RLRW Day 3: The Magic of a Family House

     I have been waiting curiously to see which of Rosamond Lehmann’s books bloggers would focus on this week, and  why. After studying Lehmann in depth for so many years, it is sometimes hard to gain distance, and therefore very refreshing to hear what other readers make of her writing. 

     Both Iris and Ali chose to start with reviews of Invitation to the Waltz (1932), Lehmann’s account of seventeen-year-old Olivia Curtis’s first dance, a book I enjoyed when I first read it but have tended to put aside since, as it has less bearing on my research than her other work. I have, however, repeatedly used a passage from Invitation to the Waltz in a translation class I have been teaching these past four years. Having used an excerpt from one of W. Somerset Maugham’s short stories to work on the portrait of a person, I would then move on to this passage, which would allow my students to focus on the description of a place.

     And what a place! Situated right at the beginning of the novel, the passage describes the Curtis family home, built in the middle of the nineteenth-century by a Victorian mill-owner. Proceeding with cinematic precision (a technique reinforced by the use of the inclusive pronoun “you” and that of the present tense, which creates a feeling of immediacy), the eye of the camera/narrator moves from the street, through the gates of the property and into the house, zooming in on details that give away a great deal about the origins and inhabitants of the house. The narrator’s tone is one of humorous detachment but even he is taken in at last – and so am I: for though I now know this passage almost by heart, I am never tired of reading it. Few descriptions are as richly evocative as this one… This is vintage tea-on-the-lawn, between-the-wars England, and it reminds me of nothing so much as of Dorothy Whipple.

     The square house is screened from the street by a high clipped hedge of laurel. Passing the drive gate you see, at an obtuse angle, and through the branches of a flourishing Wellingtonia, glimpses of slate roof, spacious windows, glass porch with coloured panes. And at once the imagination is engaged. You see rooms crowded with ponderous cupboards, sideboards, tables; photographs in silver frames, profusely strewn; wallpapers decorated with flowers, wreaths, birds, knots and bows of ribbon; dark olive, dark brown paint in the hall and passages; marble mantlepieces vapid, chill, swelling as blanc-mange; the water-colour performances of aunts and great-aunts thick upon the walls; worn leather armchairs pulled up to hot coal fires: you smell pot-pourri and lavender in china bowls; you taste roast beef and apple-tart on Sundays; hot scones for tea – dining-room tea on the enormous white cloth, beneath the uncompromising glare of the enormous central light. … But there is something more than this that strikes you, makes you linger. What is this current, this penetrating invocation flung out from behind discreet and tended shrubbery? All is sober, is commonplace, conventional, even a trifle smug. It is a pre-war residence of attractive design, with loung hall, etc., and usual offices, beautifully timbered grounds, well-stocked kitchen garden. Yet there is no mistaking the fascination, or its meaning. Something is going on. The kettle’s boiling, the cloth is spread, the windows are flung open. Come in, come in! Here dwells the familiar mystery. Come and find it! Each room is active, fecund, brimming over with it. The pulse beats. … Come and listen! … Yes, we are sure of it! These walls enclose a world. Here is continuity spinning a web from room to room, from year to year. It is safe in this house. Here grows something energetic, concentrated, tough, serene; with its own laws and habits; something alarming, oppressive, not altogether to be trusted: nefarious perhaps. Here grows a curious plant with strong roots knotted all together: an unique specimen. In brief, a family lives here.  

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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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2 Responses to RLRW Day 3: The Magic of a Family House

  1. I can only speak for “Dusty Answer” as it’s the only book of RL’s I’ve read. But certainly the sense of place is very strong in that novel. Judith’s house by the river is almost a character in its own right and her attachment to it (and by extension the house next door which the cousins rent) is pivotal to the book. Interestingly, although we see the house and can pick up what it’s like from the beautiful description of Lehmann, Judith only really seems to become conscious of her surroundings later in the book when she has the cousins to tea and sees her home as they might see it.

    The passage you quote is lovely and sums up with feeling of a family home – the life going in within it – and this may be why Judith’s home only really lights up to her when there are others visiting, since her father is quiet when he’s alive and by this point has died, and her mother is largely absent or disinterested.

    Lehmann is obviously a novelist of some depth!

    • Yes, indeed! Apparently Lehmann modelled Judith’s house on her own family’s home at Bourne End, and much of the deep-rooted affection she felt for the place where she grew up seeped into her writing.

      It’s funny, I have no recollection of the inside of Judith’s house (apart, perhaps, from her father’s library). My memories are of her lovely descriptions of the garden and river, particularly at night, when Judith goes swimming by moonlight or steals out to meet Roddy.

      Lehmann includes a house like that in all her novels: sometimes it has a strong presence, as in Dusty Asnwer or Invitation to the Waltz, and sometimes it is only mentioned in passing, with regret because it has been lost, as in The Echoing Grove, where we learn that Rickie Masters (the man at the heart of the rivalry between sisters Madeleine and Dinah) was once the heir to a big property. It seems that property, being anchored to the land by a house of that kind, was of great importance to her… (perhaps she secretly dreamt of being at the head of a vast estate?! She ceratinly was a bit of a snob and apparently never forgave her second husband for inheriting a baronetcy until after their divorce came through…!)

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