Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Dusty Answer ~ Rosamond Lehmann

Just before I started reading Rosamond Lehmann's first book, I read two recurring lines of criticism in several places: one, that if Keats wrote a novel, it would be like this; two, Dusty Answer should be read only as an adolescent. Having read the book breathlessly within a little over twelve hours, I am inclined to agree with the first contention (I could quote voluminous lines from the book to prove my point); but having read it at this point of my life (twenty-four) and having thoroughly sympathised, identified, and exhilarated with and by it, only shows how strongly I disagree with the second one.

Dusty Answer is not a growing up novel for young adults. A 'young adult' trying to read the book with this preconception would be severely disappointed, and would of course fail to understand and appreciate the nuances of it. It was written when Ms. Lehmann was twenty-six years old, and was largely drawn from her personal experiences. Needless to say, on its release, the content shocked the twenties' reading population. A young girl's candid admission of sexual awakening and attraction for either sexes apparently made several sections of the populace uncomfortable. After all, it would still be a few years before Nancy Mitford entered the reading market with her frank portrayal of the sexual deviances of the upper classes; and the early part of the last century had always been hypocritical in matters of sex in high-brow literature.

Any way, I stray. So Judith Earle has a lonely upbringing in her riverside home, punctuated by the appearance of the five cousins (Julian, Charlie, Mariella, Martin, and Roddy) next door every summer. She befriends them, but always feels herself slightly excluded from their "blood circle". Shy and sensitive, she relies on her imagination to have elaborate conversations with them, until one year, they do not come, because their granny, the matriarch presiding over the chaos has decided to move to a warmer clime. The secrets and adventures of the children are told in a flashback, in mellifluous language; and it is on the first page itself that the readers are informed that Charlie was killed in the Great War, just after marrying Mariella, his cousin, and did not know about his son Peter, who'd be born after his death. When the book opens, Judith is eighteen, watching with apprehension the neighbour's house getting ready for the arrival of the cousins (save for Charlie) -- now adults; and the readers can make out that Judith has been a little in love with all of them.

Over that summer, Judith falls in love with Roddy, her passion is unrequited, she loses her father, and moves to Cambridge to study English. I was slightly disappointed with the Cambridge-section of the novel, for it featured very little of the cousins, and I wanted them back. At Cambridge, Judith falls in love with Jennifer, a beautiful, frivolous girl, and their self-contented, vain world, excludes and clashes with the world of the twins and of Cambridge.

After Cambridge, Judith picks up her affair with Roddy. Without giving away too much of the plot, it would be safe to say that she encounters heartbreaks in myriad forms, at home and abroad, and through the turn of events she thinks she has left her innocence behind, and matured into an adult. The novel ends with her visiting Cambridge to meet Jennifer, mutely observing the changes in her former room and the Hall, neither of which bears any trace of her ever having spent her remarkable three years there. She sits in the tea shop she used to frequent with Jennifer, waiting for the latter to come, when from the window she notices Roddy. She doesn't call out to him, and leaves the place as she realises that Jennifer won't come after all.

All the events in the novel unravel through Judith's eyes. Hence although the Great War forms a backdrop, all we come to know is through what Judith learns and observes from her home. She learns from her neighbour's gardener that Charlie has been killed in action, and observes that Julian has suffered from shell-shock; there isn't any other direct reference to the atrocities of the war at all.
Rosamond Lehmann was educated at Girton College in Cambridge, the centre of the feminist movement and of women's education in the last century. Her book subtly offers a glimpse of the myths and cliches related to women's education: through the casual remarks of the cousins about the supposed intimidating nature of Judith's intellect, and especially through the depiction of the fellow women students of Judith. There's Mabel Fuller. In Judith's and Jennifer's preoccupation about Mabel's hideous ugliness, in their prediction that she'll never be able to marry, and in Mabel's own ambition to be a teacher, we have the perfect model of the Girton graduate of the twenties, spinster, and teacher, one of the breed who according to Virginia Nicholson would inspire many women to be independent-minded in the coming decades. The cliched picture of numerous other flaxen-haired, stocky, bespectacled girls studying at Cambridge give one a clear impression of the prevailing conception regarding women graduates in those days.
But of course there were other students like Jennifer and Geraldine, who didn't really need the degree to get into a job. They were too well off for that.

Yet these notes on the background of the (early) twenties come to attention much later, and only if the reader has successfully managed to get him/herself beyond the trappings of Ms. Lehmann's engaging language. I sign off with an excerpt from the book, to highlight its sensuousness. Of course, the book has to be read in its entirety not only to absorb the language, but also to learn about Judith Earle's extraordinary experiences.

Gradually as she watched the crooked fingers sliding along the keys from chord to chord, and saw around her the familiar room, the past stole over her. He was the boy Julian and she the half-dreaming privileged listener; and as if there had been no gap in their knowledge of each other they sat side by side in unselfconscious intimacy. What had there been to fear? She saw now that she would always be able to pick him up just where she had left him, and find him unchanged to her; she could say anything to him without danger of mockery or rebuff. But he had always been the easiest: the sense of blood-relationship was tempered in him by his critical intelligence; and he was always prepared at least to sharpen his wits against the stranger, if not to befriend him.

He paused and she said:

'Nothin has changed here. I remember every single thing in the room and it's all the same, -- even to the inkstains on those boards. It's like a dream to be back here talking to you -- one of those dreams of remembered places where every thing is so familiar it seems ominous. I've often had a dream like this --'

She stopped, wishing her last words unsaid; but he took her remark to be general and nodded, and leaned forward to look at Peter, lying wan and sleepy in her lap. He was very tired; but not fretful: only silent and languid. Julian touched his cheek. 

                                                                       Rosamond Lehmann

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