The Tunnel

by Sam Alexander

The Tunnel (1919) is the fourth volume of Dorothy Richardson’s multi-volume novel, Pilgrimage (1915-1935).

The Novel

In each of the three sections of Pilgrimage preceding The Tunnel, the heroine, Miriam Henderson, takes a “pilgrimage” from her home in the English countryside. In Pointed Roofs (modeled loosely on Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, and also on Richardson’s own life), Henderson teaches English at a boarding school in Hanover, Germany; in Backwater, she teaches at a North London school run by two sisters; and in Honeycomb, she works as a governess in the large, luxurious home a wealthy English family.[1]

At the opening of The Tunnel, a twenty-one year-old Miriam arrives in London to work as a dental assistant for Dr. Hancock, a friend of her family, and to stay in a house in Tansley Street owned by a woman named Mrs. Bailey. No major events occur in the time period covered by the novel (April to December 1896). Richardson focuses instead on routine occurrences in Miriam’s life: a workday at Dr. Hancock’s office; visits with her “new women” friends, Mag and Jan; attendance at lectures and a performance of Hamlet with Dr. Hancock; a bicycle ride to visit her sister Harriet. In the latter part of the novel, Miriam meets a consumptive nurse named Miss Dear and attends her in her illness. As George Thomson notes, this section reads almost like another novel appended to The Tunnel.[2]

The Tunnel portrays Miriam living alone for the first time in London, and as she matures she confronts a broader range of intellectual concerns than she has in earlier sections of Pilgrimage. Her association with the “new women” gives rise to important conversations in which she discusses marriage, religion, and philosophy (sounding a bit like Stephen Dedalus, she expounds Wyclif’s “doctrine of possibles”) (93). With Dr. Hancock, she attends a lecture at a scientific society and begins to question the enthusiasm for science which first appears in Pointed Roofs, when a copy of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle appears among her books. She imagines the scholars she meets “washing, very carefully, in an abstracted way, still looking and thinking … never really aware of anything around or behind them because of the wonders of science” (102).

Most importantly, Miriam encounters the world of art and literature when she visits her school friend Alma and her husband, Hypo G. Wilson. Hypo is clearly modeled on H.G. Wells, with whom Richardson had been romantically involved for a number of years.[3] It may have been in asserting her independence from Wells that Richardson began to establish her own Jamesian approach to the novel in the years leading up to Wells’s 1915 publication of Boon, a brutal parody of James which effectively ended the two men’s friendship.[4] As Leon Edel points out, James’s influence on Richardson becomes apparent in a later section of Pilgrimage, when a long description of The Ambassadors (identifiable by plot details, though not explicitly named) ends with Miriam’s satisfied judgment that its author had discovered “the first completely satisfying way of writing a novel.”[5] Richardson’s struggle to break from Wells may help to explain the representation of Wilson in The Tunnel as ominous and even satanic: “[P]erhaps I am selling my soul to the devil,” Miriam thinks as she begins to submit to his influence (121). As Gloria Fromm has demonstrated, this is one element of a loose parallel between The Tunnel and Dante’s Inferno, both of which are divided into thirty-three sections.[6]

More than the historical Wells, however, Wilson surrounds himself with avant-garde figures like those Richardson would have encountered at the Café Royal, where she met her husband, Alan Odle (the cafe was frequented by figures such as Wyndham Lewis, Jacob Epstein, and Mark Gertler).[7] At the Wilsons’, Miriam encounters for the first time the rhetoric of experimental aesthetics; one of the house guests asks, “Why not write an article about a lamp-post?” (115).[8] Hypo encourages this experimentalism, insisting, in words that Virginia Woolf would apply to Richardson’s own novel, “There will be books—with all that cut out—him and her—all that sort of thing. The books of the future will be clear of all that” (118).


The Tunnel caught the attention of both Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. Woolf’s diary indicates that the two discussed Richardson together, and they appear to have come to similar conclusions about her work.[9] In a review of the novel and works by two other women novelists, Mansfield accuses Richardson of a lack of “memory”— by which she seems to mean a lack of selection. Memory, she writes, should “[mount] his high throne and [judge] all that is in our minds—appointing each his separate place, high or low, rejecting this, selecting that—putting this one to shine in the light and throwing that one into the darkness”; instead, in Pilgrimage, “Miss Richardson dives into [memory’s] recesses and reproduces a certain number of … treasures—a pair of button boots, a night in spring, some cycling knickers, some large, round biscuits—as many as she can fit into a book.”[10]

While praising Richardson’s originality and deprecating her own demands as a critic, Woolf echoes Manfield’s criticism of the novel’s formlessness and basic lack of order. Even the novel of consciousness, she claims, should “[resolve] itself by degrees into a perceptible whole.”[11] In Richardson, Woolf argues, “sensations, impressions, ideas and emotions”—Mansfield’s boots, knickers, and biscuits—“glance off [Miriam], unrelated and unquestioned, without shedding quite as much light as we had hoped into the hidden depths.”[12] Woolf also criticizes Richardson for insufficient characterization, claiming that the “figures of other people on whom Miriam casts her capricious light … never reach that degree of significance which we, perhaps unreasonably, expect.”[13] This sense that the stream-of-consciousness technique detracts from characterizati also surfaces in a 1920 diary entry in which Woolf claims that the works of both Joyce and Richardson are dominated by the “damned egotistical self.”[14]

Although Mansfield and Woolf were at best ambivalent in their attitude to the novel, they provided valuable publicity. After reading these and other reviews of The Tunnel, Margaret Anderson decided that she wanted to publish Richardson in The Little Review, and the next installment of Pilgrimage(Interim) appeared alongside Joyce’s Ulysses beginning in June, 1919.[15]

  1. ↑ For a detailed chronology of the novel, see George H. Thomson, Reader’s Guide: Pilgrimage (Greensboro, NC: ELT Press, 1996).
  2. ↑ Thomson, p. 30.
  3. ↑ See Gloria Fromm, Dorothy Richardson: A Biography (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994), pp. 23-36.
  4. ↑ For background on James and Wells, see Henry James and H.G. Wells: A Record of Their Friendship, Their Debate on the Art of Fiction, and Their Quarrel, ed. Leon Edel and Gordon N. Ray (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1958).
  5. ↑ Edel, The Modern Psychological Novel (New York: Grove Press, 1959), p. 34.
  6. ↑ Fromm, 128.
  7. ↑ Fromm, 115.
  8. ↑ Interestingly, in El Novelista (1923), by the Spanish modernist Ramón Gómez de la Serna, the protagonist visits England and meets a novelist named Ardith Colmer who is writing a novel about “the life and destiny of a street lamp” (Soufas 109). Christopher Soufas speculates on possible models in The Subject in Question (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007), p. 109.
  9. ↑ See Woolf’s diary entry for March 22, 1919: “At once she flung down her pen & plunged, as if we’d been parted for 10 minutes, into the question of Dorothy Richardson…” The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. 1: 1915-1919, ed. Anne Olivier Bell (London: Harvest Books, 1977), p. 257.
  10. ↑ Mansfield, Novels and Novelists (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1930), p. 6.
  11. ↑ The Essays of Virginia Woolf, volume 3: 1919-1924, ed. Andrew Mcneillie (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1989), p. 11.
  12. ↑ Ibid.
  13. ↑ Ibid., p. 12.
  14. ↑ In The Stream-of-Consciousness Technique in the Modern Novel, ed. Erwin R. Steinberg (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1979), p. 70.
  15. ↑ Fromm, 117-118.