[Mrs Jardine is describing a meeting with her long-lost daughter, Ianthe]
“What did you wear?” I said.
I had in mind some vague conception of mother clothes as distinct from lady clothes…. Mrs Jardine might have chosen to set off the extravagant and therefore unmaternal quality of her beauty by wearing something on the eccentric side. Ianthe might have been put off by this…
“I wore a white frock. I remember it so well: long, simple, classical lines, narrow ruffles of lace round neck and wrists. At that time I had all my clothes especially designed for me, as all beautiful women should. And I nearly always wore white. Dear me, what a divinely pretty dress it was! I can still feel the texture of the material – like apple blossom petals. I asked myself: what will most charm this child? – and that is what I chose. I thought: if things go awkwardly we will speak together of clothes.”
“And did you?”
Pause. “I do wonder if she liked it.”
Mrs Jardine shrugged her shoulders.
observations: For a long time I would have said this was one of my favourite books, in the top 10, but you get cautious about saying that when many years have passed since the last reading. I loved Echoing Grove by the same author on a recent re-read, and then mentions of Ballad in a collection of criticism by the novelist Jonathan Coe made me think I should go for it again. Coe says this:
When I first read it, I bought copies for many of my friends, confident that they would thank me for introducing them to a masterpiece. Polite silence, however, seemed to be the more usual response.--- and oh how I empathized. Many was the happy-fellow-reader I brought to water (“You must read this book, you’ll love it”), but I’m not sure I made any of them drink.
Elsewhere Coe says:
A lot of people who like [Lehmann’s] books are slightly embarrassed by it. They find it melodramatic and over the top and a little bit silly.
Anyway, no hesitation, I loved it as much as ever on a re-read, I still think it’s a masterpiece, a deep piece of work hidden in a highly entertaining and enjoyable wrapper.
The passage above contains everything I love about it – the importance of clothes, the weirdness of the conversation, the beautifully-described uncomfortable relations between the mothers and daughters. The novel consists mostly of Mrs Jardine telling young narrator Rebecca highly unsuitable stories for her age (10) and the times (about 1910), and it catches how much children like the attention and interest of an unrelated adult – Mrs J charms and entrances her with her stories even though, as Rebecca says, she plainly keeps forgetting who she is talking to. Rebecca solidly eats her way through the teatable and listens and remembers. And occasionally there is a moment like this:
I writhed in my chair, pierced by a chilling thought. Could Mrs Jardine be – not quite right in the head? And I alone with her?I loved the continual contrast between Mrs J’s rather practised way of telling her extraordinary stories – all tilted in her own favour – filled with strange spiritual notions, and then Rebecca, stolid and slightly wary. I found this very very funny, the absurdity never failed me.
The strange narration, where Mrs J reports on all kinds of things that she has heard from elsewhere, is reminiscent of Wuthering Heights (though you couldn’t think of a more distant contrast from that book’s storyteller, Nelly Dean).
There will be another entry on the book later.
The white dress above, totally unsuitable for a mother meeting her child, seemed ideal. It is a fashion illustration of the right era: "Mes invités n'arrivent pas" by Francesco Javier Gose, from The Red List. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.