A Note in Music was Rosamond Lehmann’s second novel. Though it was generally well-received by critics, readers (including myself) tend to find it less enthralling than its predecessor, Dusty Answer. Set in a grubby industrial town in the north of England, the novel depicts the lives of dreary discontent led by Grace Fairfax and her friend Norah, and the unexpected stir caused in their hearts by the arrival of attractive Hugh Miller. Grace, in particular, is smitten and for a while, Hugh’s visits – infrequent and somewhat half-hearted as they are – fill her with renewed hope and pleasure. But then Hugh moves away again, and she is plunged once more into apathetic misery. Gone is the youthful idealism of Dusty Answer: A Note in Music gives off an impression of uniform greyness and depression.
Upon closer inspection, however, the grey is shot through with threads of light and colour. In fact, beyond the seven part structure of the story itself, a pattern emerges in which the plot is apprehended not as a linear succession of events, but in terms of blocks of colour: grey for Grace’s life before and after Hugh’s stay, and a central kernel of glorious colour for the only happy moments in the novel, a visit to the country house of an acquaintance and a short holiday Grace finally finds the courage to take without her dull husband. This grey/colour/grey pattern bears an interesting resemblance to the distinctive designs Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were so fond of painting or printing onto doors, tiles, plates, cushions, and bookcovers – a comparison which is not so incongruous if one considers the text as a fabric or tapestry, woven of words and images.
This idea of design owes much to Bloomsbury art critic Clive Bell’s theory of significant form (the idea that the value of a work of art is determined more by form than by realism, context, or even content) but even more to what is known as the post-Impressionist school of art, which greatly influenced Bloomsbury painters and writers alike, and which visibly influenced A Note in Music too. Take this passage, for example:
Morning and evening now she looked out from her window at the haystacks in the field, two shapes whose beauty of strong balanced lines and volumes seemed not accidental but designed – the composition of an artist.
Framed by the window, this view could easily be a canvas by Van Gogh or Cézanne, the latter of whom was unquestionably the key-figure of Bloomsbury aesthetics.
The influence of Bloomsbury can also be detected in Lehmann’s treatment of light and colour. Against the dull greys and browns of the town, a few details stand out vividly: a stunted lilac tree blossoming unexpectedly and magically; Hugh’s red hunting jacket; a carpet of bluebells in a wood, which Lehmann describes as “flooding the ground with an urgent blue – with a blue that cried like the sound of violins”. The usual vocabulary is insufficient to do justice to the vibrancy of these colours, and a new language must be created in order to do so, with words borrowed from painting, but also from music. The boundaries between the senses become blurred, so that colours produce sounds and flowers turn into musical instruments. Virginia Woolf was fascinated by her sister’s art and many of her short stories (“Kew Gardens”, for example) bear witness to her efforts to translate the language of painting into the language of writing. Other modernist writers made similar attempts: a passage in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, for instance, describes a bed of zinnias in the Divers’ garden on the Riviera as making “scherzos” of colour.
A Note in Music contains what I think is one of the most beautiful examples of this typically nineteen-thirties practice of interweaving the senses and arts, and I offer it up here to conclude this rapid overview of Lehmann’s use of colour and design, and as proof that A Note in Music is anything but dull.
A row of hollyhocks bloomed against the fruit wall at the end of the garden. She fancied that their round heads were notes of music painted upon an outspread scroll; chords and scales splashed down in tones of rose and crimson upon the green keyboard of the espalier. Soon, she thought, in the present heightening and harmony of the interplay of all her senses, they would strike audibly upon her ears.
If you’re interested in learning more about A Note in Music, go and read Anbolyn’s review over on Gudrun’s Tights!
© Florence Berlioz 2012