Sunday 29 July 2012

Rediscovering Rosamond Lehmann

One of the good things about blogging is that not only do you come across recommendations for things you've never read, but you come across things you've read and forgotten. Rosamond Lehmann is an example. At some point in the dim and distant past I read most of novels (I remember being totally knocked out by 'The Weather in the Streets', which seemed so grown-up, and covered things not usually spoken of). So when I spotted a copy of Invitation to the Waltz in a charity shop some months back, I snapped it up. Then I came across her autobiography, The Swan in the Evening, and bought that too, but both books languished in the TBR pile until I saw that Florence at Miss Darcy's Library ( was organising a Rosamond Lehmann Reading Week, which prompted me to start reading again. I love these happy co-incidences which occur in the blogging world!
Lehmann is every bit as good as I remember but, as usual, I am behind with writing (however did I cope with deadlines when I was working?). So, since today is the final day of RLRW, here are two briefish reviews in one post.

Invitation to the Waltz, written in 1932 but set 12 years earlier, portrays a long-vanished way of life, yet the emotions and concerns of sisters Kate and Olivia Curtis are not so different to those of many young women today. Kate and Olivia's horizons may have been much smaller, but their hopes and fears would, I think, be recognised by my own daughters, and it's the this human touch which gives the novel its strength and makes it relevant.

Like so many other novels of that period (think Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West), the action, such as it is, is internalised. We see things through the eyes of Olivia, the younger sister, poised on the edge of adulthood, curious about the people she meets, but unable to understand them. She seems to be an outsider, just as her mill-owning family does not quite fit in at any level of society, not being fully accepted by either the neighbouring landed gentry, or the village.

The book is written in three sections, covering Olivia's 17th birthday; the early evening before the two girls attend a coming-out ball for the daughter of Lord and Lady Spencer, and the event itself. It is Olivia's first 'grown-up' dance and she worries about doing and saying the right thing, whether she will find enough partners, and her dress (uninterested in clothes though she is, even she can tell that garment made by a local seamstress is all wrong).

Dark-haired, awkward Olivia trails in the shadow of a her beautiful, blonde, stylish sister, but on this evening she is able to fit her steps to her various dancing partners, and finds that people talk to her, even if she does not always grasp the meaning of what they say. There's a kind of fore-shadowing when she meets Rollo Spencer, and we know that at some stage in the future there will be something between these two (apparently this took Lehmann by surprise, but it led to the writing of The Weather in the Streets). The feeling of this being a pivotal moment is underlined by the fact that before she leaves home strange, silent Uncle Oswald, sensing her trepidation about the evening ahead, tells her she will be all right in about 10 years time.

I loved the way the characters were drawn: pretty Kate, who wants nice things and a nice man, and is attracted to the son of one of the local landowners; geeky Reggie, press-ganged into accompanying them to the ball; Major Skinner's wife's, who is not considered to be at all respectable; Miss Robinson the dressmaker, 'sinking, fatally enmeshed, struggling feebly and more feebly as youth slipped from her year after year'.

NB: Forgot to say this was posted to Beth Fish Reads What's in a Name challenge for the  something you at would carry in your bag or pocket category.  I'd certainly put an invitation in my bag!

The Swan in the Evening is tells of Lehmann's comfortable, cushioned childhood. Born in 1901, she was educated at home, with her brothers and sisters, and her memories of the schoolroom are quite enchanting – especially the teacher who tells her being the middle one of the family is like being the jam in the middle of a sandwich!

Incidents spring out from the past, like the day she let her baby brother drink Eau de Cologne, or the sad tale of the servant William Moody who had some kind of breakdown when his adored daughter died.

That links into the death of Lehmann's own daughter, Sally, who contracted polio and died at the age of 24, while she was in Jakarta. That death had a profound effect on Lehmann.

Nowadays, I measure my life by Sally, not by dates. There was the time before her birth; the time of her life span; the time I am in now, after she slipped away from us. The decision to write about it has not been easily arrived at....

She writes very movingly about her daughter's life and death, about life with and without Sally – and about and about a mystical experience she underwent after Sally's death when, neverthless, she was with her daughter and knew everything would be all right. It is a book full of hope and a belief that there is something there beyond the here and now, and Lehmann tries to offer comfort to others who have lost a loved one. But this aspect of 'The Swan in the Evening', written in 1967, is very different to the first part, which is much humorous and down to earth.

No comments:

Post a Comment