Saturday, 24 August 2013

Invitation to the Waltz ~ Rosamond Lehmann

Ever since I started reading Dusty Answer, Rosamond Lehmann has had an obsessive effect on me. Her lush use of language is so compelling that I have found it difficult to put down her book even after I've finished it. I started reading Invitation to the Waltz the moment the post brought it home, and I have been living in Olivia Curtis's mental world since then, travelling to work while thinking about the ball, making innocuous references to red silk dresses to my students, and wondering about the prospective partners.

In my mind, Rosamond Lehmann dwells in the middle of the spectrum, flanked on both sides by Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. While Dusty Answer would have been exactly the kind of novel Keats would have written, it is nowhere but in Invitation to the Waltz that my contention holds true. No one can write better about dances and balls, and the anxiety accompanying them, than Jane Austen. On the other hand, no one can frame perfect sentences in the stream of conscious frame of mind better than Virginia Woolf. Rosamond Lehmann employs both with marked effect in Invitation to the Waltz. By devoting an entire 232-page novel on the preparation for a dance, and subsequently the dance itself, she comes closest to depicting the sparkling flippancy yet disciplined manoeuvres of Jane Austen's Regency balls. Yet, setting the action at the background of the Great War, and making the narrative flow both from the perspective of Olivia and her elder sister Kate, in a seamless, stream of consciousness manner, she recalls her slightly senior contemporary, Virginia Woolf.


The novel begins with Olivia's waking up to her seventeenth birthday. She feels happiness and tedium in turns, the former for turning seventeen and foraying into adulthood, the latter for articulating gratitude at each birthday wish and acceptance of gifts:

Happiness ran over like the jet from a sudden unexpectedly spurting little wave. [. . .] Oh, but breakfast would be awful, with all the family saying many happy returns; with opening parcels, repeating thank-you with self-conscious strained enthusiasm . . .

A short walk leads her to her dressmaker's, a middle-aged whimsical woman living with her mother and sisters and a repository of gossip. A quick reading makes one wonder if she is one of those million spinsters, left unmarried after the Great War due to the shortage of men, so talked about by stalwarts from Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby to Virginia Nicholson. Miss Robinson's experiences and adventures are certainly not unusual: she had run away from home to train as a dressmaker, but on her father's demise, the matriarch nestled her other sisters close to her and waited for the stray daughter to return to the hearth and look after them. In the return journey home Kate meets Major Skinner, a former colonial officer, who won't be entertained by the genteel families of the English village where he's made his home now, because of certain conspiratorial whispers regarding the misadventures of his wife in India. He longs for the company of young girls, but unfortunately his advances are seen through by the said young girls. After much trepidation, one of Mrs Curtis's godsons has confirmed his presence for the ball, and anticipation over him and the ball itself takes over the intervening time between Olivia's birthday and the ball itself.

The day of the Spencers's ball unfolds in feverish excitement but moves slowly: from the muted breakfast table fiascoes of their guest, to the long shower, and discovery of the ill-fitting dress, to the plaiting and rolling up of the hair, until finally they find themselves standing in front of Lady Spencer. The events at the ball occupy the long drawn climax of the novel, but pass in rather a haze. Olivia eventually has her first dance, and many dances follow. She has a varied range of partners, from the embarrassing, to the downright obnoxious, to the one who forgets about her altogether, and to the blinded war hero. She often retires to the cloak-room to avoid a noxious prospective partner, or to hide the fact from the world at large that she has no one to dance with. The night ends with a very different way than what Olivia or Kate or even the readers had anticipated. Yet there is no shock, no unpleasant revelation. Like the dignified coming-of-age moment at the end of Dusty Answer, Invitation to the Waltz too has a certain hint of maturing in the young girls, and a feeling of alienation.

She looked at Olivia lying back on the setee, her eyes black and small with sleep. We won't be able to talk over the dance, exchanging every detail for hours and days. I can't share to-night with her. Olivia's too young. She still belonged among all these dwindled objects -- on that old trivial plane of experience. Poor Olivia! Too hypocritical to ask now, had she enjoyed it? -- having forgotten about her all the evening; having maintained a tranced silence in the taxi coming home.
. . .
She ran over the rough damp turf. I'm left behind, but I don't care. I've got plenty to think about too. Everything crowded into her head at once. Timmy, Marigold, Rollo, Nicola, Archie, Peter, Maurice -- words, looks, movements -- simply extraordinary. Life--- She felt choked. Oh Kate! We won't tell each other . . . She leapt across a mound. Everything's going to begin. [. . .] The rooks flashed sharply, the hare and his shadow swerved in sudden sunlight. In a moment it would be everywhere. Here it was. She ran into it. 

Ms. Lehmann returns to Olivia's story in The Weather in the Streets, and I'm breathlessly waiting to read that next. Virago's half-bitten apple at the top left-hand corner of the cover assures me that it will be available. 

6 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed Invitation to the Waltz as well! I have yet to read Dusty Answer though. As for The Weather in the Streets, it is a lot darker or more bleak that Invitation to the Waltz. I am still undecided which novel I like better. I think perhaps this one, as it is shorter and made my thoughts wander less? And yet there are moments in Weather in the Streets that definitely stand out.

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    1. Oh, but you must read 'Dusty Answer'! It's the best of the lot, although it's her first. Yes, this one was shorter, and more compact since it concentrated only on one event throughout the book; but I have a feeling that 'The Weather in the Streets' would be more mature, perhaps because it deals with Olivia ten years older from now. But of course, I'd have to read it first to judge.

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  2. Oh I love this novel I have read it twice, I also adored Dusty Answer and The Weather in the Streets. The two Rosamond Lehmann novels I have still to read are A note in Music and A Sea Grape Tree - the second of those I do have a copy TBR though. I love her sriting too.

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    1. Thank you for the appreciation. I'm yet to read 'A Note in Music' and 'A Sea-Grape Tree'. I don't own the copies yet, but Rosamond Lehmann is a guilty pleasure that I'm indulging in once every month. Let me see which one it'll be for September . . .

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  3. Thank you for bringing such a lovely, lovely book back into my mind. I've only read the first couple of chapters of 'The Weather in the Streets' - I put it aside because it wasn't the right moment - but it does seem to be a more mature, and very different, work. And thank you for speaking so well of 'Dusty Answer,' a book I have been meaning to read for ages.

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    1. Thank you for such wonderful words of appreciation. I do believe that every book has its own special time when it should be read. Having said that, I'm glad i read 'Dusty Answer' first. It was excruciatingly difficult to get it where I live, but having read little about it, I knew that it would be different. My perseverance was rewarding with sensuous language and a wonderful story. I heartily recommend it to you.

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