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.

In an interview which Miss Lehmann gave to Harpers and Queen (November 1982) she quoted J.B. Priestley’s comment on her work. ‘You’re good,’ he had said to her, ‘but you’re an amateur.’ And he was right – on this kind of thing he usually is. Miss Lehmann has never considered that writing books is a necessary part of her life: ‘I was lucky to have enough money to live on without doing that’ – producing a book a year; ‘And there are so many other things I enjoyed – children, friends, reading, music ... I always found it very hard to withdraw and think that my writing was the most important thing.’ And so she writes, she says, only after the moment when memories from her unconscious ‘seem to coalesce and fuse’; she does not speak of any other source for her work than what has made her, happened to her; and for those who know only so much as is public of her life, what is told in almost every book clearly stands in direct relation to her life and cannot be considered outside that personal context.

After private education at the family home at Bourne End beside the river, Rosamond went to Cambridge, to Girton, in 1919. Soon after she got her degree she married Leslie Runciman of the shipping family, went to live with him in Newcastle, hated it, and started to write her novel Dusty Answer: ‘I started writing because I was so unhappy,’ she says in the Harpers and Queen interview. Dusty Answer was about a girl who lived beside the river, was privately educated, went to Cambridge. It is, read now as long ago, a deeply touching book, already capable of creating in the woman reader an effect that is, I think, peculiar to this writer: that of having known, on one’s own pulse, the experiences recounted, whether this was so or not. It is not necessary to have been young beside the Cam or even the Isis, to have been drunk with spring there, to have fallen in love with a best friend, to have used poetry to enhance all expression, to know that this was what it was like to be beautiful, sensitive, young, in Cambridge just after the First World War.

The Runciman marriage broke up. Rosamond married Wogan Philipps, by whom she had two children, a boy and a girl. To Wogan she dedicated her second book, A Note in Music, published in 1930. It was about the miseries endured by Southern women, with, however, no creative outlets, who were married to insensitive men in the North.

Second novels are notorious hurdles, and this one fails, but fails interestingly for the mirror it holds up to the writer’s faults. She cannot, it is already clear, write from the outside, and her empty, barren ‘heroine’ Grace Fairfax (too echoing a name) is a twitched doll without life of her own. The book would be worth lengthy comparison with Mrs Gaskell’s North and South of not dissimilar theme, and merely to bring the two together is enough to show the strength of the one, the weakness of the other. Mrs Gaskell’s Margaret, as unhappy, as out-of-water as Grace, is able by determination to help herself, and, not least, by helping other people. Grace can flicker into life only when her heart is touched: yes, she has wondered whether to try social work as her sad friend Norah does, but it is herself she has decided it wouldn’t help, and so she doesn’t do it. Then for Mrs Gaskell, working-class people are people like any others, even if, of necessity, not so well known to her as her own class is. For Rosamond Lehmann, the working-class people, here exemplified in Grace’s maid Annie, are established in the role they will play throughout her work. They are quite another kind of people, racier in speech, using adages in place of originality, superstitious; through them, life can be lived in ways not available to the more sensitive – one could often say, more bloodless – middle-class selves. Just as the husbandless mother of two children who occurs in several of the stories in The Gypsy’s Baby (1946) lies back sick in bed while the racy beeman climbs up to her window to take the swarm, so Annie will have the baby that Grace dare not attempt after a stillbirth and with pet animals ominously dying under her care. ‘Live – our servants will do that for us.’ Sometimes, reading Rosamond Lehmann’s novels, I feel that the ultimate betrayal that one of her heroines could inflict upon her is to insist on being happy.

The next two books she wrote are, I am sure, her best. Invitation to the Waltz (what a good title!) of 1932 is in its particular story the universal embarrassment of gauche middle-class girls who made a middle-class entry into the adult world before 1939, and of all her books this is the one in which enforced awareness of the writer is at its lowest. It is the better of the two, but the sequel, The Weather in the Streets of 1936, is perhaps the most deeply painful of all, and in it that peculiar effect of hers, of convincing the reader that she has lived this too, is at its strongest. Janet Walls, who writes the introductions to those of Rosamond Lehmann’s books that have been republished by Virago, reports Rosamond telling her of the woman who said to her, ‘Oh, Miss Lehmann, this is my story! – how did you know?’ and I can endorse this. I am nearly sure I have never had a lover just like rich, casual, deceiving Rollo, have never had an abortion – yet each time I reread the novel I recognise these as my experiences.

And these experiences, wherever they came from, are clearly deep in the writer’s need as material to be worked into fiction, for in varying forms they will recur in her work, and most of all in that very sad book The Echoing Grove, published in 1953, after the break-up not only of her second marriage but also of her subsequent and long-standing relationship with Cecil Day Lewis. The book’s theme, implicit in all the novels but here spell out, is that women need men, must have men (if only to do essentially masculine things like killing wounded rats): but men aren’t any use to women any more. Olivia of The Weather in the Streets is recognisably Dinah of The Echoing Grove, the woman on the outside, betraying and in her turn betrayed. Again it is the old mother, intelligent, even noble, who interferes. Again the illicit child is destroyed, the licit one, gallingly, born, and in both books an epicene creature, one a man, one a woman and both deprived of lasting love, assists at the unfruitful birth. The Echoing Grove is, in a sense, the epitome of Rosamond Lehmann’s creative latent. Into it, we cannot help but feel, she has poured her despair as a woman whose heart has been, once more, betrayed.

I have overleaped one intermediate book, The Ballad and the Source of 1944, because I cannot make with it. The narrator-child of the story, Rebecca Landon, is clearly a projection of the writer; as Janet Watts observes, her initials are Rosamond Lehmann’s too. But where a child-narrator can, sometimes, sustain a short story, suspension of disbelief cannot hold up for the length of a long novel in which the child must not only present, through childish eyes, a character whose complexity she could not even have perceived, but must also report long passages of speech far beyond either a child’s vocabulary or any normal memory. This is probably Rosamond Lehmann’s cleverest book, the book into which she has put most intellectual effort, but for me it remains a construction only, another proof that it is in the expression of feeling above all that her talent lies.

This book, too, had its sequel, A Sea Grape Tree, (1976), with Rebecca Landon, adult and betrayed in love, for its heroine, but my own assessment of Rosamond Lehmann’s work ends with The Echoing Grove. In 1958 her daughter died, and her work thereafter was predicated on the belief she came to, that this death was only a passing on to a life with which contact could be made through spiritualism. In 1863, when the medium Daniel Home published the first part of his autobiography and in it recounted his first wife’s death, the Spectator’s reviewer commented: ‘It would be brutal to ridicule, and yet impossible to believe.’ I echo him.

So we have, up to and including The Echoing Grove, a corpus of work in fiction of which four novels are unforgettable: Dusty Answer, Invitation to the Waltz, The Weather in the Streets and The Echoing Grove itself; and two of these, the two middle ones, are very good indeed. There are certainly still moods in which one can live in (if sometimes suspecting the right verb might be ‘wallow in’) this intensely feminine, self-concentrated, despairing world of the heart which has welled up from one super-sensitive unconscious: a world in which the only events that can possibly matter are those which affect a woman in her relationships of love. But there are other more robust moments, and, thankfully, more of these, in which we discover that the purposes for which we have to read novels are finally more life-enhancing than these sad books can be.

The following books by Rosamond Lehmann are available form Virago:

The Swan in the Evening: Fragments of an Inner Life, 68 pp., £3.50, 21 October 1982, 0 86068 299 4.

A Note in Music, 336., £3.25, March 1982, 0 86068 248 X.

The Gypsy’s Baby 200 pp., £2.75, March 1982, 0 86068 247 1.

Invitation to the Waltz, 320 pp., £2.95, June 1981, 0 86068 202 1.

The Weather in the Streets, 388 pp., £3.50, June 1981, 0 86068 203 X.

The Ballad and the Source, 336 pp., £3.50, 21 October 1982, 0 86068 330 3.

A Sea-Grape Tree, 168 pp., £2.95, 21 October 1982, 0 86068 335 4.

Dusty Answer is published by Penguin: 303 pp., £2.95, 1982, 0 14 000053 4.

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