Rosamond Lehmann Analysis
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,...
(The entire section is 3,350 words.)