"The Wrong Material": Gender and Jewishness in Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage
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“The Wrong Material”:
Gender and Jewishness in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage

Much as James Joyce’s Ulysses uses Bloom’s Jewishness to help define Stephen’s progress toward artistic autonomy and exile, Dorothy Richardson’s autobiographical novel Pilgrimage relies on the figure of a Jew to reflect and shape its protagonist’s emotional and political concerns. Critics have recently begun to uncover the role that the Jew plays in this thirteen-part novel, noting the ways Miriam Henderson constructs her Englishness by means of comparison with the Jew, the extent to which her views are influenced by the anti-Semitic and misogynist Weininger, and the threat to her individuality which Miriam senses in her Jewish suitor. 1 Missing from this fledgling discussion, however, are an analysis of the metaphoric burdens that the narrative places onto Jewishness and a consideration of how and why the representation of the Jew changes as Pilgrimage—written from 1913 until 1954—proceeds. The shifting representation is important both because it shows Richardson’s awareness of and ethical engagement with European politics in the early 1930s and because its limitations demonstrate the tenacity of the metaphoric associations that had accrued to Jews in European cultures by the early twentieth century. More broadly, Richardson’s struggle to revise her Jewish figure highlights the power of images to direct subsequent meanings, especially in works written over many years, in spite of their author’s changing designs.

Richardson’s representation of her major Jewish character can be divided into two distinct phases. In the first, developed in Deadlock (1921) and Revolving Lights (1923), Michael Shatov serves as a metaphoric vehicle for exploring Miriam’s entrapment in unacceptable gender roles. In Deadlock, Miriam at first reciprocates Shatov’s love. She initially sees him [End Page 191] as charmingly feminine, but quickly decides that he is too masculine and therefore declines his proposal of marriage. His masculinity functions for the novel on both thematic and aesthetic levels, creating an opposition against which Miriam and Richardson can assert their feminist approaches to life and art.

While Shatov’s masculinity plays a significant role, the narrative simultaneously gives him a metaphorical association with femininity. That is, in spite of her claims that Shatov is too masculine, Miriam’s narrative reveals that she rejects him in large part because he accepts a feminine role which Miriam cannot tolerate. Shatov’s link to femininity functions for the narrative development as well: rejecting the feminine Jew helps Miriam move past her fear of her own femininity and find a more flexible gender identification. But it also undermines the univocal feminist stance to which critics often allude in their recuperative readings of Richardson. 2 It demonstrates that Miriam’s misogyny not only flares up on occasion, but, lying beneath the surface of her consciousness, helps to govern her romantic choices.

The second phase of Richardson’s portrayal of Shatov begins with the 1935 volume, Clear Horizon. In this novel-chapter, the narrative distances itself from the metaphoric use of the Jew, instead making it clear that Miriam sees Shatov as a racial other, the wrong material for her to marry. The use of the word “race” in Pilgrimage, like its use during this period in England generally, is inchoate. Race-thinking dominated European science and popular understanding in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it took different forms in England than in Central Europe, where the concept of race was infused with the biological determinism we have come to associate with Nazism. English people tended to use the term loosely, often synonymously with “nation”; and although most saw Jews as a separate race, they also believed that Jews could be assimilated into English society. 3 Miriam Henderson uses the concept of race especially broadly, at times mixing it with nation and even with religion: she espouses racialist discourses that separate the German character from the English, but she also categorizes Americans and even Catholics and Quakers by appearance and character, viewing them as equally fixed types. The racial representation of the Jew which we find in Pilgrimage, then, simply demonstrates that Miriam Henderson shares the vague racialist notions of her English society.