RLRW Day 1: Rosamond Lehmann, the Eternal Outsider

           Rosamond Lehmann (1901-1990) is probably best remembered for her portrayal of women in love. Of women unhappily in love, more often than not. Dusty Answer, Lehmann’s first novel, sets the tone for all her subsequent works: Judith Earle’s childhood infatuation with golden-haired “Prince” Charlie, the boy next door, remains unrequited, as does her love for his cousin Roddy several years later, while even her intense friendship with her Cambridge classmate, Jennifer, ends in hurt and humiliation. In A Note in Music, the absent-minded kindness of a younger man shakes unhappily-married Grace Fairfax out of her customary lethargy, and for a few brief weeks, the mingled pain and joy Grace experiences in his presence lend life and colour to her dreary existence, until, inevitably, the young man moves on, oblivious to the feelings he has stirred up. In The Weather in the Streets and A Sea-Grape Tree, both Olivia Curtis and Rebecca Landon suffer acutely from their position as mistresses of married men, buoyed up by secret rendez-vous and empty promises, only to be abandoned at the crucial moment. In The Echoing Grove, the themes of adulterous love and betrayal are taken one painful step further, as sisters Madeleine and Dinah are driven apart by Dinah’s affair with Madeleine’s husband. Apart from a few stolen, golden moments, love in Rosamond Lehmann’s novels is synonymous with suffering.

     With loneliness, too: for Lehmann’s heroines always end up alone. Sometimes even in the midst of their happiness they are haunted by loneliness: Olivia Curtis, for example, knows that her affair with Rollo Spencer has put her beyond the pale of acceptable society; Rollo’s fear that they will be seen together, his reluctance to put an end to his unsatisfactory marriage, his long absences, all ostracize Olivia as effectively as if he had pinned a scarlet letter “A” to her bodice. This is brought home to her forcibly when Lady Spencer sweeps into her living-room one day to demand she break off all connection with her son: for Lady Spencer adds insult to injury by telling Olivia she’d known as soon as she’d set eyes on her that Olivia would be the one to drag him into a silly affair – as if she were visibly tainted with the mark of the fallen woman, of the pariah. Olivia’s situation is the most extreme, but all Lehmann’s heroines share this sense of being marginalized, of being outcasts. The final image we are left with, from Dusty Answer to A Sea-Grape Tree, is that of a solitary figure stranded (in the street, on the deck of a ship, in the marital bed) and rolling a taste of ashes around on her tongue – a physical representation of an inner separateness. 

     Lehmann’s writing is fuelled by personal experience. Looking back on her childhood, she described feeling like a stranger in her own life, as if she didn’t truly belong anywhere. Competing with her siblings for her adored father’s attention, she always felt that she lacked some vital quality that would secure her place in his affection. This insecurity persisted in later life, and perhaps serves to explain her attitude towards her friends among the Bloomsbury Group. Many of her contemporaries identified her as a member of that celebrated literary and artistic circle. She certainly spent a great deal of time with the Woolves, the Bells, and their colourful assortment of friends: E. M. Forster, Julia Strachey, Frances Partridge, David “Bunny” Garnett, to name but a few. Her closest neighbour and friend was the painter Dora Carrington, who lived at Ham Spray with Lytton Strachey, only a few miles away. Yet none of the memoirs or studies of Bloomsbury mention her name at all. Despite the similarities critics have noted between their styles, Virginia Woolf spoke disparagingly of her writing. Most importantly, Lehmann herself did not consider herself to be part of Bloomsbury: their heavy drinking, their licentiousness, and many of their discussions made her uncomfortable. Besides, she detested the idea of being labelled, categorized, put in a neatly compartmentalized drawer. She voluntarily distanced herself from her friends and fellow writers in order to stand alone on the literary scene. It is this tendency which constitutes both her strength and her weakness as a writer: it makes her a fascinating figure to study, highly original in her closeness to yet differences from Bloomsbury; and at the same time, it makes it that much more difficult to include her in textbooks, thus perhaps explaining – at least in part – how she has gradually been forgotten.  

© Florence Berlioz 2012

About Miss Darcy's Library

I love books - buying books, reading books, discussing books, and generally admiring them from all angles (except the e-book). I also love tea, roses, and my dogs, and seldom pass up an opportunity to slip them into the conversation.
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14 Responses to RLRW Day 1: Rosamond Lehmann, the Eternal Outsider

  1. I’ve often felt like an outsider in my life so I understand Lehmann’s heroines on one hand – on the other hand, they frustrate me. In the case of Grace Fairfax I can see her ostracizing herself from society, inventing ways that she is different or reasons why she feels apart. I think one of the hardest things to do in life is to connect in a meaningful way with those around us so I can see why loneliness is a theme in Lehmann’s novels. It is very universal. Thanks for RLRW – I’m learning so much!

    • Your comment reminds me of Forster’s famous “Only connect” motto in Howards End! It certainly seems as if Lehmann is telling us that motto has failed to work, that solitude and loneliness are the hallmarks of the human condition. She comes off as being a very pessimistic writer…

  2. A very thoughtful and thought-provoking post Florence. I am nearing the end of Dusty Answer and enjoying it very, very much but I can see how much Lehmann is concerned with the outsider. Judith stands very much apart from everyone. Also, it was interesting to note how Lehmann made Judith an only child (perhaps in response to the sibling competition you mention in your post?) although even fictionally she does not have a satisfactory enough relationship with her father owing to his early death. Maybe the cousins stand for her real siblings and the book is meant to show the distance between her and her family. Thanks for holding this reading week!

    • The absent father is a recurrent theme in Lehmann’s work – she seems to have been haunted by the early death of her own (he was a good bit older than her mother) and her relationship with her austere, puritanical mother was not an easy one, definitely not warm enough to fill the void left by her father’s death. I think you are right in suggesting that Judith’s fascination with the cousins stems from her admiration of their unity, their family bond – something she herself never experienced with her flighty socialite mother and quasi-absent father. In that respect, Judith strongly reminds me of orphaned, friendless Jane Eyre, wandering the moors after her departure from Thornfield Hall and looking in through the lighted windows of Marsh House at the cozy family within, never realizing that they are HER family…

  3. limr says:

    ” – how she has gradually been forgotten.”
    I’d never heard of Lehmann until I started reading about her in your posts. I was curious before, but this introduction is so great that now I’m really interested in reading her work. Thank you!

    • I’m so pleased to have sparked your interest in her! She really is a fascinating writer – and I personally find her far more readable than Woolf. I’d be interested to hear what you think of her!

  4. Pingback: You shall go to the ball … « Gaskella

  5. sshaver says:

    “Feeling like a stranger in her own life.”

    That’s powerful.

  6. Pingback: August Reading & Blogging Plans | Iris on Books

  7. Thanks for that piece. I have read pretty much all Lehmann’s oeuvre and agree largely with your analysis. I was surprised however that you omitted her one optimistic book – the one that was my introduction to Rosamond Lehmann – Invitation to the Waltz.

    As for Bloomsbury, she really wasn’t a member, hence the omissions in the articles to which you refer. Indeed my heroine, Carrington was not really a member – except of course by association. Here’s something copied from my own blog:

    Rosamond Lehmann, a writer I respect enormously (you will find references to her in this blog) was extremely fond of Carrington. After her suicide, Lehmann wrote:

    “It was such an exciting joy to be with her, always, for me. Nobody has ever enriched me as she did, and I counted much too much on her love and support – and the intimacy I thought I had with her. And to think how many others felt the same!”*

    Forty years later Rosamond Lehmann wrote to David Garnett, “I never loved any woman as I loved her.”

    P. de R. Leclercq

    • Dear Paul,
      thank you for commenting on my post – I’m always interested in getting other people’s perspectives!
      As I explained above, Lehmann’s association with Bloomsbury was complex. Many contemporaries (Frances Partridge, for example, in her autobiography Love in Bloomsbury) identified her with the original Bloomsberries, even though Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell (to name but two of the founding “members”) did not consider her part of their select inner circle, and critics tend to agree that she should not be included. Just like Carrington, as you pointed out. I like to think of Lehmann and Carrington forming their own clique – apart from their friendship, their artistic ideals may have more in common than one would think. When I was exploring the Lehmann archive at Cambridge, I read letters between the two women that pointed towards shared tastes and sensibilities.
      It’s true I did not mention Invitation to the Waltz: it stands a little apart from the rest of her oeuvre, mainly because of the theme, I think. It is refreshing indeed to read a Lehmann novel that is so optimistic! And yet, when you look a little more closely, even there, the themes of solitude and separateness lurk in the background. Olivia feels very different from her sister and the other young girls at the Spencer ball, and the end of the novel leaves one with the lasting image of her setting out alone towards the sunset – and her future.

      • Yes, you make a good point about the difference between Olivia and her sister, and Lehmann develops this very well in The Weather in the Streets.
        She was a great writer.
        As my blog makes clear I have become involved in a sort of love affair with the mysterious and endlessly fascinating Carrington.
        So tragic.

        • I was browsing around on your blog earlier on and I definitely got the sense Carrington was a favourite with you 🙂 I can relate to that: there is indeed something mysterious about her – ever present in the life of Lytton Strachey and yet ignored, even despised, by his friends; so talented, so creatively assertive, yet so reserved and self-effaced that you hardly even see her properly in photographs (she always seems to be turning her back to the camera or hiding her face away from it..). And they way she died is certainly worthy of a novel!

  8. Oh yes, a favourite indeed – though very recent i must admit. Part of what you say must be attributed to the fact that she was shy in a way – look for example at her reluctance to exhibit her excellent paintings despite being pressed so to do by Strachey amongst others. And even Virgina Woolf – notoriously difficult – really liked and respected her. That alone marks her out as special although I need no convincing.
    And yes, like someone else I know, she was indeed camera-shy!
    In the language of the epoch her death was too, too, tragic.

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