I read about Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer years before I was able to locate a copy of the novel. Yet just from reading a short synopsis and critique, I was predisposed to love it, this story that critic Alfred Noyes claimed “might have been written by Keats”—if Keats had, you know, been a young, unhappily married woman living and writing in 1920s England. Devoured on first reading, the book satiated me. It wasn’t my story, but it reflected my sensibility; was set in a time I often cast myself back to, imagining myself on a picnic blanket under a linden tree with Lytton Strachey conversing languidly at my side, my fingers ink-stained after working the printing machine at Hogarth all day, wearing some drop-waisted, delicate frock with my cunning hat flung recklessly on the grass.
Physically unlike Dusty Answer’s heroine, the vulnerable Judith Earle whose wistful beauty drives other characters to wish to either possess or protect her, I was nonetheless just as sensitive and naïve, yearning for experience and enlightenment while still inclined to think the world of books preferable to growing up in stark literalism. I have a vague recollection of crying over Dusty Answer that first time, as so many people had done before, declaring that Miss Lehmann had written their stories. Subsequent readings remind me it is a book that makes you aware of every particle of your existence as an emotional being in a world so often unhospitable and apt to misunderstand:
She knew that, anyway, they would not remember so meticulously, so achingly as herself: people never did remember her so hard as she remembered them… (2004 8)
Rosamond Lehmann’s work has justifiably been criticised for the almost impossibly privileged—and white—social milieu her characters inhabit, with the occasional working-class, queer, Jewish or character of colour-diverse figure reduced to caricature or an unpleasant cameo. This should not be circumvented or excused—the scope of her writing can only reflect the scope of Lehmann’s own ideology within her time, which was modern enough for contemporary readers to expect a more humane and sensitive approach to diversity, both in fiction and in life.
Paradoxically, there is something about Rosamond’s writing that is strikingly responsive, despite the author’s own upbringing and context so closely resembling those of her main characters. Her choice of language is natural and immediate—had she lived on and on and dropped a book a year for all eternity, I get the feeling Rosamond’s writing would have adapted to, say, the London of Zadie Smith without tamping its vein of sympathy, humour and lyricism, all too vital to be self-conscious. This is what (nearly) redeems the exclusivity within Rosamond’s work in a contemporary, post-almost-everything world: Rosamond knew much more than she garnered from her proper upbringing and education; her insight cut sharper; her heart beat at a deeper note—because how else could she know?
After Dusty Answer I went on to read more of Rosamond’s novels and later delved into biographies of Rosamond herself. The spell was cast, evidently: when I look back to the short stories I wrote during this period of discovery, I find them set in Rosamond’s world, imitating her language, striving for a similarly effortless style. I was headily under the influence.
At some point, though, my tastes updated and I became absolutely averse to any passive female characters in so-called classic Western literature. Jane Austen at long last owned it in Persuasion through the perceptive words of Anne Elliot—‘“We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us”’ (2007 1369)—but for so many characters, even for Austen’s earlier Elizabeth Bennet, it was just the way it was: sitting and waiting for a man and marriage to wind up their “real” lives and set them ticking. As much as I now love or have loved or want to love classic novels by women writers, I wish their female characters could have been drawn along bolder lines: as bold as the act of writing itself, or as the women wielding the pens.
When I chose Rosamond’s The Weather in the Streets from my bookshelf last night and began to read, I felt a twinge of old annoyance, just as I had throughout Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle: why don’t these women ever do anything? Still emulating a time of Victorian seclusion; little self-education; no career; moaning about poverty or some other debilitating circumstance but believing themselves helpless to change it without marriage or another masculine type of intervention. In the mid-1930s, this attitude was inexcusable—Dusty Answer’s Judith, inhabiting an England one decade earlier, could just barely get away with it. Even the heroines of Nancy Mitford, who had no qualms about stating her subject matter as The Pursuit of Love, had more pluck, humour, and assertiveness, weren’t as single-minded, despite their concerns and fates.
Looking back, Rosamond Lehmann is recorded as saying that Judith made a terribly “soppy” character in a book so roundly criticised upon its release for an immoral preoccupation with sex. The Weather in the Streets, published in 1936, is altogether edgier than Dusty Answer. For one thing, The Weather in the Streets is a sequel and continues the story of Olivia Curtis, as well as those of Kate and Etty and Marigold and Mrs Curtis and Lady Spencer and Nicola, first introduced in Invitation to the Waltz (1932). The Weather in the Streets features an illegal abortion to round off its heightened depiction of the physical and moral responsibility thrown on women to serve and protect; to preserve patriarchal family structures to their own detriment; to endure the emotional buffoonery of the men around them, whose characters are, notably, clearly rather than cruelly drawn. Women are first and most often able to communicate with other women, even when at odds with one other:
“Rollo is weak,” continued [Lady Spencer’s] voice implacably. “I know it…He can’t bear to hurt…Any—any sensitive man is bound to be weak in such as position…Believe me if you can, Olivia, I am here as your friend…” Rot. Here as a blackmailer, here to smell out my game, see how dangerous I am…to buy me off with sentiments: pity for you you can’t suggest a cheque… “Olivia, will you help him?”
“I do help him. I give him everything I can. I’ve made him happy—he said so…You ought to be glad.” (2012, 265-6)
Revisiting The Weather in the Streets, I read and began to search for what Carmen Callil wrote in the introduction:
This was the real weather in the streets. It’s cold out there. Looking on as through a glass window, and there it all is, the life you were raised for, and somehow you can’t do it. You long for it, but on you go, gently sabotaging your dreams, when what you were really meant to be, what you really are, pushes you in other directions. (2012, vi)
This search meant getting caught up in Rosamond Lehmann’s words, put together beautifully with that tremulous balance between prose and poetry, always sophisticated, always a breathless and lucid stream of consciousness, on this side of understandable—not alienating at all, not at all like the others. Yet I had trouble finding what Carmen had found; I couldn’t even find what I had treasured during previous readings. Then, quite early on in the novel, Olivia thinks:
…this isn’t me, cynical, flippant: you remember me: don’t judge me by what I say. They befog me with their explanations and solutions, they lay my cards on the table for me, they disapprove, they sympathise.
If I could escape to a new country, I’d soon strip off these sticky layers, grow my own shape again. (2012, 44)
Suddenly—again—I find—I found—ohmisslehmannyouhavetoldmystory!
This is my latest sense-making so far in my ache for meaning: Rosamond Lehmann didn’t write, overtly, about the struggles of womanhood, or the fight for capitalistic individual value. She wrote, instead, about understanding these struggles. She wrote towards understanding the myriad nuances and emotional complexities behind getting and retaining a room of one’s own—not just about a physical space and belonging to it. She wrote in attainment not of the circumstantial but the universal, and possibly transcendent. There’s a reason, after all, why her prose is so often likened to poetry. Rosamond Lehmann’s characters may not do much but when they think about what they do do, they reflect. They learn themselves; they map out boundaries between their existence and the world, as well as other people. Knowing thyself is a significant foundation for any battle against injustice and for any communion with humanity. It is the quiet fight: a revolution without explosion that causes you to feel, and makes you feel for others. If this lady (class inflection intended) can achieve such heights in her writing—at worst derided as passé, politically-incorrect women’s fiction—I will be pleased if I again detect her influence in my own words; if I lapse into the worthy Lehmannesque.
Austen, Jane. The Complete Novels of Jane Austen. London: Wordsworth, 2007.
Callil, Carmen. “Introduction” in The Weather in the Streets. London: Virago, 2012. v-viii.
Lehmann, Rosamond. Dusty Answer. London: Virago, 2004.
Lehmann, Rosamond. The Weather in the Streets. London: Virago, 2012.