Dusty Answer, the 1927 debut of the author Rosamond Lehmann (1901-1990), was lauded as “quite the most striking first novel of this generation” in a review by the writer Alfred Noyes. She was possibly the most striking novelist of her generation, as well. As moderator and Publisher of Virago Lennie Goodings introduced her at this June 7, 2011 event, “She was a beauty when that was a career.” Lehmann’s publisher and friend Carmen Callil, biographer Selina Hastings, and fan and author Jonathan Coe gathered for a spirited discussion of her life, work, and lasting appeal. The talk was part of a series on the presidents of English PEN; Lehmann was president from 1961-1966.
Selina Hastings gave a sense of Lehmann’s early life in rural Buckinghamshire as the privileged daughter of a journalist who contributed to Punch and served as a liberal MP. A sister, Beatrix, became an actress and her brother John a writer and literary editor. Lehmann, gifted with beauty, intelligence, talent, prosperity, and charm, read English literature at Girton and then hastily married the scion of a ship-owning family who dragged her to Newcastle. Her husband was determined not to have children and pressed her to get an illegal abortion in London, an experience Lehmann gave to Olivia Curtis, a character in very different circumstances, in her 1936 novel The Weather in the Streets. The marriage ended in 1927, the same year she published Dusty Answer, a which introduces the classic Lehmann themes of love betrayed, romantic expectations disappointed, and being on the outside looking in; some see her heroines as fatally passive, doomed to humiliation at the hands of callous lovers. Lehmann had been advised to submit the novel to Harold Raymond at Chatto & Windus by “Dadie” Rylands, a Cambridge friend of her husband.
Dusty Answer was slow to get reviewed until Noyes praised it, writing that it was the kind of novel Keats might have written if he had been a young novelist of the 1920s. Lehmann wrote of the attention, “All the reviews and publicity made me feel as if I’d exposed myself nude on the platform of Albert Hall.” Not all of it was positive; some of the characters are coded as gay and lesbian, offending one letter-writer who described herself as the mother of six and wrote, “Before consigning your book to the flames, [I] would wish to inform you of my disgust that anyone should pen such filth, especially a MISS.” The novel was a 1927 Book-of-the-Month selection in the US and sold so well that Lehmann wondered if she would remembered, if at all, as the author of Dusty Answer.
The end of Lehmann’s unhappy marriage had been hastened by her attraction to Wogan Phillips, an aspiring artist and baron’s son she married in 1928. “Roz & Wog,” as they became known, moved to Ipsden House in Oxfordshire and mingled with Bloomsbury luminaries such as Lytton Strachey, Vanessa and Clive Bell, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf, although Lehmann was unsure how to respond to the older woman’s combination of teasing and flattery.
Although they had two children, the marriage didn’t flourish. Wogan became very political – his father disinherited him for being Communist-and Lehmann was never a political animal. She once said, “My head, what there is of it, is with the Left, my heart is entirely with the people I love, my tastes, traditions, etc. etc. are with the centre-leaning-to Right.” Lehmann was not entirely uninterested in politics, but what moved her was human predicaments. She joined PEN in 1942 to defend authors’ rights both at home and abroad and enjoyed the social side of committee work as a change from the solitary writing life, although she did comment that it was not without tedious internal squabbles.
During visits to Elizabeth Bowen’s house in 1936, Lehmann met not just one but her next two lovers. She fell immediately into an affair with the Welsh writer Goronwy Rees (“that seductive semi-cad,” she later called him) that only ended when she read about his engagement in the newspaper. In 1944, she divorced Wogan, who later married the first wife of Selina Hastings’s father. From 1941 to 1950, Lehmann had so intense an affair with the poet Cecil Day-Lewis that he called it his “double marriage”-they lived and vacationed together, and she was determined to marry him. Although he failed to leave his wife for her, he left them both in 1950 for the much-younger actress Jill Balcon. Lehmann’s bitterness at this desertion inflected her powerful 1953 novel The Echoing Grove, which recounts the reunion of two sisters after the death of a man who was husband to one and lover to the other.
From 1927 to 1936, Lehmann’s most productive period, she published three novels besides Dusty Answer: A Note in Music in 1930 and the two Olivia Curtis novels, Invitation to the Waltz (1932), the impressionistic account of a teenager’s first ball, and The Weather in the Streets, which picks up Olivia’s story ten years later when, separated from her husband and eking out a life in London, she has an affair with the married, aristocratic brother of a childhood friend. She wrote a play in 1938, No More Music, but her writing then slowed; in the remaining fifty years of her life, she published one collection, The Gypsy’s Baby and Other Stories (1946), an autobiographical work, The Swan in the Evening (1967), and three more novels, The Ballad and the Source (1944) and The Echoing Grove, both of which got positive reviews-especially the latter-and A Sea-Grape Tree (1976), which did not. The latter reflected a turn to spiritualism that had accelerated after the tragic death of her newlywed daughter Sally, whom she called “the one flawless joy of my life.” This interest, disdained by her friends, has detracted from her reputation.
Carmen Callil then spoke of knowing Lehmann for the last ten years of her life. In her opinion, The Weather in the Streets is Lehmann’s best novel, a bible for the women Callil knew in the 1960s even though it was impossible to find; if asked, publishers would claim it was too dated, too class-ridden, but although we live in a different world, the novel has a unique sense of the sensibilities of women and of the human heart. When Callil started Virago, she wasn’t able to publish Lehmann right away because she couldn’t get the rights. At the time, being a feminist was like having a bell jar over one’s head, and in some ways, Callil thinks, it’s still like that today. Interestingly, the main character of The Weather in the Streets, is no feminist; Olivia scoffs, “How I loathe women who…insist on the chivalry and yet hoot about sex-equality.” William Collins, Lehmann’s publishers since 1936, had the rights to her novels other than Dusty Answer and The Echoing Grove, which Penguin supposedly published in paperback but did not distribute well. William Collins refused to give Virago the rights, claiming that they, or Penguin, were going to publish the novels in paperback. Then, luckily, Christopher MacLehose-a friend of Callil’s-moved to Collins and allowed Virago to republish Lehmann’s work.
Callil met Lehmann in May 1980, and Virago republished Invitation to the Waltz and The Weather in the Streets in June 1981, 30 years ago almost to the day. By October 1982, all her novels were back in the shops; they sold well, and Lehmann was famous again. The BBC produced radio dramatizations of The Echoing Grove as well as television versions of Invitation to the Waltz and The Weather in the Streets (neither of which, Callil warns, are any good). Lehmann was happy at this renewed fame, calling it her “reincarnation.”
Her last three books evinced the spiritualism she embraced in her later years as an active member of Kensington’s College of Psychic Studies. While this interest of Lehmann’s has been considered absurd by critics and friends, to Callil, who was raised Catholic, it seemed calm. With The Ballad and the Source, The Swan in the Evening, and A Sea-Grape Tree, Lehmann longed for people to understand that she hadn’t gone mad, that she was still serious. To Callil, this was a foolish hope; the reason her writing couldn’t go on after she became involved in spiritualism was that the language of psychic research is ludicrous. She was sneered at but, in a 1988 letter, proclaimed The Swan in the Evening and A Sea-Grape Tree her most important works. Callil noted how mistaken she was, as those books lack the precision and lyric beauty of language evident in her other works.
Callil, unlike Hastings, believes that Lehmann’s romantic entanglements were contrived-“she had to have a miserable love life because otherwise she couldn’t write.” She recollected the joy, excitement, and laughter that marked their frequent meetings at Lehmann’s home in Clareville Grove, Kensington. Both of them hated housework so dined on meals from Marks & Spencer, discussing topics like Lehmann’s admiration for Margaret Thatcher. The novelist was pleased when Anita Brookner dedicated her 1983 novel Hotel du Lac to Lehmann, although Callil thinks Lehmann was wrong in thinking Brookner the inheritor of Lehmann’s mantle – while Brookner is a European novelist, Lehmann is extremely English. She had a genius for friendship, sensitivity and understanding, even shading into oversensitivity, that allowed her to capture human experiences as well as she did and in a beautiful and lucid style. It was her thin skin that allowed her to reflect women’s experiences so well they wrote to her in droves, asking, “How did you know? This is my story.”
Jonathan Coe was asked by Lennie Goodings what it’s like to read Lehmann now and how she has influenced his writing. Coe began by noting that the 1970s Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Weather in the Streets misspelled the author’s name as “Rosamund!” Coe noted that he spoke here as a fan, having initially declined because he was no expert. He first read her in the early 1980s as a student at Cambridge, when he came across Virago Modern Classics at Heffer’s bookshop and started to read Dorothy Richardson and May Sinclair alongside the mostly male canonical authors he had to read for his degree. He eventually found his way to Lehmann, beginning a “literary love affair that has lasted for more than two decades.”
As a young writer, he tried to meet her, asking everyone if they knew Rosamond Lehmann. In 1990, he opened the paper to find her obituary and learned that her grandson was Roland Philipps – his editor. The work of Virago authors has influenced him hugely; his 2007 novel The Rain Before it Falls was an hommage to Lehmann, which no reviewer mentioned although he subtly named a major character Rosamond. The Ballad and the Source, his favorite novel of hers, is not typical-Selina Hastings calls it “a thumping melodrama”-but he is fascinated by how Lehmann’s story of three generations of women shows the cumulative destructive effects of betrayal and manipulation. As someone who has always seen life itself as being full of melodrama, Coe said, he finds that this adds to its realism. He bought copies for friends only to be faced with polite silence and realized Lehmann might be a minority taste. He is not sure why, as he feels she has every quality that a great writer should possess: “an extraordinary gift for description, for evoking the tones and textures of the material world; an exceptionally sophisticated approach to structure, progressing from the linear narrative of her first novel, Dusty Answer, to the complex arrangement of embedded narratives in her last major work, The Echoing Grove; and, above all, an astonishing, unembarrassed emotionality that gives a visceral power to her recurring themes – thwarted love, faithlessness, the unbearable sadness of naive romantic feelings being crushed by the passage of time.”
In her day, she was considered an important writer, and she was popular too. The responses of reviewers, as Wendy Pollard has pointed out in her valuable 2004 study Rosamond Lehmann and her Critics, demonstrate prejudices about women’s writing. The Manchester Guardian’s reviewer complained of The Echoing Grove that “so prolonged a voyage in an exclusively emotional and sexual sea afflicts a male reader at least with a sense of surfeit”. The New Yorker complained that the novel was flawed because it attempted to blame women’s troubles on men, when the real problem was something called “destiny”; but “women, especially women writers”, he said, “have no use for destiny; they wouldn’t compose a Hamlet if they could”. Pollard contrasts these criticisms with the reception of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951), a novel similar in many ways to The Echoing Grove, but which was nonetheless taken more seriously – largely, she suspects, because its author was male.
If Rosamond Lehmann’s writing is feminine, Coe noted, that is the essence of her appeal-the possibility of feeling empathy through reading is a good reason for men to read her, along with Austen, Eliot, Richardson (whom Virginia Woolf credited her with inventing “the psychological sentence of the feminine gender”) and for women to read writers like Fielding and-dare he mention it-Roth. For Coe, Lehmann was a door onto an unsuspected world that allowed him to not just understand women better but write about them better, helping him move away from the semi-autobiographical, would-be satirical novels he was writing in university.
Lehmann gave him confidence that the forensic examination of relationships between men and women were not trivial, but the essence of life and literature, and that, as Lehmann wrote in The Swan in the Evening, “the state of not loving was the state of atrocious exile from the human situation.” For Coe, Lehmann legitimised a type of writing that took on deep personal themes like power relationships within families, translated through the distorted lens of memory-writing that, like Lehmann’s, moves the reader deeply.
Coe wondered aloud if the sexual politics of the literary marketplace have changed for the better since the 1980s. Fewer people would dismiss Lehmann as a “women’s writer,” but there are more subtle prejudices at work. Wendy Pollard discusses critical response to Selina Hastings’s 2002 biography of Lehmann, noting how the New Statesman summed up the life and achievement of a great novelist in a three-word headline: “Fat and posh”. Yet Lehmann continues to attract fans, including writer Niall Griffiths-the author of Sheepshagger-who wrote about her “terribly sad” short stories in the Guardian.
To open the florr to questions, Lennie Goodings asked what it meant to call Lehmann an “English writer.” Was it that her writing was not elaborate or decorated but cut to the quick of what matters? Callil added that her writing brought the English countryside to life and represented Englishness to an non-native like herself who, after reading Jane Austen in Australia, was surprised to find Bath small. Lehmann had a great sense of place and wrote evocatively about the north of England.
The next question, for Hastings, was about biographers who discover a theme to how their subject thought of their life-whether they considered themselves lucky, for example-and if that applied to Lehmann. Hastings answered that Lehmann never saw herself as feminist, and her intention was not to provoke, but she had an instinct to be a writer, writing her own story again & again. Her heroines, vulnerable, sensitive, constantly betrayed, repeat a pattern, as does her figure of a romantic hero. She was a writer first, Hastings stressed, rather than an agonized faller-in lover.
Coe added that strong emotion in writing is always interpreted as love, as a woman’s problem. He praised Lehmann’s subjectivity; the emotional life of heroines is so intense, immersive, and richly evoked that male reviewers couldn’t see past that, making it hard to realize what a sophisticated writer she was. Her narrative structures are complicated, playing games with time that disorient the reader, contributing to their feeling lost, albeit pleasurably. Her complex, well-structured and thought-out narratives are almost unprecedented among 20th-century novelists. Goodings added that she agrees – you feel a Lehmann novel. Being critical is problematic; to stand back and talk about them to miss the point, to betray the experience of reading them.
Gillian Tindall, who contributed to Lehmann’s reincarnation by writing a book on her work, Rosamond Lehmann: An Appreciation (1985), commented that she knew Invitation to the Waltz and The Weather in the Streets first and later came to admire The Echoing Grove. In her book, Tindall said she kept off Lehmann’s life as far as she could, although it was not easy. Although they were friends, Tindall was conscious that she could not meet Lehmann on the spiritualist grounds, and Lehmann, not getting the response she wanted, was aware of Tindall’s reserve. Once Tindall tried the idea that humans see life through narrow slots, and much is unknowable, but Lehmann said that was far too intellectual for her. Tindall thinks the elderly novelist did not want to be honest with herself about spiritualism and knew that was fantasy, including the supposed messages from l’au-delà-the Beyond. This dishonesty, Tindall asserted, compromised Lehmann’s own integrity and damaged irreparably her future capacity to write novels. Lehmann’s early novels are remarkable for an excoriating honesty, which vanished after her daughter’s death in 1958. She is a tragic figure who, in trying to comfort herself, lost her writer’s integrity. Callil then checked whether Tindall was a lapsed Catholic (no) and insisted that she was being harsh on Rosamond, who saw spiritualism as a religion and was no different to someone who believes in angels.
Another audience member then asked the panel to speculate on what might have happened if Rosamond Lehmann had continued to write in the sombre vein of her second novel, A Note in Music, which received a chilly reception – having loved Judith, the heroine of Dusty Answer, critics did not appreciate A Note in Music’s middle-aged protagonist. Lehmann was hard-up at the time and returned to the genre of Dusty Answer, although she later thought her first novel mawkish and sentimental. Discussion turned to the Lehmann’s original title for The Echoing Grove–Buried Day, which her publishers would not let her use because it sounded like a reference to her recently-ended relationship with Day-Lewis-and Tindall’s comments on the ineptness of Lehmann’s French translator, whom Lehmann thought highly of.
The final question was about motherhood, miscarriage, and abortion in Lehmann’s work; as Tindall notes in her book, in Lehmann’s work children of passionate relationships fail to live or thrive. Coe commented that in The Ballad and the Source, she writes about motherhood with the same quality of intensity as she does romance in her earlier books; its intensity supplants romantic relationships, making for very disturbing and entangling later works. The Ballad and the Source is about a woman sundered from her daughter through, she thinks, no fault of her own, as she’s followed her heart; everyone around her, however, sees the situation as a consequence of the mother’s emotional fecklessness and egotism.
Hastings added that although Lehmann writes of motherhood as intense, when writing from the adult daughter’s perspective she allows for comic detachment, as in The Weather in the Streets. She had a somewhat distant relationship with her own mother, who was undemonstrative and practical, not loving. She admired her mother but was critical of her, and this worked both ways. Her father was more influential, the panel agreed. He was one of the loves of her life and perhaps the model for the unobtainable man that haunts her body of work-one which, through its intimate examination of human relationships gone wrong, remains powerful and relevant today, as this fascinating discussion proved.
Report by Fran Bigman
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/theswanintheeveningrosamondlehmann/