Rosemary Hill

  • Rosamond Lehmann by Selina Hastings
    Chatto, 476 pp, £25.00, June 2002, ISBN 0 7011 6542 1

Rosamond Lehmann was born the day after Queen Victoria’s funeral. When the First World War broke out she was 13, on holiday with her family on the Isle of Wight. The imminence of hostilities had put an end to a plan, much dreaded by Rosamond, to send her and her sister to stay with relatives in Germany. From her own point of view the war was ‘a personal and miraculous reprieve’: ‘of the world crisis, I remember only that sudden emptiness of the beach and the expression on my father’s face as he sat reading the papers all day.’

For many women who made literary or artistic reputations in the 1920s and 1930s the war remained, for all its horror, a boon. E.M. Delafield, whose ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’ in Time and Tide offered readers the agonised thoughts of Bridget Jones’s great-aunt, remembered it as ‘pure liberation’. The overthrow of the awful Edwardians, the triumph of Bloomsbury over the Kensington of Leslie Stephen, were unmitigated joys. Lehmann, who published her first novel, Dusty Answer, to sensational acclaim in 1927, smoked, danced and divorced her way through the interwar years with gayer abandon than most. During one particularly frank sexual discussion at a party she was tapped on the shoulder by Virginia Woolf, who said, somewhat dampeningly, ‘Remember: we won this for you.’

Nearly twenty years younger than Woolf, on the threshold of adolescence in 1914, Lehmann was more ambivalent about the past. The world before the war was her childhood, it remained sealed off, a self-contained idyll whose certainties gave her what all romantics need, a permanent sense of loss. For her the ancien régime never quite lost its glamour; she dearly loved a lord and her literary heroes were the Great Victorians. The power of the past, as childhood or simply nostalgia, was a recurring theme in her work, at odds with the modernity of her material; just as her sensitivity to women and her obsessive interest in female experience sat oddly with her entrenched anti-feminism.

All the elements were there already in Dusty Answer, a swiftly written tale of youthful passion, shocking at the time for its portrayal of sexual mores and intense emotional relationships between women. The older generation in Lehmann’s own family thought it the ‘outpourings of a sex-maniac’. The 18-year-old heroine, Judith Earle, over-earnest and inexperienced, is a little in love with all the members of the family who come to live next door, and madly in love with one of them, Roddy. The first part of the book is a long retrospective, the story of Judith’s first meeting with the Fyfes and of her own childhood. Lehmann was good on children, especially the anxieties of the very young. She was good, too, on the mixed moods of life, less commonly found in fiction: the nostalgia of adolescence in Dusty Answer, or, much later in The Echoing Grove, the interplay of habit and passion when a married couple fall asleep in the middle of a row, wake up, make love and go back to sleep again.

The psychological semitones tend, however, to be drowned out by the crashing chords of the major theme. It was Lehmann’s impetus as a writer and her misfortune as a woman to be incurably in love with romance. Judith allows Roddy to make love to her and afterwards writes to him, pouring out her happiness and looking forward to their shared future. He is aghast. Her coup de foudre was his fling. At the end of the book Judith is alone, her future thrillingly lonely.

‘Oh Miss Lehmann,’ hundreds of admiring readers wrote when the book appeared, ‘this is my story.’ To a great extent it was the author’s, too. Roddy was just one of the handsome, disappointing men with period names like Rudie, Rollo, Wogan and Cecil, who dominated Lehmann’s life and art. She could never apply the psychological insights she possessed as a writer to her own life, which came increasingly to resemble a badly plotted novel.

The idyllic childhood was passed in Buckinghamshire in her father’s substantial Thames-side house, Fieldhead, just upriver from Cliveden. Rudie Lehmann, the original unattainable man, fond of his wife and children when he noticed them but impatient if Rosamond cried, was a clever, indolent charmer, a champion oarsman with inherited money. He was briefly an MP, intermittently a journalist and a member of the Punch round table, entertaining the magazine’s readers with his ‘Francescas’. These were dialogues between himself, ‘the genial, wise . . . husband’, and an adorably hare-brained suffragette full of feminine ‘logic’, based on his American wife, Alice. ‘I hope you sometimes feel miserable, too!’ she wrote to him once, but it seems unlikely he did.

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