Woman in Love

Marghanita Laski

Rosamond Lehmann must be one of the most beautiful women ever to have written novels that are worth serious consideration; and one of the most tragic. Wherever one stands on the gamut of believing a need to know or no need to know about the writer in order to make an adequate assessment of the work, some writers force a stance on to the critic. Rosamond Lehmann does this. My own wish is always to consider the work in the maximum isolation the work allows, but with Miss Lehmann’s, no isolation is possible. With most living novelists, and especially with novelists one knows, a fair first test is whether the writer is forgotten by the end of the first few pages. With Miss Lehmann’s novels and stories the writer never can be forgotten. Yet this particular test of quality is in her case invalid.

In general, I would argue that what a writer says, ex post facto, about his or her own work is not necessarily more valid than anything the serious outsider may say of it. But with work so interpenetrated with the writer as woman, this position cannot be held. It is best to start with something that Rosamond Lehmann herself has said about her work. In a late book, the autobiographical fragments of 1967 called The Swan in the Evening, she refers to other writers, less sensitive to misunderstanding and isolation than she is: ‘Perhaps purer, more dedicated, less feminine artists, stronger characters,’ she writes, ‘cannot be thus deserted.’

‘Feminine’ is the word to seize on, because it is, in today’s climate, so startling. It is hard to think of any other woman writing seriously today who would choose this epithet to describe herself and, by implication, her work. But it is Rosamond Lehmann who has provided it, and the critic may fairly seize on it with relief, for without its use, fair assessment would be hard to make. Rosamond Lehmann is, essentially, a feminine writer.

That is to say, Rosamond Lehmann has chosen to limit her field to the life of the heart, as it constantly reared up and hit a beautiful girl, a beautiful woman of a certain class with certain expectations of what that life ought to offer, not even to some such woman so placed, but essentially to her, this singular creature, weak, unsure, feminine. What she has explored throughout her career has been, almost uniquely, herself and her heart.

It could well be that it was the social group she came from that made her a novelist. That group was the aristocracy of English artists and intellectuals. Her great-uncle was the painter Rudolph Lehmann, friend of Robert Browning and George Eliot. Her father, R.C. Lehmann, was a well-known writer and man of letters. Of her siblings, a younger sister is Beatrix Lehmann, the actress, her younger brother John Lehmann, poet, and fructifying editor and founder of the London Magazine. Most sensitive, literate girls write out the agonies of growing up, at least in private poetry or prose. But from such a family as Rosamond Lehmann’s, one writes to publish.

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