Is Rosamond Lehmann the star pre-War woman writer?

I would love to pose the question: Is Rosamond Lehmann the best of the mid-20th Century female novelists? I am nowhere near well-enough-read to opine very certainly.

I am thinking of the world before Iris Murdoch (my mother’s favourite during the 1950s and 1960s) and Muriel Spark (whose books I loved in the 1970s). Lehmann’s core competition comes from Stella Gibbons, Betty Miller, Jean Rhys,  Rose Macaulay, Elizabeth Bowen. Viriginia Wolf ought to be in there, but perhaps the point is that Lehmann and the others are middlebrow and Woolf’s highbrow competition doesn’t count.

I’ve been reading some off-road Stella Gibbons (so, not Cold Comfort Farm) and thrilled to it. In Westwood and Starlight alike she takes us to the heart of aspirational upper working class and lower middle class life in London and in both she dangles upper class – or at any rate affluent – life before the lower orders. The remarkable and very odd thing about Gibbons is her handling of mystery and magic. In Westwood, a house exerts a special hold; in Starlight a fey, almost crazy invalid seems almost to transmit light, or lives bathed it in. So Gibbons is marvellus in exporing the numinous. In both, the theme of a woman’s unrequited love matters a great deal, and it is the cross-threadedness of the thing which matters.

This is the sort of material I seem to like, and I turned to Jean Rhys for the potency of the rage of a spurned woman, and Nancy Mitford for the courage of a kept woman.

All in all, I set myself up to admire Rosamond Lehmann for her portrayal of upper middle class women making modern choices between the wars. In The Weather In the Streets and The Echoing Grove we see muc the same sort of woman and world. Our heroines are bourgeois but with strongly bohemian edges and they both make a bold choice: to love not merely inconveniently (adulterously), but to men who are – as it were – brown furniture and proud of it. So we have clever, free, artistic, popular, poor middle class women having deeply important affairs which turn away from the modern, permissive mores that appear to rule their lives.

The point of Lehmann is not merely the sort of dilemma she maps out, but the quality of the interior lives she gives her heroines and even their men. Her characters are not in a fog; they are not driven by mysterious forces; they do not intellectualise, propagandise or theorise. But neither are they swept along on a tide of subconscious impulse. Their conversation seem to me to leap off the page as real and awkward as those I have heard over decades, and Lehmann’s assumptions and descriptions of their thoughts seem to be on the button. (That last bit is even more difficult than having an ear for people’s speech.)

Lehmann is not alone n being very skilful and instructive. Similar themes and qualities are in Betty Miller’s Farewell Leicester Square, for instance.

I suppose I am an anti-feminist, in the sense that I dislike the the progressive victimhood, the campaigning reformism, of the feminism of the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  So I do wonder whether these women writers provide quite the fodder and ammunition modern feminists would like. Certainly, women in these novels have difficult choices to make: they have to choose between safety and romance, I suppose. Certainly, sexy and desirable men in these novels are relatively unreflective and unresponsive. Certainly, women are more or less in orbit round men. In Lehmann in particular, women sometimes make brave choices and usually have to suffer for it.

But I am not at all sure that Lehmann is trying to make a case that women’s economic dependency is the root of their emotional difficulty with men. I could easily imagine her writing a novel set in the here and now and posing much the same problems, even for a woman enjoying economic parity with her love object.  This more Men are from Mars territory, I suspect.


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Publication date

06 May 2012


Mind & body; On books