Rosamond Lehmann wrote her first novel in 1926 to distract herself from a failing marriage. It was a complete surprise to her when the novel became an overnight success. As sales climbed, a bevy of conservative critics excoriated the novel for its frank discussion of love, which simultaneously inspired dozens of fans to send propositions to Lehmann through the mail; one Frenchman enclosed a 200,000-word sequel and urged her to run away with him, promising that he would teach her the ways of love. Even before she wrote the novel, Lehmann was a known figure—the beautiful, wealthy Cambridge graduate who married a Viscount. With the publication of Dusty Answer, she added literary fame to her list of accomplishments. All she lacked, in the midst of this abundance, was happiness. The pattern would continue all her life.
Lehmann was born in 1901 in Buckinghamshire. Her father was a journalist and member of Parliament, and his four children grew up in a demandingly intellectual household. Lehmann planned from the first to be a writer, and her studies at Cambridge confirmed this ambition. Her first marriage, however, to Viscount Leslie Runciman, marked the end of her carefree years. They divorced in 1928, after five years of wrangling in the dreary industrial city of Newcastle. That same year, still enduring the unwelcome notoriety of Dusty Answer, Lehmann married Wogan Philipps, the son of a Baron and a committed Communist. With Philipps, for a few years at least, Lehmann regained her happiness. They had two children, Hugo and Sally, and Lehmann wrote several more novels, nearly all of them well-received. Her circle of friends included many of the era’s literary giants: Virginia Woolf, W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood. By the mid 1930s, however, this marriage too started to crumble. Philipps rushed off to Spain in 1936 to aid the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, while Lehmann cared for their children in Oxfordshire. When the Civil War ended Philipps returned from Spain, but by then their marriage existed in name only.
In 1941 Lehmann found a new passion in the form of Cecil Day-Lewis, a married poet. Once again she clung to her reclaimed happiness, working hard to arrange her own divorce and waiting impatiently for Day-Lewis to do the same. Yet when he finally did divorce his wife, in 1951, he then married not Lehmann but a much younger actress named Jill Balcon. Lehmann was devastated by this betrayal. At fifty she had lost her youthful resilience, and though in the succeeding years she wrote what many consider to be her finest novel, The Echoing Grove (1953), she couldn’t regain her confidence. Crushingly, the worst was yet to come: in 1958 her daughter Sally, then twenty-four years old, contracted polio while traveling in Jakarta and died. Her death was a knock-out blow to Lehmann. Frantically she dove into spiritualism, unable to believe that Sally was truly gone. She wrote no fiction for almost twenty years, instead publishing several books documenting the psychic links that she and her daughter had forged. When at last she returned to fiction with her strange final novel, The Sea-Grape Tree (1976), she used it also to promote her belief in the ongoing existence of the dead. Lehmann lived until 1990, but she never recovered from Sally’s death: her chances of happiness disappeared permanently when she received the news from Jakarta.
Given the succession of failures and losses in her life, it may be surprising to learn that reading Lehmann’s fiction is an uplifting experience. Her early novels in particular exhibit insouciant wit and a determination to find enjoyment in life come what may. In Invitation to the Waltz (1932), Olivia Curtis, aged seventeen, eagerly awaits the night of her first grand party. She bubbles over with energy, often teetering on the edge of disaster but always bouncing back with an optimism and wry self-awareness that make her a lovable character. At the ball, navigating the pitfalls of polite society and watching her beautiful, mysterious older sister take the evening by storm, Olivia reveals herself to be an acute observer, able to tease out the emotional significance of the smallest interactions and constantly on the alert for new sources of excitement. Lehmann conveys the ebullience, longing, and delicacy of Olivia’s experience without a single wobble, and this consistency adds to the novel’s success: the book, though brief, perfectly captures the naïve and hopeful exhilaration of an adolescent girl on the cusp of adulthood.
Four years later Lehmann returned to the Curtis family in The Weather in the Streets (1936). Though it is a more complex and ambitious novel, the sequel deepens Olivia’s character at the expense of the previous book’s cheerful atmosphere. More and more Lehmann’s own struggles filtered into her work, and her three mature novels—The Weather in the Streets, The Ballad and the Source (1944), and The Echoing Grove—all offer darker moods and tortuous stories. By the time she wrote The Echoing Grove, her style had crystallized: while the book is technically impressive, it lacks the spontaneity and immersive power of her early works; indeed, its intricate chronology and emotional web sometimes seem artificial.
The truth is that none of Lehmann’s later works match the accomplishment of her first novel. Though unsophisticated at times in its style and characterization, Dusty Answer envelops the reader in a rich and vibrant world. This was the book in which Lehmann inaugurated her unique style, a breathless stream of consciousness that hurtles through vivid scenes and imagery in a lush, emotional narrative. The reader feels the elation and embarrassment of its protagonist, Judith Earle, with gripping immediacy. When the book opens, eighteen-year-old Judith has discovered that the house next to hers is being opened once again for the family of cousins who had enchanted her as a child. Lehmann draws each member of the Fyfe family with extreme care: her attention, following Judith’s so closely that the reader seems to be occupying her mind, trains an obsessive interest on the four young men and pitiful Mariella, who married her own cousin only to lose him in World War I. The book’s opening section is its most entrancing, for Lehmann imbues both the setting and the narrative with the nostalgic, sensuous atmosphere that Judith associates with the Fyfes.
Once the reader has become thoroughly engrossed in the Fyfe ménage, Lehmann shifts abruptly to a women’s college at Cambridge University. The change of scene is as startling to Judith as it is to the reader. Suddenly the Fyfes are no longer central objects of obsession but rather phantoms from another life, reappearing only to remind Judith of past emotions. One of the pleasures of the book comes from the fact that Judith’s stages of growing up are indicated not by explicit announcements but in the way she experiences and responds to her surroundings. In college she develops a new infatuation, this time for someone her own age, a mesmerizing girl named Jennifer who stands out like a beacon amidst the other students. Lehmann’s candid portrayal of a passionate friendship between two women caused a scandal when Dusty Answer was published and contributed to the book’s popularity—yet within the story Judith embarks on the relationship not with fanfare or misgivings but instead with simple enthusiasm: admirably, Lehmann seemed to think there was nothing unusual in two girls falling in love with each other.
Judith initially feels awed by Jennifer and astonished by her own good fortune. By the end of her college years, however, she has matured into a self-assured young woman who realizes, as Jennifer does, that their friendship cannot last. She graduates a saddened but wiser person and returns to her childhood home, prepared to face the Fyfes once more. Now she is able to interact with them not as a dreamy teenager but as a potential romantic partner, and the Fyfe men are intrigued by her transformation. With her hair up and her manners polished, Judith seems to have left adolescence behind—yet beneath her poise she still feels eager and uncertain, full of apprehension and ready to embrace delight. Thus Lehmann shows that our early torrents of emotion—fear, love, joy—do not disappear as we grow older but instead go underground: while adopting adult veneers of composure and wisdom, we secretly feel as anxious and excited as we did in childhood, when there was scarcely a divide between our minds and the outer world.
Lehmann’s enthralling novel escorts the reader through every stage of this transformation, illuminating a universal experience through one individual’s transition into adulthood. Its power comes not only from a young girl’s dreams and aspirations, as in Invitation to the Waltz, but also from a nostalgic wistfulness—a sense of life slipping into the past even as we grab hold of it—that suffuses the narrative. From the very beginning, memory dominates the story. It acts as one of the most potent forces in Judith’s life, a surge of emotion simultaneously pushing her forward and holding her back. Here is the novel’s opening, which introduces this tug-of-war between past and present:
When Judith was eighteen, she saw that the house next door, empty for years, was getting ready again. Gardeners mowed and mowed, and rolled and rolled the tennis-court; and planted tulips and forget-me-nots in the stone urns that bordered the lawn at the river’s edge. The ivy’s long fingers were torn away from the windows, and the solid grey stone front made prim and trim. When the blinds went up and the familiar oval mirror-backs once more stared from the bedroom windows it seemed as if the long time of emptiness had never been, and that the next-door children must still be there with their grandmother,—mysterious and thrilling children who came and went, and were all cousins except two who were brothers, and all boys except one, who was a girl; and who dropped over the peach-tree wall into Judith’s garden with invitations to tea and hide-and-seek.But in truth all was different now. The grandmother had died soon after she heard Charlie was killed. He had been her favourite, her darling one. He had, astoundingly, married the girl Mariella when they were both nineteen, and he just going to the front. He had been killed directly, and some months afterwards Mariella had had a baby.Mariella was twenty-two years old now, Charlie’s widow with a child Charlie had begotten. It seemed fantastic when you looked back and remembered them both. The grandmother had left the house to Mariella, and she was coming back to live there and have a gay time now that the war was well over and Charlie (so you supposed) forgotten.Would Mariella remember Judith next door, and how they used to share a governess and do the same lessons in spite of Mariella’s four years’ seniority? Miss Pim wrote: “Judith is an exceptionally clever child, especially about essays and botany. She laps up knowledge as a kitten laps milk.” The letter had been left on Mamma’s desk: unforgettable, shameful, triumphant day.Mariella, on the other hand—how she used to sit with her clear light eyes blank, and her polite cool little treble saying: “Yes, Miss Pim,” “No, Miss Pim,”—and never be interested and never understand! She wrote like a child of six. She would not progress. And yes, as Miss Pim said, Mariella was by no means what you’d call a stupid girl… By no means a stupid girl: thrilling to Judith. Apart from the thrill which her own queerness gave, she had upon her the reflected glory of the four boy-cousins who came for the holidays,—Julian, Charlie, Martin and Roddy.Now they were all grown up. Would they come back when Mariella came? And would they remember Judith at all, and be glad to see her again? She knew that, anyway, they would not remember so meticulously, so achingly as herself: people never did remember her so hard as she remembered them—their faces especially. In earliest childhood it was plain that nobody else realized the wonder, the portentous mystery of faces. Some patterns were so pure, so clear and lovely you could go on looking at them forever. Charlie’s and Mariella’s were like that. It was odd that the same bits of face shaped and arranged a little differently gave such deplorable results. Julian was the ugly one. And sometimes the ugliest faces did things that were suddenly lovely. Julian’s did. You dared not take eyes off a stranger’s face for fear of missing a change in it.“My dear! How your funny little girl stares. She makes me quite uncomfortable.”“Don’t worry, my dear. She doesn’t even see you. Always in the clouds.”The stupids went on stupidly chattering. They little knew about faces. They little knew what a fearful thing could happen to a familiar face—Miss Pim’s, for instance—surprised off its guard and broken up utterly into grossness, withered into hatred or cunning; or what a mystery it was to see a face day after day and find it always strange and surprising. Roddy’s was that sort, though at first it had seemed quite dull and flat. It had some secret in it.At night in bed she invented faces, putting the pieces together till suddenly there they were!—quite clear. They had names and vague sorts of bodies and lived independent lives inside her head. Often they turned out to have a likeness to Roddy. The truth was, Judith thought now, Roddy’s was a dream rather than a real face. She felt she had never seen it as it actually was, but always with that overstressed significance, that haunting quality of curiousness which a face in a dream bears.
With this beginning Lehmann opens a gateway into an all-consuming world. When, as often happens, the narrative switches into the second person, the shift seems entirely natural. Alongside Judith, the reader experiences every shock, every triumph, every despair, so that by the end of the novel one feels with as much intensity as Judith or Lehmann herself the bittersweet lure of vanished happiness.