It must be years and years now that I've been meaning to read
Rosamond Lehmann, several times nearly, but never quite until it came
up as my Hesperus of the Week.
I have a ready pile of Hesperus titles and now start to feel a bit unsettled if I don't have one on the go.Apart from the book in the hand and the convenient bag-sized proportions, it's the reading experience itself. You absolutely know you are going to get something not run of the mill, very out of the ordinary, always breaking the mould.Altogether unusual.
So next up was The Gipsy's Baby, a selection of Rosamond Lehmann's short stories and I'm scurrying off to the Oxford DNB right away to read up on a novelist I know of but not a lot about. Except now I'm dredging up from the dark recesses of my mind the fact that I went to a talk on Rosamond Lehmann by a recent biographer. It was a hot sultry afternoon and I was in that nodding-off mode that I so dread when I'm at anything like that.Your eyelids start to feel like lead, then you think, I know, I'll just make the next blink a bit of a longer one, then a longer one, then it's the embarrassing jolt as you emerge from a blink that's gone on for about ten minutes.It's one of the reasons I take notes at these events, the act of writing keeps me awake sometimes.
So if I could have found those notes right now how useful that would be, sadly no.
Born in 1901 into "an affluent and gifted" family Rosamond Lehmann was educated at Girton, always knew she would be a writer and hovered around the environs of the Bloomsbury set as did her brother John.Quite a chequered romantic life and an affair with Cecil Day-Lewis for Rosamund which definitely ended in tears.More tragedy when Rosamond Lehmann's daughter died of polio at the age of twenty-four and this would seem to have been a pivotal turning point in her life and possibly an event from which she never quite recovered.
The short stories in The Gipsy's Baby are meticulous studies in people-watching that it would be difficult to better.The story of the book's title is a searingly honest and transparent delineation of class prejudice; the upper class,affluent, nursery-bound family versus the large, working class Wyatt family of vast numbers of scruffy free-ranging children, disturbingly likened to vermin,
"The younger ones could not be said to be dressed in the accepted sense...I saw the baby in a pink flannel hot-water bottle cover.There was something sharp, gnawing, rodent about them; a scuttling quietness in their movements"
Just how the children cope
with the sense of apartness and difference imposed by the adults is
effortlessly revealed by Rosamond Lehmann and her clever use of the
posh but marauding canine go-between, a Dandy Dinmont dog.
We had friends who had one of those, Hamish was an irrepressible rogue of a thing that would have your ankles one minute and then grin and expect you to adore him the next.
When Jannie dispatches the working class cat to that land where mice abound and sun-puddles await, a strange bond is forged between the families and the Wyatt's burrow their way through the defences
"They worked away noiselessly like termites, and in the end our foundations collapsed and they were in the nursery."
This of course can't be tolerated but tragedy strikes and again half-truths and misinformation abound as all the children try to abide by the unwritten rules and make sense of the bit of this social world they have been born into.
Then The Red-haired Miss Daintreys, "four daughters all six foot and over" and their ageing parents minutely observed at the seaside hotel.I almost feel like I know Miss Viola,
"and she did her hair I never could discover how in a low-lying amorphous swarming way over her ears and forehead, without a parting. She wore artistic clothes, peacock-blues and coppers, and she moved
languidly, and her expression was ironical, fin de siecle."
I still have a few more stories to read but each a microcosm of a bygone age I suspect and thus a social record of the times which I always find as relevant as any other source.
Another lovely Hesperus title and I think probably a great introduction to the writing of Rosamond Lehmann, as is a chapter in Clare Hanson's excellent book Hysterical Fictions, The Woman's Novel in the Twentieth Century in which Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret Drabble, A.S.Byatt and Anita Brookner also get a good airing. Sadly published as one of those prohibitively expensive Palgrave Macmillan academic titles thus putting it out of reach of most pockets including Devon Libraries it would seem.
I must have won the lottery that week.