Invitation to the Waltz / The Gipsy’s Baby

by Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1938

by Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1938 (Lehmann w/ family)

Like I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been reading some more Rosamond Lehmann. Mostly I was curious to see how / if her other work compares to the (rather excellent) Dusty Answer. Here are my findings / conclusions so far:

First on my list — by virtue of arriving in the mail before the other book — was Invitation to the Waltz, a novel Lehmann published in 1932. The plot is easily summarized: Two English sisters (teens) worry about, look forward to, and prepare for what to them seems like a life-changing event: a dance at a neighboring estate. They attend the dance, and (spoilers) it’s not what they expected. The end.

I found the sisters (and their cousin, whom the reader meets later on) interesting, Olivia (the younger sister) in particular. This book is a pleasant read that allows the reader to dive deep into the every-day life and concerns of well-off (but not as well-off as they’d like to be) teenage girls in early 1900s England. Some concerns on the girls’ minds are class and social status, and of course — teens will be teens — their peculiar, liminal position between childhood and adulthood. Physical appearance (the presence or absence of ‘elephant legs’ for example, and the propriety — or lack thereof — of certain types of dress and fabric). Boys, of course. Young men of a certain standing. The exotic “life in the city” that the girls are missing out on, living on their parents’ country estate.

The book ends, beautifully imho, on this paragraph, which I’m sharing because it illustrates  Lehmann’s style in this book:

Everything’s going to begin. A hare sitting up in the grass took fright, darting ahead of [Olivia] into the ploughed land. The rooks flew up in a swirl from the furrows. All the landscape as far as the horizon seemed to begin to move. Wind was chasing cloud, and sun flew behind them. A winged gigantic runner with a torch was running from a great distance to meet her, swooping over the low hills, skimming from them veil after veil of shadow, touching them to instant ethereal shapes of light. On it came, over ploughed field and fallow. The rooks flashed sharply, the hare and his shadow swerved in sudden sunlight. In a moment it would be everywhere. Here it was. She ran into it.

If this (above) is the kind of storytelling you like, you’ll really like this book. The images Lehmann paints are beautiful and memorable. If I had to describe the book in one word, the word would be ‘daydreamy.’

rosamond lehmann, british novelist

Rosamond Lehmann, British novelist (1901-90)

While there’s a wee a bit of tentative teenage subversion in the book, it’s over all fairly conventional. As are the short stories in The Gipsy’s Baby. Which is not to say that either is deficient in some essential way. What I mean is that neither takes risks the way Dusty Answer does.

The story collection The Gipsy’s Baby (and yes, that’s how she spells it) contains five short stories that, according to Janet Watts (author of the introduction), draw heavily from Lehmann’s own memories and experiences. One recurring theme is war — not surprising, seeing the time they were written. Another is family, the strangeness of the constellations people take in it. And if you’re looking for a topic to write a little paper about for school, you could definitely look at how Lehmann treats differences in social class in these stories. The title story as well as “The Red-Haired Miss Daintreys” would be great for that.

As much as Lehmann’s characters gush over fine fabrics and beautiful dresses, her narrator is not blind to the poverty and misery just down the road from the family estate.

There are distinct classes of people, and rules about who can mix with whom. There are the upper-class people, the ones Olivia and Kate (in Invitation to the Waltz) hope will accept and invite them. There are people of the narrator’s own class. Below, there are several levels: the dressmaker, while poor and not educated or really refined the way the central characters are, is approached differently (and with considerably less apprehension) than, say, the poor family who lives down the road, whose father works at the estate. The children of this family inspire confusion, fear of the unknown, especially Chrissie:

Whereas the others all looked, curiously enough, clean in a superficial way, she was always excessively dirty, and this increased her look of a travel-stained child from a foreign country: a little refugee, we would think now. If one met her in the field path and said: ‘Hallo, Chrissie,’ one said it with apprehension: might she not spit, screech like a monkey, blaze out a stream of swear-words? She never did, though. (11)

The gypsies are met with downright hostility, as well as curiosity on the part of the children. Interaction with them seems out of the question.

If you’re interested in the class theme, p. 102 in the story “When the Waters Came” might stand out to you. Here, Lehmann shows us a young, working-class man through the eyes of a woman of her own class:

He was very young, and had one of those nobly modelled faces of working men; jaw, brows profoundly carved out, lips shutting clearly, salient cheekbone, sunk cheek, and in the deep cavities of the eye-sockets, eyes of extreme sadness. The sorrow is fixed, impersonal, expressing nothing but itself, like the eyes of animals or of portraits.

The description shows the upper-middle class / upper classes’ romantic idea of workers and working class people. At the same time, they are at least vaguely aware of the discrepancy between the idea and reality. Still, to the woman watching the worker, the young man is noble in appearance, maybe in the way a good horse is noble, and work is an abstract, a symbol, even ‘a ritual’ (104).

The quality of the stories in this collection — as far as I am concerned — is inconsistent. However, when Lehmann writes well, a consistent strength is her keen observation, visually and emotionally. This is evident in all three books I have discussed on this blog so far.

Further books by Lehmann I may read & discuss at a later point:

  • A Note in Music
  • The Weather in the Streets (sequel to Invitation to the Waltz)
  • The Ballad and the Source
  • The Echoing Grove
  • The Swan in the Evening
  • A Sea-Grape Tree

For now, I’m going back to some poetry and theory texts.

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About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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