Yes, it was going to happen eventually: sooner or later, I was bound to bring up Rosamond Lehmann. The irony of it is that the first book of hers I’m going to discuss is the one I like the least. Some critics argue that it is her masterpiece, while others confer that title on her earlier novel, The Ballad and the Source (for several reasons, I happen to agree with the latter category). Whatever one’s opinion, however, it cannot be denied that The Echoing Grove is a highly accomplished work.
I first read The Echoing Grove in 2006, when I was doing my Masters on Rosamond Lehmann. I ploughed through it and then consigned it to the shelf with a profound feeling of relief. It is only now, as I unexpectedly find myself preparing a paper on it, that I have found the courage to open it once more. Reading it with a greater understanding of Lehmann and of her work, I found it more interesting than the first time around, but my relief at finally reaching the last page was unchanged. It is not an easy book to read.
The Echoing Grove tells the story of two sisters, Madeleine and Dinah. The elder, Madeleine, has led a conventional life of marriage, motherhood, and London social engagements. Dinah, on the other hand, fled her upper middle-class upbringing in her early twenties and for many years led a chaotic bohemian existence in the East End, eventually marrying a Cockney Communist who was killed fighting alongside the Revolutionaries in Spain. Mutual lack of understanding and disapprobation cooled the sisters’ relationship, and then, in the 1930s, Dinah fell in love and had an affair with Madeleine’s husband, Rickie. Madeleine’s discovery of the affair, and the subsequent crisis, drastically changed the lives of all three. Now, almost two decades later, both widows and middle-aged, the estranged sisters are brought together again by their mother’s death, and must face – and move beyond – the burden of their past.
If the novel is difficult to read, it is in part because of its complex chronology. It starts at the end, with Madeleine and Dinah meeting a few weeks after their mother’s funeral. As they exchange awkward civilities and later, as they settle in for the night, each is acutely conscious of the other’s presence in the room next door, and memories come thronging back. Memories of the early years of Rickie and Madeleine’s marriage, memories of Rickie and Dinah’s affair, memories of the birth of Dinah’s still-born child in the midst of a snowstorm in Cornwall, and of her attempted suicide, memories of quarrels, of agonizing over what choice to make, of temporary reconciliations and secret rendezvous. Memories of the Blitz, and Rickie’s death, and of subsequent lovers. Memories within memories, till the reader no longer knows whose memories they are, or who exactly is telling the story. Events are recalled in disorder, giving the impression that the chronological framework of the story has collapsed, melding together past, present, and future, and leaving the reader completely baffled.
This loss of chronological bearings reflects the characters’ loss of moral bearings – of any bearings whatsoever. Conventional time cannot exist because nothing exists for Rickie, Madeleine and Dinah outside the affair. Everything and everybody else becomes enmeshed in the trio’s sufferings. And a trap is precisely what the affair becomes, a trap none of the protagonists can chew their way out of. Rickie’s unconscious habit of pacing up and down like a caged animal is symptomatic of the situation. Guilt, resentment, and pain pervade the narrative, creating an atmosphere of such emotional intensity that it becomes suffocating. From this point of view, The Echoing Grove is very similar to The Golden Bowl, by Henry James: the same themes of marriage and adultery are examined, giving rise to the same feeling of claustrophobia. There is no relief either for the characters or for the reader, for the inner conflict is never resolved – years later, long after he has lost sight of Dinah, Rickie is still haunted, by the failure of his marriage, and by the fact that he never got to say goodbye to Dinah properly. The Blitz of London becomes a metaphor for the anguish of the characters: the fires caused by the falling bombs, the rubble and the ashes in the streets are external signs of an inner hell.
The emotional destruction caused by Dinah and Rickie’s affair is mirrored in Lehmann’s style, especially in her use of dialogue. As communication breaks down between the protagonists, they become increasingly incapable of expressing themselves coherently. They start a sentence, only to stumble, to stutter, to start over and finally to fall silent. In the end, in impotent rage, they turn their backs on each other. Ten years later, lying in bed with another woman, all Rickie is capable of talking about is Dinah: obsessively, he goes over and over their last interview, rehashing everything they said, trying in retrospect to find new meaning – or any meaning – in the few words Dinah spoke. The irony of it is that, while seeking to understand the past, he completely fails to realize that the woman beside him is trying to tell him she loves him. The Echoing Grove is filled with the taste of failure. Even the reconciliation of the two sisters is insufficient to remove that taste from the reader’s mouth.
© Florence Berlioz 2011