Lehmann, Rosamond 1905–
Rosamond Lehmann is an English novelist and short story writer. Although Ms Lehmann has published little since the early 1950s, critics urge rediscovery of her skillful and convincing studies of young women growing up and mature women in love.
Rosamond Lehmann has limitations which are severe enough to exclude her from the first rank of novelists of her period. More importantly, they have affected her productivity, so that after The Ballad and the Source, the Everest of her career, she had nowhere to go but down, and back, to The Echoing Grove. She is a demanding and scrupulous writer—her slight critical writing attests to that—and, when the source was running dry, as it obviously was in The Echoing Grove, she stopped, perhaps permanently.
But there is a reverse side to the coin. Some of the qualities [critics have termed] limitations—"reminiscence, whimsy, delicacy, unfulfillment," "memories of childhood and youth"—are the very qualities that distinguished Invitation to the Waltz and Dusty Answer and that contributed to The Ballad and the Source. They became limitations only when Miss Lehmann could not reach beyond them to the more vigorous qualities necessary for a mature and wide vision of life. One expects a Bildungsroman of a young writer, but not of a mature writer, and certainly not a continuous one. Her world may be a "half-world,"… it may be limited in theme and vision; but within its bounds it is real. Within her range, narrow as it admittedly is, Rosamond Lehmann has done superb work; and at least two of the novels, the third in time, Invitation to the Waltz, and the fifth, The Ballad and the Source, are genuine works of the imagination.
To attempt to place Miss Lehmann in relation to other novelists of the between-the-wars period poses a difficulty, for she is not easily categorized. Unlike the majority, she has no discernible moral or intellectual, social or political philosophies. She is not a satirist of the contemporary scene, as are Huxley and Waugh. She does not rail against the destructiveness of the industrialized world to the individual, as did Lawrence. She is not preoccupied with the problem of good and evil, as is Greene. If she has a religion, it does not reveal itself in her novels, nor does her political attitude. Although she has experimented with technique, she is not an innovator in the sense that Joyce and Virginia Woolf were. And, although she greatly admires the work of Forster, she can hardly be said to share his interest in intellectualizing the novel.
There is in one sense, however, a link between Miss Lehmann and E. M. Forster: their shared belief that it is personal relationships that matter most in life and in art. Forster's "only connect" philosophy permeates Miss Lehmann's work, not in an explicit philosophy, but in a concentration on personal relationships to the exclusion of practically everything else. (pp. 22-4)
There is nothing narrow in this concept of the principal concern of the novelist. On the contrary, it places Miss Lehmann in the mainstream of the English novel. (p. 24)
Rosamond Lehmann has, generally, three themes. The first, though not in importance, centers around the romantic relationships between men and women, or, more specifically, women in love. This theme dominates The Weather in the Streets and The Echoing Grove. Her second theme, adolescence or the celebration of youth and beauty, is the basis of Dusty Answer and Invitation to the Waltz. Her third theme, growing out of the second, can best be termed loss of youth or nostalgia for lost youth. This is the principal theme of A Note in Music, but it also informs Dusty Answer and The Echoing Grove.
In fact, one can almost conclude that the disillusionment implied in nostalgia for lost youth is her principal theme, and the other two merely variations on it…. Even in The Ballad and the Source, the one novel in which Miss Lehmann breaks the bonds of her normal visionary world, the innocence of the child-observer Rebecca is shattered by the glimpses she has of adult corruption.
This pervasive theme of disillusionment with the adult world is indicative of one of Miss Lehmann's limitations. Disillusionment is, of course, a legitimate theme—perhaps it is the theme of the Age of Anxiety—but to use it time and again, without comment and without thought, is to reveal a narrow view of human life. Her major characters are almost without exception feeling, not thinking people; and, since Miss Lehmann does not act as commentator on their points of view, one is left with the conclusion that the vision of life represented by the characters is that of the author too.
A second limitation is in the range of her characterization. She seems unable to create a fully realized, three-dimensional male character. All of her protagonists are women. (pp. 25-6)
Rosamond Lehmann's world is a world of young girls and women—growing up, falling in love, regretting, growing older. The men who are there exist in the shadows; one knows them, with the exception of Rickie, only through the eyes of the women. The social background of these women is the upper-middle class: indeed, the impression is overwhelming that Judith, Olivia, Rebecca, Dinah, and Madeleine come from the same family. The fathers, at least, of all of them, although fleeting in appearance, seem to be the same man and bear a strong resemblance to Miss Lehmann's own father…. (pp. 26-7)
1927, the year of Dusty Answer and of Elizabeth Bowen's The Hotel, both first novels, was also the year of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. The significance of this otherwise unimportant coincidence is that, if Miss Lehmann can be said to resemble any other novelists of her era, she resembles not only the woman who began her novelist career at the same time, but also the older writer whose most perfect work appeared in 1927. The similarity lies mostly in the poetic sensibility which all three possess, a sensibility which is peculiarly feminine. There is something of the lyric poet in all three, as well as a deep knowledge of the feminine psyche.
The Woolfian influence, if it can be called that, is in the style—the gossamer poetic quality of the prose. With Elizabeth Bowen, Miss Lehmann also shares a similarity of character and situation. The former's portrayals of young girls approaching the adult world and of young women in romantic situations resemble Miss Lehmann's. Such a novel as A World of Love, though not good Bowen, could almost have been written by Miss Lehmann. (p. 27)
Rosamond Lehmann's move from the enchanted adolescent world of Dusty Answer to the defeated adult one of A Note in Music effects an enlargement of technique but a diminution of emotional power. The fault lies in the nature of the theme; for—without the ennobling touch of tragedy, or at least some vital response in the narrator—such material is bound to appear arid and meaningless: a denial of the value of human life. If life's value is denied, then surely the art that represents the denial becomes irrelevant. Because most of the vitality of A Note in Music belongs to the prose and not to the characters, the result hovers close to an intellectual exercise in despair displayed against a background of beautiful prose.
In her third novel, Invitation to the Waltz (1932), Miss Lehmann makes an abrupt turnabout and, eschewing despair, returns to the enchanted adolescent world she began with—with a difference. (p. 57)
[A] variety of age groups, social classes, and points of view gives Invitation to the Waltz a broader base than Dusty Answer and, in spite of the restricted time scheme, offers opportunities for contrasts lacking in the earlier work. At the same time, unlike Dusty Answer, in which Judith is pictured almost completely apart from family and assumes thereby a kind of floating isolation, Olivia is firmly rooted in family life with a definable background in time. The novel gains in solidity from these differences. (p. 59)
Invitation to the Waltz is not merely a delicious trifle. It is a microcosm in which an adolescent's experiences during a single week reflect the adult world she will soon know. Hints of tragedy, of illness, of despair, of cruelty, and of lust abound in the book; and, if one comes away from it remembering only the charming James and the humorous awkwardness of Olivia, the fault lies with the reader, not the book. The dark side of life is there, always balancing the lighter, though never, because Olivia is young and still undisillusioned, overwhelming it. Perhaps [George] Dangerfield is saying more about himself than about Invitation to the Waltz when he remarks that the older characters "answer to something in us that is mature and disillusioned." (pp. 74-5)
Like Invitation to the Waltz, The Ballad and the Source is a near perfect union of technique and substance; but the world described is [quite different]. One needs no "willing suspension of disbelief" for Invitation to the Waltz; one needs it in abundance for The Ballad and the Source. Not that there is anything supernatural in the book, but the highly colored, highly romantic story it tells treads close to that thin line between drama and melodrama; and the method by which it is told in some ways taxes the credulity of the reader. The enormous success of the book is indicated by the fact that few of its articulate readers have been unable to grant it the necessary "suspension of disbelief."
The technique of The Ballad and the Source is unlike anything Miss Lehmann attempted previously. (pp. 89-90)
The point of view … is not just the double one of the narrator as character and observer (both adult and child), but rather a many faceted point of view in which five people, including the narrator, look at a three-generation tale of intricate human passions and psychological motivations, and emerge with often contradictory impressions.
The technique is in part that used by Henry James in What Maisie Knew, but with obvious variations. James employs the third-person point of view; Miss Lehmann, the first. Maisie is the focal point of the events, her life wholly dependent on their outcome. Rebecca Landon in The Ballad and the Source is only indirectly involved in the events. Maisie learns through observation; she is not told what is going on. Rebecca is the recipient of confidences, but she also uses her powers of observation to form her own conclusions. The narration of What Maisie Knew is straight forward; that of The Ballad and the Source moves forward and backward in time. Where the two books are most alike is in their use of the consciousness of a child-observer to illumine the effect of adult experience on childhood innocence. More than one critic has suggested that not only the technique but the spirit of The Ballad and the Source is Jamesian…. [There] are Jamesian qualities; but not all of them are peculiarly Jamesian. Conrad, for one, also wrote [psychological mysteries emphasizing psychological motives], and one could make out quite a good case for a Conradian influence on Miss Lehmann's book. The Jamesian influence can easily be overemphasized to the point of absurdity, for a comparison of What Maisie Knew and The Ballad and the Source reveals very striking general differences between the two writers. James is a moralist; Miss Lehmann is not. James's work is sharply intellectual; Miss Lehmann's is highly emotional. The prose styles of the two writers are as far apart as one can imagine; the delicate lyricism of Miss Lehmann would have been anathema to James.
In theme, however, The Ballad and the Source does bear a resemblance to the work of James, among countless others; for it is concerned with the difficulty of ascertaining the truth about human character. (pp. 90-1)
Sibyl Anstey Herbert Jardine [is] the central character of The Ballad and the Source, and one of the most fascinatingly complex characters imaginable. The search for truth which is the central theme of the book, is the search by Rebecca for the truth about Mrs. Jardine…. (p. 92)
Without doubt this portrait is Miss Lehmann's masterpiece. Mrs. Jardine's very ambiguity insures her hold on the reader's imagination; for, when the book is finished and laid aside, she refuses to loosen her grip on the reader. Part of her power stems not merely from the complexity but from the elusiveness of her character—from her refusal to be pinned down to any simple interpretation….
She is of course vicious, egotistical, disagreeable; but she also possesses those qualities that make Gil and Rebecca love her—her concern for truth, her kindness to children, her respect for individuality. In other words, it is possible both to admire her and to be horrified by her, even to pity her. Mrs. Jardine victimizes others but she is also the victim of her own delusions. There can be no doubt that her later life consists of an unremitting search for self-justification; she must always have a listener against whose reactions she can test the validity of her behavior. The seemingly self-possessed woman is never completely certain…. (p. 106)
Diana Trilling concludes that "the reader is left with the heavy burden of Mrs. Jardine's ambivalent morality; even in Mrs. Jardine's lies we have been taught to see a certain truth." This is the answer to the fascination of the book: the fact that, even at the end, one cannot be sure what Mrs. Jardine is. It is also the characteristic that links The Ballad and the Source with the earlier A Note in Music, in which Miss Lehmann attempts with less success a similar exploration of the nature of reality….
Mrs. Trilling admires the "moral and technical imagination" of the book but deplores the lack of what she terms "moral passion." One has the impression, she writes, that Miss Lehmann cares "more about the outcome of a story than about the outcome of life itself." This seems an unfair judgment, for, after all, what Mrs. Trilling really objects to is the fact that the narrator does not take a moral stand on the character of Mrs. Jardine. But if Rebecca did, the whole point of the book would be lost since Miss Lehmann's aim is to show the difficulty of making correct moral judgments…. Miss Lehmann leaves moral judgments to her readers, who, at the last, know more than any of the characters. If the narrator intruded herself anymore than she does, the novel would lose one of its most potent qualities—the fascination of a many-sided truth. (p. 107)
From the enchanted adolescent world of her first novel, Dusty Answer, to the disillusioned adult world of her last, The Echoing Grove, the pendulum of Rosamond Lehmann's vision of life swings back and forth between enchantment and disillusionment, childhood and adulthood, in a strikingly regular pattern which is broken only once, by The Ballad and the Source. In this novel alone does Miss Lehmann break the mold of her vision to emerge into a larger world in which vitality, even though it be destructive, is at least possible to adults. Mrs. Jardine may not be an admirable human being, she may even be criminally destructive, but she is always alive. She would never—as do Norah and Grace, Madeleine and Dinah—resign herself to a monotonous existence in which everything worthwhile belongs to the past. She has too vivid a conception of the source of life to entertain such negation: "'The source, Rebecca! The fount of life—the source, the quick spring that rises in illimitable depths of darkness and flows through every living thing from generation to generation. It is what we feel mounting in us when we say: "I know! I love! I am!" Do you understand me now?'" (p. 139)
In view of Mrs. Jardine's character and past, one can consider this speech ironic; but the basic validity of the idea offers an insight into Miss Lehmann's failure to find much in adult experience which does not end in disillusionment. Elsewhere in The Ballad and the Source, the adult Rebecca, remembering the qualities of her grandmother, speaks of her "energy with a core like the crack and sting of a whip. It was this, this last that had left our house, and perhaps most similar houses at that period…. Looking back now, one might express it by saying there seemed disillusionments lurking, unformulated doubts about overcoming difficulties; a defeat somewhere, a failure of the vital impulse"…. Surely Miss Lehmann is speaking here, not only as the character of Rebecca, but through the character, in order to express her own dissatisfaction with the contemporary world. (pp. 139-40)
One must assume … that, since she offers no reasons for the prevailing disillusionment of her adult characters, she is saying that disillusionment is an inevitable result of growing up and that adulthood for her is equated with disillusionment.
Where Miss Lehmann fails in her adult novels—A Note in Music, The Weather in the Streets, and The Echoing Grove—is not in her choice of theme but in her creation of characters to embody it. With the exception of Olivia, her major characters in these novels are, it must be confessed, close to "the impoverished, so frequently non-adult, dull and neurotic novel-figure of today" that she herself deplores [in "The Future of the Novel?"]. It is not life that defeats Norah and Rickie and the others, but themselves. One has the feeling that they are condemned to futile lives, not because they have grown up but because they have refused to grow up. Masquerading as adults, they are really children pouting because they have been denied some pleasure they have set their hearts on. They are representatives of the "failure of the vital impulse." (pp. 140-41)
It is for this reason that Miss Lehmann's major novels are Dusty Answer and Invitation to the Waltz, the two primarily concerned with childhood and adolescence, and The Ballad and the Source, in which adolescence is the mirror of the adult world. In these three Miss Lehmann reveals not only the "vital impulse," but the source of her own creative center, which is her extraordinary ability to recreate the visionary world of childhood and youth. The major characters of these novels are alive, vital, unforgettable—in every way superior creations. Dusty Answer … must be labeled a qualified success because of its failure in the last portion; but the other two are first-rate works of the imagination in which technique and substance blend into a superb unity. (p. 141)
Perhaps the conflict between generations ["imaginatively treated," according to this reviewer] would be better termed a conflict between generations of women. In none of the novels does the father of the family make more than a brief appearance, and in every case he is older than the mother, scholarly in tastes, and tolerant toward human frailties. In Invitation to the Waltz and in The Weather in the Streets, he is ill; in The Echoing Grove, he dies after a long illness; in The Ballad and the Source, he "set[s] out without complaint upon his slow heart-rending journey into the shadows"…. The conclusion is inescapable that the same man posed for all the fathers and that he is probably Rudolph Lehmann. Autobiographical implications aside, the similarity of the fathers and their shadowy presences in the family groups illustrate the most salient of Miss Lehmann's limitations as a novelist—her inability to create a fully realized male character.
In four of the novels—Dusty Answer, A Note in Music, Invitation to the Waltz and The Ballad and the Source—her inability to penetrate the male mind is not a serious disadvantage because the nature of her material does not demand a major male character. But in the two novels which center on the relationships between men and women in "the love game," the limitation is fatal. Miss Lehmann attempts to evade the problem in The Weather in the Streets by confining her characterization of Rollo to an outside view; he is seen through Olivia's memory of him, and with Olivia in scenes described in the third person. But never for a moment does one have any idea of what he is thinking. If Miss Lehmann's point of view in the novel were always that of Olivia, this would not be so important; but occasionally she utilizes the points of view of two minor characters, Kate and Mrs. Curtis. The result is a novel in which some of the minor characters, including Lady Spencer, are more vivid than one of the two major characters.
In The Echoing Grove, on the other hand, Miss Lehmann, bravely facing her problem, utilizes an internal approach to the male of her triangle and gives him as much attention, if not more, than she does the two women involved. The end of the love affair, in the "Morning" section, is told mostly from Rickie's point of view; but unfortunately Rickie is little more than the stereotyped weak, vacillating, inadequate man. When, in the "Midnight" section, Miss Lehmann unexpectedly attempts to give Rickie stature, thereby destroying his validity even as a type, Rickie as a character is dead. And so is the novel. (pp. 143-44)
Rosamond Lehmann's world is a feminine world, whether the "she" be a child of ten listening intently to stories of a life she has yet to know, or an aristocratic dowager defending her rigid standards of conduct against the assault of her son's mistress. She is usually of the upper middle class, but she may be of the aristocracy, or she may be a prostitute. Whoever she is, Rosamond Lehmann knows the secrets of her heart as few novelists can.
Much has been said about the limitations of Miss Lehmann's art; but, in the final analysis, it is fairer to judge her not by what she fails to do, but by what she succeeds in doing. Equipped with an understanding of family life and of social classes, and gifted with a beautiful prose style and an extraordinary insight into the thought processes of children and women, she has created out of her vision six novels, every one of which attests to the mark of the superior craftsman, and two of which lie close to that faint line which separates the near-great from the great novel. If she is not a Bach of the novel, she most assuredly is a Chopin. (p. 144)
Diana E. LeStourgeon, in her Rosamond Lehmann (copyright 1965 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1965.
The recent interest in women's fiction, studies, and points of view has revived many literary reputations from Mrs. Gaskell to Anaïs Nin, but has, so far, apparently neglected Rosamond Lehmann. Twenty-five or thirty years ago, however, Miss Lehmann was frequently discussed as fully the equal of Elizabeth Bowen and almost the equal of Virginia Woolf, all three drawn together under the heading of "feminine," a term that did not seem so condescending then as it does now, that connoted the delicate, the perceptive, the working of insight in a smaller area often missed by the blunter, clumsier, "masculine" sensibility. The 1945 American publishers of The Ballad and the Source, Miss Lehmann's best-known novel, trumpeted this "feminine" fiction with a lemon-pistachio cover and raspberry letters. Part of the reason for the current neglect of Miss Lehmann's work is clearly her silence. After publishing four novels in the first decade of her career (1927 through 1936), she has published only two novels, five short stories, one play, and a slim volume of "fragments of an inner life" since 1936—and no fiction at all in the last twenty years. But I have assumed there must be other reasons as well, attitudes expressed within the fiction, perhaps not unlike those attitudes contained in Doris Lessing's recent The Summer Before the Dark that caused so many of the reviewers to complain because Lessing had not provided some blazingly affirmative new role for her forty-five-year-old heroine. Another reason, more valid critically, might be flaws in Miss Lehmann's work not so easily visible a generation ago. (p. 203)
From her third novel on, from Invitation to the Waltz (1932)—a brilliantly compressed novel that presents only two days, her seventeenth birthday and her first dance, in the heroine's vibrant search for experience, much like a less thematically underlined version of some of Katherine Mansfield's stories—Miss Lehmann's central character is always placed within a family, has relationships to react against as well as those to establish. The point of view is invariably that of the second daughter, attracted to and in rebellion from her fair, devoted, more conventional, and complacent older sister. They have a kind, intelligent, remote father, an old upper-middle class professional who gradually weakens and dies over a period of about ten years; a competent and managing mother, secure socially, who attempts to hold the family in place; and one or two (depending on the novel) younger siblings, the youngest the only boy whom everyone worships. The family structure is a locus of settled time, place, relationships, and emotion from which the heroine must break in order to find herself. The search for identity and love is not, however, confined to the adolescent, for, in the later novels, like The Echoing Grove (1953), the second daughter becomes the mistress and the older daughter the wife in a novel about the strains of a man in love with each of two sisters. Miss Lehmann's second novel, A Note in Music (1930), avoids the centrality of the family unit, but the point of view is still that of the woman committed to something that restricts her. (p. 204)
Miss Lehmann's heroines are all initially protected members of the upper-middle class and invariably confront representatives from other classes as they break away…. [At] each moment, the sense of possible vitality in a relationship is undercut by an awareness of class distinctions. Each person, underneath, is lonely and defeated; each longs for a connection and is sensitive to just those exterior elements of speech, behavior, and attitude that make connection most difficult. (p. 205)
All Miss Lehmann's heroines have a sense of history that is both personal and general and are part of a past they are struggling to repudiate or recapture, sometimes both simultaneously as in The Weather in the Streets. A Note in Music takes its title from a quotation by Walter Savage Landor: "But the present, like a note in music, is nothing but as it appertains to what is past and what is to come." Throughout that novel, the characters try to seize the "moment," to crystallize an identity out of the flux of experience, a process like that sometimes achieved by characters in Virginia Woolf's novels, but, in Miss Lehmann's fiction, the "moment," the unique present, never appears or is illusory or immediately dissolves. Historical flux dominates…. The Ballad and the Source links the personal history of one family to the more general decline of the English upper classes in the first twenty years of this century, providing the adolescents of 1920 with "reminiscent conversations" so that "their identity, to themselves so dubious, so cloudy, becomes clarified."
The extensions of the sensitive self into society and history give density and meaning to the fiction, but they give no permanence or consolation to the characters. A hard sense of the inconsolability of human experience dominates the fiction: all emotions change, no love is fully matched or requited, all human beings die…. All the novels bring the characters to the recognition that death is the "dusty answer"—an answer that is both unsatisfactory and inescapable—to the human search that is "hot for certainties," to refer to the quotation from Meredith that reverberates throughout Miss Lehmann's work. Invariably, human sexuality is the principal means for an attempt to impose the self upon experience, to create an intense connection that can assuage the inevitable forces of time, history, death. And the sexual impulses described are sometimes, in a muted and secondary way, homosexual, particularly in Dusty Answer, The Weather in the Streets, and The Echoing Grove, for the sense of sexual connection, of expressing the self in close relationship, is more important than the nature of the relationship's object. Sex is primarily a release of self, not a search for an appropriate or particular kind of other. In all the novels, the sexual connections are transitory, defeated, the heroines left alone at the end with the recognition that they have nothing beyond themselves. In The Echoing Grove, in which two sisters have loved the same man, now dead, and in which the ending suggests that, for the mistress, her sister has always been more central, more loved, and more the adversary than has the man, the collapse of the affair is summarized with a line from Blake: "Go love without the help of anything on earth." Reviewers and critics have sometimes mentioned the disillusionment as a principal limitation of Miss Lehmann's fiction. Yet it is only a limitation from a perspective that asserts a human capacity to triumph over or in spite of time and death. And the simultaneously sharp and sympathetic refusal to console is also the "limitation" implicit in Housman's poems, in Chekhov's plays and stories, and in Arnold Bennett's serious fiction.
Reviewers of Miss Lehmann's fiction when it came out pasted the judgment of "feminine" as another "limitation," described her work as "sensitive," as seeing things always from a woman's point of view and unable to depict men convincingly. As a fact, although not as a charge, the designation of a "feminine" perspective is accurate. In Dusty Answer, at the end, the heroine deplores the Cambridge atmosphere that "disliked and distrusted her and all other females." The heroines, too, are always conscious of their femininity, aware of how they look, how their clothes both enhance and characterize them (the use of clothes is particularly well done in Invitation to the Waltz), how others respond to them. And, at times, for example in The Weather in the Streets, heroines instruct themselves on how to be the appropriate mistress to a married man, somewhat in the manner of Helen Gurley Brown's Cosmopolitan, although Miss Lehmann's characters are always far more sensitive to the emotional strains and ambivalences involved in acting out such a code. But this kind of "feminine" perspective is only a "limitation" from a point of view that regards world currency exchange or international religious movements as vastly more significant than personal relations or love, that adheres to a hierarchy of occupational values. In addition, I find the characterizations of Miss Lehmann's men most convincing and effective. Particularly in The Weather in the Streets and The Echoing Grove, the men at the apex of adulterous triangles, each caught between two women (both of whom he loves), are presented with an insight that can shatter the male ego. In Miss Lehmann's world, the men, only apparently "passive" and invariably reacting to difficult situations with superficial calm, can love more spontaneously or with more equanimity than the women can, but they also love more irresponsibly and are less sensitive to the emotional obligations love entails. They sacrifice both a sense of history and of consistency to keeping their cool. Miss Lehmann makes no moral judgments on the sexual roles. Rather, with considerable density of detail, with intelligence and a refusal to settle for easy slogans, she develops the implications of some of the differences between men and women in love.
Critics have always praised Miss Lehmann's prose, its clarity, its finish, its sensitivity, its "beauty," sometimes as a kind of minor compensation for the major limitations of her femininity and her disillusionment…. And the prose is invariably sharp and sensitive, an instrument that formulates as much of human impulse, chaos, and effort as, in Miss Lehmann's terms, one can. Like the love affair that, in one novel, is the temporary refuge from the "rain, wind, fog" of London winters, protection from the "weather" in the streets, the prose, never merely decorative, is the protection of the human perspective, the impermanent hedge against death. But there is also sometimes another note in the prose that I find less easy to accommodate as the instrument of a sensitive, lucid, and unconsoling human formulation. This is a kind of rhapsodic prose, an occasional flight into the mysteries of organic nature…. These interludes seem almost animistic, sensitive to spirits permeating the natural world, closer in ways to the prose of John Cowper Powys than to that of Katherine Mansfield. This rhapsodic prose is most apparent and given most room in The Ballad and the Source, the novel in which the attempt to discover the "source," the beginning of the mysteries that influence three generations, "the fount of life," is most conscious and articulate. The central figure of the novel, Mrs. Jardine, is seen as "savage," "unearthly," an "enchantress" of considerable charm or an "Enchantress Queen in an antique ballad of revenge."… [It] lacks, for me, the immediacy of the other novels, dissipates its force in long confessionals and melodramatic revelations. Animistic prose has its drawbacks and it does not, at least for Miss Lehmann, seem integrated well into the form of the novel. In fact, as apparent in The Swan in the Evening (1967), more recent experience has caused Miss Lehmann to focus more and more on the animistic and the mystical, and she has not written fiction at all. One kind of personal experience, most often that which refuses consolation, is transmuted into fiction; another kind of personal experience, less publicly communicable, more mysterious and more recondite, is transmuted into "fragments of an inner life." Yet hints of the mystical, bits of the animistic, are occasionally visible in all her prose.
The fact that implications that can be derived from her different kinds of prose are not fully integrated into a single kind of fiction might be one reason that Miss Lehmann's work has been so unjustly neglected. More probably, however, the reasons are less valid critically. Rosamond Lehmann is neither strident nor teachable; her work cannot easily be either extrapolated into a simplified and positive perspective, a message, or analyzed meaningfully in terms of an imagistic pattern or structure that yields what was not visible before. Unlike the novelists with whom she was most frequently compared, Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann does not expand or reveal under the stress of rigorous analysis. Virginia Woolf, in her fiction, attempted to define identity, to say "there she was," in terms that dealt simultaneously with both individuals and a generalized essence of humanity. Although Miss Lehmann enthusiastically admired Woolf's fiction …, she never strives for that kind of metaphysical coherence, never organizes a novel around reaching a lighthouse. Elizabeth Bowen's fiction, particularly her best-known work of the thirties and forties, carefully shapes and structures the moral dimensions of the characters she creates, has heroines, monsters, and various stages in between. Miss Lehmann's fiction relentlessly refuses to judge. Metaphysically and morally, although not stylistically, her novels are closer to those of Arnold Bennett than to those of either Virginia Woolf or Elizabeth Bowen. (pp. 205-10)
I [have] found myself drawn to the more sprawling "adult" novels, to A Note in Music, The Weather in the Streets, and The Echoing Grove, novels of greater subtlety, complexity, and density of experience…. The country pubs and hotels in England in the thirties show every physical and social timber in The Weather in the Streets; what it was like for a woman to live with two growing children in the country during World War II is conveyed with thorough brilliance in long short stories such as "A Dream of Winter" and "Wonderful Holidays"; an older English family, in its reticences, its follies, and its braveries, is seen, without sentimentality or nostalgia, in "The Red-Haired Miss Daintreys." Miss Lehmann's images are often strikingly suggestive descriptions. In one story set during the cold winter of 1939–40, the winter of the "phony" war, "The war sprawled everywhere inert: like a child too big to get born it would die in the womb and be shovelled underground, disgracefully, as monsters are, and after a while, with returning health and a change of scene, we would forget that we conceived it." Less definably historical or geographical experience is also presented: the sense of begrudged time all around in the man divided between a wife and a mistress, the defenses that preserve a marriage, and the sisters who can reconcile by betraying the dead man they both wanted in The Echoing Grove. All of these, admittedly, are simply atoms of experience, not a pattern to explain, judge, or transform that experience. Yet the atoms are interesting and alive, and they radiate, with a sense of total honesty, an intelligent woman's version of her time and place. (pp. 210-11)
James Gindin, "Rosamond Lehmann: A Revaluation," in Contemporary Literature (© 1974 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 15, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 203-11.