Rosamond Lehmann is an author whose books have been languishing for far too long on my TBR pile (which is rapidly turning into a mountain – but more of that in my next post). So I was delighted when Florence at Miss Darcy’s Library announced she was hosting a Rosamond Lehmann Reading Week . I decided to start with “Dusty Answer”, Lehmann’s first novel and the only one I’ve actually read. This is a little contrary perhaps, but it ties in also with Heavenali‘s July re-reading challenge also. In the end, I’m very glad I did start with this book.

The book tells the story of the early life and growing up of Judith Earle, a solitary girl who lives in a house by a river and is fascinated by the five cousins who come to stay next door. Over the course of the novel, Judith grows up, goes to Cambridge, falls in and out of love and her relationships with the various cousins change as the years and events take their course. The story is told in an impressionistic way, and we see events through the highly subjective lens of Judith’s viewpoint. In many ways she is naive and her lack of experience lead her to misunderstand the other characters and situations quite dramatically, despite her intelligence.

I suspected from the little I knew about Lehmann that there might be autobiographical elements and when I had a look at Wikipedia it had this to say:

The story contains many elements of the author’s own childhood and upbringing; albeit idealised. Like the author the protagonist Judith Earle grew up privately educated in a large riverbank house in Buckinghamshire; unlike the author though she is an only child; her only playmates being the occasional visits of the children next door; five cousins: Julian, Charlie, Roddy, Martin and Mariella. Childhood friendships develop into romantic entanglements which continue as Judith leaves home for Girton College, Cambridge with a brief interlude when Judith falls in love with Jennifer a fellow student, scandalous for contemporary readers.

I was quite interested in what was said about the scandalous content as Lehmann is very matter-of-fact in her treatment of the love affairs of the various characters although she is of course never graphic or detailed. Judith’s love for Jennifer is in the end portrayed as quite pure – in a letter, Jennifer describes Judith as tucking her in like a mother, whereas one suspects that Jennifer’s passions are more adult and usually consummated. Similarly, cousin Roddy, who is Judith’s major love, has an ongoing relationship with Tony, who is given just a couple of somewhat camp characteristics but nothing is ever spelled out. But it doesn’t need to be – the quality and beauty of Lehmann’s writing tells you all you need to know about the characters and their emotions.

Did I enjoy “Dusty Answer”? A resounding yes! The writing alone, which is elegant and beautiful, is enough to enchant you. The characters and the settings are beautifully drawn and very real, and the whole story is infused with a sense of nostalgia, a pining for what is lost (or what was never had). I found the narrative gripping and this turned out to be one of those ‘can’t put it down’ books. It was a book that sent your emotions soaring to heights or to the depths of Judith’s despair. Lehmann’s talent as a writer is immense and hopefully the reading week will stimulate a lot more interest in this neglected writer.

 

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