What’s Happening in the Engine-Room

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • John Lehmann: A Pagan Adventure by Adrian Wright
    Duckworth, 308 pp, £20.00, November 1998, ISBN 0 7156 2871 2

The first volume of John Lehmann’s autobiography, published in 1955, starts:

When I try to remember where my education in poetry began, the first image that comes to mind is that of my father’s library at the old family home of Fieldhead on the Thames. It is an autumn or winter evening after tea, for James the butler has been in to draw the blinds and close the curtains, and my father is reading under a green-shaded lamp.

He has said a good deal already – the little boy who wants to be like his father, the sheltered child who doesn’t need to know the time or even the season because James, the always reliable butler, deals with that, the illusion of a dedication to poetry. Adrian Wright, in this new biography, refers several times to Lehmann’s half-commitment (in spite of his energy) to the professional life he chose. Fieldhead was the magic enclosure to which, as an adult, he looked back, wishing that it might have been possible to sit there, watching and listening, all his life.

He came of a German-Jewish family, musical, hospitable, successful in business. His grandfather ended up in Scotland, by way of Huddersfield. His father, who built Field-head, was called to the Bar, edited the Daily News, and was returned as Liberal MP for Market Harborough. He was a dedicated rowing coach, and wrote quantities of light verse, often about rowing, for Punch. He married Alice Davis, a strong-minded New Englander, twenty years younger than himself. Their family consisted of three girls – Helen, the indulged Rosamond, Beatrix – and, at long last, the boy John. Their children’s talents must have been partly, at least, inherited, but no trace of their father Rude’s jolly German Kameradschaft seems to have been passed on.

Adrian Wright has been faced with a problem of organisation. He has come into all the material collected by John Lehmann’s commissioned biographer, Martin Taylor, who died before he could write a word of it. He has seen photocopies of the extensive diaries, and he has interviewed the survivors and their descendants. Lehmann himself wrote three volumes of dignified autobiography about his work, his beliefs, his travels, his dogs, and one, in the unconvincing form of a novel (In the Purely Pagan Sense, 1976), on his strenuous life as a homosexual. Wright has the job of combining the two stories, although he gives us fair warning that ‘when there has had, through reasons of space, to be a choice between discussing the plight of writers in Czechoslovakia or detailing an affair of the heart that made Lehmann’s life a misery, the heart has invariably won.’ There might be a voice of protest from the shades. But Wright is gallant, ‘attempting’ – as he tells us – ‘to rescue Lehmann from the margins of the literature of which he was once at the heart’. Can this truly be done?

John was sent to Summer Fields, and left in 1921 with an Eton scholarship and a report that he was ‘never likely to do anything dishonourable or mean’, a golden lad, as Wright calls him. About Eton he was at best lukewarm. He had wished not to disappoint his father, but he was a rowing failure. The Master in College judged that he had set his ambitions too high, and allowed himself to get depressed. On Cambridge, too, although he went up with the expected scholarship, he came to look back as wasted time.

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