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.