final thought, given in free indirect discourse straining toward the stream-of-consciousness style.

[For more on narration, see “Richardson and Joyce,” below.]

Richardson and Joyce

Pointed Roofs was not published until 1915, but according to her biographer, Gloria Fromm, Richardson completed the novel in early 1913—the same year in which Proust published Swann’s Way, and one year before Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was serialized in The Egoist.[4]

Thematically, Portrait and Pointed Roofs address a similar set of issues. Richardson’s protagonist travels abroad at the beginning of her story rather than the end, but her time in Germany leads her to reflect on the issues of national identity that are so important to Stephen Dedalus. Upon arriving at school in Germany, Miriam identifies the group of English girls at the school, and throughout the novel she meditates on the signs of their Englishness (“the way they would smile and take things for granted”).[5] She negotiates between an irrepressible sense of English identity and a reveling in her voluntary exile—emotions which fuse as she observes a group of students gathered in the school’s “saal”: “How English they all looked … for a moment she wanted to go and sit with them—just sit with them and rejoice in being abroad; in having got away.”[6]

At the same time, Miriam is vigorously independent—even antisocial, as she admits at several points—and senses that she will not be easily assimilated to any group, national or otherwise. Like Stephen in Portrait, Miriam returns constantly to the question of difference—the difference of words, concepts, and individuals from each other (“The laughter sounded differently and the laughing faces were different”; “Was it hay or straw? What was the difference?”), as well as the irreducible difference of the protagonist/future artist: “She could only think that somehow she must be ‘different.'”[7] Joyce’s and Richardson’s budding authors are both autobiographically inflected (for details of the correspondences between Pilgrimage and the life of its author, see Fromm’s biography), and both may be drawn to the world of words because of their vision problems. The scene in which Stephen is unjustly punished for having broken glasses has a counterpart in the odd erotic scene in which Pastor Lahmann has Miriam remove her “tightly fitting pince-nez” in order to examine her “severe myopic astigmatism.” [8]

May Sinclair applied the phrase “stream of consciousness” to literary style in her 1919 introduction to volume one of Pilgrimage, the first book of which is Pointed Roofs. Like Joyce, Richardson gave herself over more in her later novels to the discontinuous, often freely associative prose typically associated with the stream-of-consciousness novel, but this experiment is already present in parts of Pointed Roofs, aided by the omnipresent ellipsis: “Miriam’s mind groped… classic—Greece and Rome—Greek knot…Grecian key…a Grecian key pattern on the dresses for the sixth form tableau—reading Ruskin…” [3]

Fromm has drawn attention to the resemblances between Ulysses and the later parts of Pilgrimage—the loose parallel with Dante and the concentration on a single day in The Tunnel— but even this first installment anticipates some elements of Joyce’s later, more experimental novel. The most important of these (aside from the innovative narration) is probably the circular nature of Miriam’s journey; we are told as her train pulls out at the end of the novel, “She was going home empty-handed. She had achieved nothing.”[9] But I found myself thinking of Ulysses at one point, in particular—as Miriam reads the letter from her sister about Harriet’s coming marriage, “reading a phrase here and there” like Leopold Bloom at the beginning of “Calypso,” and feeling both joy at the good news and pain at the thought of all she has missed (the tennis-club has served throughout the novel as a figure for a home life reluctantly left behind): “We are all looking forward to it—the tennis-club—your name as a holiday member—the American tournament in August—Harry was the youngest lady member like you… all the dwarf roses in bloom—hardly any strawberries—we shall see you soon—everybody sends.”[10]

  1. ↑ Dorothy Richardson, Pointed Roofs (Lenox, MA: Hard Press, 2003), p. 18.
  2. ↑ Leon Edel, The Modern Psychological Novel (New York: Grove Press, 1955), p. 32.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Richardson, Pointed Roofs, p.15.
  4. ↑ Gloria Fromm, Dorothy Richardson: A Biography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), p. 66.
  5. ↑ Richardson, Pointed Roofs, p. 46.
  6. ↑ Richardson, Pointed Roofs, p.59.
  7. ↑ Richardson, Pointed Roofs, pp. 54, 59, 78.
  8. ↑ Richardson, Pointed Roofs, p.90.
  9. ↑ Richardson, Pointed Roofs, p. 136.
  10. ↑ Richardson, Pointed Roofs, p. 132.