The great theme of Rosamond Lehmann’s fiction is the evanescent quality of love in a world where love is the only thing worth having. This emphasis on love and on female characters has sometimes caused her to be considered a “women’s novelist,” an evaluation that would have surprised her audience early in her career. To many of her contemporaries in the 1920’s, Lehmann was part of the vanguard, a peer of Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, and May Sinclair, writers who chose female characters as the voices of a new fictional style that these women, along with James Joyce and others, were creating. This style is generally called “stream of consciousness,” although the term is somewhat imprecise: Lehmann’s style requires neither the intense, allusive language of Joyce nor the changing viewpoints of Woolf. Lehmann learned from her contemporaries to stay within the mind of one character and to show the sensibilities and sensitivities of that character.
Lehmann’s first novel, Dusty Answer, is a fine achievement as a novel of consciousness, especially of the special consciousness of adolescence. The novelist stays within the mind of the young Judith Earle as she grows into early adulthood. Like other popular novels of the 1920’s (Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat, 1924, is a good example), the novel traces the character’s development by her relationship with a person or group of people whom the central character views as somehow enchanted. That the enchanted ones are also destructive constitutes the fascination and also the growth experience for the central character.
Judith grows up in a wealthy home, in an isolation that creates her bookishness and romantic turn of mind. Her loneliness is broken occasionally by a family of five cousins who visit next door; Judith sees them as a closed unit, incredibly mysterious and desirable. Her fascination with them continues even when she goes off to Cambridge University (Lehmann herself was at Girton College, Cambridge) and meets a fellow undergraduate, Jennifer Baird, to whom she is also drawn. The novel traces Judith’s intense friendship with Jennifer and with each of the cousins. As the book ends, she has been separated from all of them by the differing courses of their maturity. She believes that enchantment is gone from the world and that she must now live in the cold light of reality.
Dusty Answer had an immediate and intense popularity. For some readers, it powerfully evoked their university days, and in this regard the book bears comparison with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), which is set at Oxford in the same time period, the early 1920’s. A reader desiring a portrait of those days could do no better than to read these two novels. A second reason for the novel’s popularity is its relative frankness with regard to sexual attitudes; Lehmann shows her heroine eager to “give herself” to the man she loves. Homoerotic relationships also abound. Although there are no explicit sexual scenes, the novel was considered shocking by many critics. Some of her contemporaries thought that Dusty Answer was a flash in the pan that would both begin and end Lehmann’s career. On the contrary, as she continued to write, maturity deepened her powers of observation.
Invitation to the Waltz
Lehmann’s third novel, Invitation to the Waltz, shows her mastery of atmosphere in a novel. The main character is Olivia Curtis, an adolescent on the verge of adulthood, and it is primarily through her that Lehmann conveys a wonderful atmosphere of expectation and anticipation. The story opens on the morning of Olivia’s seventeenth birthday. Her upper-middle-class home in the snug village of Little Compton is carefully described. A gentle air of mystery, however, is developed: “Something is going on. The kettle’s boiling, the cloth is spread, the windows are flung open. Come in, come in! Here dwells the familiar mystery. Come and find it! Each room is active, fecund, brimming over with it.” The invitation to the reader is explicit: Enter this novel, this home, to watch the dance of life. What one finds is both common and marvelous—common in the easy familiarity and give-and-take of family life and marvelous in the recurring mystery of girl growing to young woman. That Lehmann can have it both ways, in both its common and its marvelous aspects, testifies to her growth as a novelist.
An invitation necessarily inculcates expectation. At the opening of the novel, the invitation to the Spencers’ dance, one week hence, has already been extended. Even as she lies in bed, reveling in its delicious warmth and in the slow, pleasant moments before the hectic day must begin in earnest, Olivia anticipates the dance. Indeed, thoughts about the dance subsume Olivia’s anticipation of a more immediate event, breakfast with the family—the presents to be opened and the good wishes to be received. That the prized gift of the day turns out to be some flame-colored fabric for a new dress to wear to the Spencers’ dance indicates something of Lehmann’s skill in developing a sense of expectation in ever expanding circles of anticipation. Mundane events of plot resonate with increasingly meaningful, open-ended implications, all circumferences being blurred in the subjective consciousness, the magical visionary world, of an innocent, naïve, alert, and sensitive seventeen-year-old.
After the early-morning anticipation of the birthday breakfast, the plot points to the big dance, a week away. The dress is to be readied. An escort is to be speculated on. On the night itself, Olivia and her sister Kate are to prepare themselves carefully—with long baths and manicures and attentive dressing of hair. Kate, the older sister who is at once rival and best friend, does much better in the business of appearance than Olivia. After she has turned Olivia’s dress around and suggested how to fashion her hair, she and Olivia are finally ready for the dance. Part 2 of the novel explains the day’s preparations for the dance, while part 3 focuses on the dance itself. Thus, the structure of the novel supports the atmosphere of anticipation.
If this were all there were to it, however, part 3 of the novel would be something of a disappointment to the reader, as it surely seems to be at times for Olivia. Reggie Kershaw, the man Olivia and Kate have invited to escort them, first asks Marigold Spencer for a dance. Olivia’s dance program gradually fills, but her predominant emotion is gratitude that she will not be humiliated by being a wallflower rather than excitement over the young men with whom she will be dancing. She feels clumsy and awkward when she finally dances with Reggie; she feels intellectually inferior and unstylish with Peter Jenkin; she feels very much out of her social class with George; she feels crude and unsophisticated with Podge; and so the evening goes. She feels surprise, shock, pity, sorrow, resentment, and even repulsion at her various partners through the evening. Yet there are minor triumphs, too.
When dashing Rollo Spencer returns from walking the dogs, he invites her into his father’s library, where Olivia meets Sir John Spencer himself. As Olivia leaves the library, she is overwhelmed with good feeling and a sense of accomplishment: Far “from being outcast, flung beyond the furthest rim, she had penetrated suddenly to the innermost core of the house, to be in their home.” At the end of the evening, sitting in the armchair, waiting for the last dancers to finish and for Kate and Reggie to appear, she reflects on the evening: “Nothing for myself really,” yet “to have come to the place of not caring was very soothing, very peaceful.” She anticipates “with longingher dark bedroom, her bed waiting for her at home.”
The power of the novel lies in the wider implications of Olivia’s anticipations, for the events of the story are only the pretext for the grand anticipation of Olivia’s life, the fulfillment of which the reader is left to imagine. Early in the novel, Olivia had looked at herself in the mirror, wondering if this...
(The entire section is 3350 words.)