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