Despite packing and moving and all sorts, I have managed (just in time) to finish Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann, and thus I am participating in Florence’s Rosamond Lehmann Reading Week! I also realise I’ve been spelling it ‘Rosamund’ up until now. Sorry, Ros.
I bought Dusty Answer (1927) eight years ago, and it’s been on holiday with me a couple of times, and yet I hadn’t read it (or any Rosamond Lehmann novels) until this week. I had intended to read a different Lehmann novel, but then decided to start at the beginning, with the novel Lehmann had published when she was 26, the same age I am. I’m glad I did. Dusty Answer is brilliant, and fulfilled all the expectations I’ve been building up in my head over the past eight years.
|The papier-mache dog (Pastey) was made by my friend Mel’s boyfriend…
Mel insisted that he make an appearance.
The novel concerns Judith Earle, an only-child who is mostly solitary, but who becomes friendly with the children who visit next door – and who end up figuring hugely in her life. They are Mariella, Roddy, Julian, Charlie, and Martin – mostly cousins, but Julian and Charlie are brothers – and have a busy, high-spirited life which Judith joins in nervously but so very whole-heartedly. They are her life, for a summer or two – and ice-skating a while later – and have a huge significance in her otherwise lonely upbringing. It takes a talented writer to write about childhood without the novel feeling like a children’s book, and Lehmann achieves this wonderfully. The cast is well-drawn – foolish but amiable Martin, above-it-all Julian, unusual Roddy, beautiful Charlie, and self-conscious Mariella. Lehmann captures childhood, and the fleeting but all-absorbing interaction with other children, even when it lasts only a little while. Although nothing exceptional happens in these chapters, the atmosphere is consumingly beautiful. Part of me wishes the whole of Dusty Answer dealt with their childhood, from the subjective but astute gaze of Judith. It would have been enough.
But, we learn in the first page or two, Charlie is killed. The children grow up and don’t see each other. Judith must start to make a life for her own – which she does, as a student at Cambridge. This was the section I liked least. The character who looms largest in Judith’s life at this point is Jennifer – they bond over insulting a chubby, ugly girl behind her back; they are essentially horrified by a lack of beauty. This was where I lost a bit of sympathy for Judith. But a novel – even one which looks through the eyes of one character – doesn’t fail or succeed on the sympathetic qualities of its protagonist. Lehmann still writes engagingly and Cambridge life, but I missed the cousins. I wanted them back. That group was what gave the novel vitality for me. And, luckily… they came back! I shan’t spoil any more, but things get increasingly complex…
Dusty Answer spans Judith’s life from childhood to her early twenties (I think) and Lehmann is convincing at the subtle ways she changes as she ages – and the same for all the children as they become adults (except poor Charlie, of course.) Only Julian and Roddy got rather confused in my mind, and we might be able to lay the blame at the door of the hot weather this week. As a central character, Judith is convincing in her thoughts and responses, irksome in her self-consciousness and occasional hysteria, and an odd (but believable) mix of concern for the lives of others and intense introspection. Perhaps common traits of the only-child with distant parents. One character sums up her approach to life rather well:
Have you ever been happy? No. Whenever you come near to being, you start thinking: “Now I am happy. How interesting… Am I really happy?”
Yet, although she has a few off-putting qualities, these only serve to make her more interesting and rounded as a focal pair of eyes for the novel. She seems to have been based on Lehmann herself. None of the characters are saints or sinners; the good do not end happily and the bad unhappily – Lehmann’s novel reflects the highs and lows, obsessions and irritations of life itself – albeit rather heightened at times.
But the reason I loved Dusty Answer was Lehmann’s writing, especially in the first section. It’s another of those novels which starts with a little bit of prolepsis (starting with some information, then skipping back into the past) but it worked well here, because we are going back to Judith’s childhood. The effect lends an air of added nostalgia to the early chapters. It actually reminded me of a couplet written by Miss Hargreaves (!) – her poetry is usually nonsensical, but there was a definite sense at the beginning of Dusty Answer of ‘Halcyon, halcyon, halcyon days / Wrapped in high summer’s indigenous haze.’ And Lehmann writes so, so beautifully. As with Sybille Bedford, it’s difficult to pinpoint sections which are especially brilliant, because all of it flows exquisitely. Karen (whose review is here) wrote on the LibraryThing discussion of Rosamond Lehmann: ‘What beautiful, dreamy, atmospheric prose she writes!’ And she’s spot on. As I say, picking out an excerpt is tricky – indeed, it somehow seems rather like purple prose in isolation, which it never does in context, but I thought I’d better not write a whole review without any quotations…
Into the deep blue translucent shell of night. The air parted lightly as the car plunged through it, washing away in waves that smelt of roses and syringa and all green leaves. The moon struggled with clouds. She wore a faint and gentle face.
“I shouldn’t be surprised if there was rain before daybreak,” said Martin; and, reaching at length the wan straight high road, accelerated with a sigh of satisfaction.
“Faster, Martin, faster.”
Faster and faster he went. She settled herself close against him, and through half-shut eyes saw the hawthorn and wild-rose hedges stream backward on either hand. The night air was a drug from whose sweet insinuating caress she prayed never to wake. Soon, through one leafy roadway after another, the headlights pierced a tunnel of green gloom. The lanes were full of white scuts and little paws, paralysed; and then, as Martin painstakingly slowed down, dipping and twinkling into the banks. Moths flickered bright-winged an instant in the lamplight before being dashed to their fried and ashy death. Once or twice came human beings, objects of mean and foolish design, incongruous in the night’s cast grandeur; and here and there, under the trees, upon the stiles, in the grass, a couple of them, locked face to face, disquietingly still, gleamed and vanished. She observed them with distaste: passion was all ugliness and vulgar imbecility.
But I think the only way to see whether or not you’d like Dusty Answer is to pick up a copy and start reading. Since it was on my shelf for eight years, you’ll have gathered that a synopsis alone doesn’t sell it as a must-read. But if, like me, you’ve somehow gone through your life without reading any of Rosamond Lehmann’s output, then – hie thee to a library!
Thanks so much, Florence, for running Rosamond Lehmann Reading Week and for making me finally read this novel. It’s so, so good!