i finished rosamond lehmann’s dusty answer, and just in time too – while the book was in impeccable shape when i found it, it had been sitting on shelves in this family for the past 75 years or so and, well, i am guessing that i was its first (and probably its last) reader. the glue of the binding is breaking and the paper cover has begun to peel a little, despite my usual carefulness with books.
anyway, let me tell you about the book!
(spoiler alert: you might not want to read this if you still want to read the book for the simple enjoyment of it, because i am going to tell you what happens and how it ends!)
the plot of “dusty answer” is simple, if you like:
judith spends the duration of the novel trying to figure out who she loves, should love, should be loved by, or should not be loved by. her fixation is on roddy, although both martin and julian, who also lived next door to her as children, were kinder and nicer to her. when they grow up, judith is in for a bit of a surprise, – roddy sometimes plays along with her secret dreams, but also keeps odd company:
Tony Baring sat opposite and stared with liquid expressive blue eyes. He had a sensitive face, changing all the time, a wide mouth with beautiful sensuous lips, thick black hair and a broad white forehead with the eyebrows meeting above the nose, strongly marked and mobile. When he spoke he moved them, singly or together. His voice was soft and precious, and he had a slight lisp. He looked like a young poet.
so far so good, but –
Suddenly she noticed his hands – thin unmasculine hands – queer hands – making nervous appealing ineffectual gestures that contradicted the nobility of his head. She heard him call Roddy ‘my dear’; and once ‘darling’; and had a passing shock. (pp98-99)
not that roddy himself acts “unmasculine” – a little later he tells her about his past lovers: he’s had “a French, an Austrian, a Russian – countless mistresses.” (p.216)
then, there’s jennifer baird, a stunning creature she meets at cambridge.
‘Have you got a cigarette? Never mind… I’ve just learnt how to blow smoke-rings. I’ll teach you.’ More whistling. ‘It’s terrible to be so swayed by appearances. I’m afraid it’s a sign of a weak character. Ugly people rouse all Hell’s devils in me. And beautiful ones make me feel like the morning stars singing together. I want beauty, beauty, beauty…. Don’t you? Lovely people round me, lovely stuffs, lovely colours – lashions and lashions of gorgeous things to touch and taste and look at and smell.’ She flung her head back on its round white throat and took a deep sighing breath. ‘O colours!… I could eat them. I’m awfully sensuous – I look it, don’t you think? Or do I mean sensual? I always get them muddled; but I know it’s unladylike to be one of them.’ (pp.121-122)
jennifer’s lust for life and her careless spontaneousness mesmerize judith.
‘You love somebody, I think. Who is it you love?’
‘I love nobody.’
Jennifer must never never know, suspect, dream for a moment….
‘You mustn’t love anybody,’ said Jennifer. ‘I should want to kill him. I should be jealous.’ Her brooding eyes fell heavily on Judith’s lifted face. ‘I love you.’
And at those words, that look, Roddy faded again harmlessly: Jennifer blinded and enfolded her senses once more, and only Jennifer had power. (p.134)
when jennifer leaves cambridge, dropping out of school for mysterious reasons (to be with geraldine), she leaves judith a copper bowl that judith apparently had admired, with the comment that it was the nicest thing she’d ever owned, and more:
‘It’s all of me,’ whispered Jennifer. (p.186)
left with questions, the promise of a letter with answers, and a copper bowl, judith focuses on roddy once again. she finally finds out, the hard way, that he is not the person she has been imagining for all these years after he takes offense at her passionate admission of her feelings towards him. after a romantic, secret midnight canoe-trip to a small island where he intends to say goodbye forever, and for some reason tells her he loves her (and they kiss passionately), she sends him a letter, which is causes the following exchange:
‘Well,’ – he hesitated. ‘If a man wants to ask a girl to – marry him he generally asks her himself – do you see?’
‘You mean – it was outrageous of me not to wait – to write like that?’
‘I thought it a little odd.’ (p.235)
they decide to never see each other again. heartbroken, still waiting for jennifer to explain herself in the promised letter, she moves on to martin, who introduces her to his mother and shows her his farm. he shoots a rabbit right in front of her, which reminds her of roddy who, unable to bear her sadness at the sight of a dead rabbit when they were children, buried the creature for her. reduced to a pile of sobbing misery, she lets martin comfort her and when he, too, tells her he loves her, she suggests he marry her, saying she would be his wife.
she knows it is the wrong thing to do, she does not love him, and breaks up the engagement a day later. they part, and never meet again. finally, julian, the last of the boys next door, finds her in paris, explaining that he had been waiting for his turn, and courts her. they have a great time together until they hear martin has died. their ways part. julian writes to her to tell her they also must not meet again.
finally, judith is on her own, and the long-awaited letter from jennifer arrives. jennifer also wants to not see judith again, explaining that while she still loves her, she does not deserve judith’s love and concern. judith wants to see her again and they arrange to meet in cambridge. when jennifer doesn’t show up, judith realizes she has come full circle and is now free.
i have to say the first hundred pages or so were tedious. the style, the character of judith, her thought patterns took some getting used to. the middle part, where she is at cambridge, is much more readable, more enjoyable because of all the beautiful descriptions and because things actually happen, while in the first part, it’s mainly judith thinking about stuff.
why did i read the book in the first place?
because i was curious. the book itself, the physical object, was interesting to me (see previous post about albatross books), and seeing that rosamond lehmann was involved with the bloomsbury group and also quoted by simone de beauvoir made me even more curious. also, i will admit that the comment (on wikipedia) that “dusty answer” was a succes de scandale was a selling point.
this book is all about emotions, muchly so because judith is nothing but emotions and wonderings. the men we meet in dusty answer are unmasculine (tony), plain (martin), and hypermasculine (roddy), its women childlike (mariella, who even after having born her son still acts and looks like a child), unfeminine (geraldine, mabel) and hyperfeminine (jennifer).
judith is trying to find her way through this maze, and it is only toward the end that she realizes how much power she holds over how people react to her, how they see her. in the end, she realizes she as one single person had enough power to break apart the circle of familiar friends of the kids next door.