[mid-1940s. Sisters Dinah and Madeleine have met up for the first time in many years]
After the meal, after a rapid tour of the house, they prepared themselves to take a walk.
‘Your shape is exactly as it always was,’ said Madeleine.
‘The same to you.’ Dinah looked with appreciation at her sister, tall and trim in old but well-cut tweeds.
‘No, not really. My legs…. Not that it matters tuppence. But I hate myself in slacks now. Mother couldn’t bear me wearing them, she said I looked like a female impersonator. You know how she had a muddled idea that women must dress to preserve the mystery of sex. However, you look all right in them. Fine.’
‘Thanks.’ Dinah’s voice was dry; she smiled. ‘But the mystery of sex was never my strong suit…. Mother turned in her hand about my clothes when I was 17.’
‘Yes. You’ve forgotten. It was only yours she fussed about. After my coming-out frock, God help me, I was scratched from the arena.’…
‘Poor darling, she had such awful taste,’ said Madeleine, staring out of the window. ‘It was based on a principle: what the jeune fille should look like.’
observations: An epublisher called Open Road Media is republishing all of Rosamond Lehmann’s works as ebooks in the US and Canada. They asked me if I’d be interested in looking at this one: in fact I have a 1st edition hard-back, and have read it several times, but I accepted their offer of an ebook, read it again, and fell in love with it all over again. And began to wonder – why isn’t Lehmann better remembered? Many of the women writers of the 1920s through to the 1950s have been revived, or perhaps never gone away. I – like many books bloggers – am an enthusiastic fan of many of them, and feature them frequently, and revere the publishers Bloomsbury, Persephone, Virago and Vintage (who have published Lehmann in the UK) for keeping them in print.
If I say she’s a much more serious writer than others who might on the surface seem similar (Nancy Mitford, Stella Gibbons, Dodie Smith, EM Delafield), that is not either to underplay the status of the others, or to imply that Lehmann is dull or humourless – she is never that. But she does not have the kind of self-deprecating, self-mocking jokes that turn up in other books: she gives herself, her heroines and their lives the importance they deserve. Characters have long discussions about their thoughts and feelings and – above all – their love affairs, and Lehmann is quite unapologetic. And rightly so: she makes these sections surprisingly riveting.
The Echoing Grove concerns the two sisters above, Dinah and Madeleine. Madeleine is married to Rickie, Dinah is living a rackety Bohemian life in London – of one of her later homes she says:
Only one bathroom in the building but the other tenants refrain from baths till Saturday, so it’s not too bad.While Dinah is staying with her married sister, she gets engaged to Charles. That night, Rickie (up till now merely the perfect brother-in-law) goes to her room, where she is in bed, and tells her she can’t go through with it:
‘I’ve got to.’--and he immediately leaves the room. One of the hardest and most memorable seduction scenes in any book: ‘And so it had all begun.’
‘You can’t. You know why.’
‘Break it off.’
The affair between sister and brother-in-law causes great unhappiness all round (as well as some moments of great joy) and stops, re-starts and has its rather squalid moments. It is, to be truthful, not always easy to follow in the book – the above description is a lot more linear than the way Lehmann tells it. I think the affair starts in the early 1930s, stumbles along for a couple of years, then ends more or less decisively. The book starts in around 1944, when it is clear that Rickie is dead, and the two sisters have been estranged for a long time. The agonizing narrative of the relations among the three of them is then slowly reeled out, but jumping all over the place to different stages of the affair.
The whole book asks the same question over and over: can you follow your heart at others’ expense? Do you have the right to pursue your own happiness if you know you will badly hurt someone else? And there are no answers. The book often teeters towards showing Madeleine as a tradition-bound, stiff person, while Dinah is the attractive free-spirit. But Lehmann (who in her own life would be more of a Dinah than a Madeleine) also shows that Madeleine really does love Rickie, it is not mere convention that makes her want to preserve her marriage. And Dinah’s absurdities and the squalor of her life are shown, as well as the ways in which she would be extremely tiresome.
All the characters are superbly well-drawn, you feel you know them by the end of the book.
The book was made into a film called The Heart of Me in 2002: a terrific film that I highly recommend. There will be another entry on the book, and the clothes in it, and the film, later this week.
The advertising image is one I first used for Agatha Christie’s Moving Finger.
The second picture is from the wonderful Powerhouse Museum collection.