- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 25, 2004

Selina Hastings begins her biography of Rosamond Lehmann with a portrait of the novelist at an anti-Fascist assembly in 1938: “In her late thirties, more beautiful than ever, Rosamond in a silvery skirt and purple chiffon blouse made a magnificent figure, with her pale complexion, imposing height and thick, prematurely white hair… .One young man…noticed that Rosamond had left her handbag on the dais. Having retrieved it, he went up to return it to her. ‘Thank you,’ she said, smiling sweetly as she took it from him. ‘Oh,’ [he] exclaimed…overwhelmed. ‘I feel weak at the knees.’” “Such a reaction,” Ms. Hastings informs us, “was far from unusual. Men found Rosamond’s lustrous beauty irresistible, coupled as it was with a gentle manner and an air of innocence and vulnerability.”

Ironically, Lehmann’s novels often got a cooler reception from male reviewers, many of whom tended to dismiss them as “women’s writing.” Moreover, as is revealed in the course of this immensely readable, shrewdly perceptive biography, the actual men in Rosamond’s life, although enchanted at first by her beauty, kindness, and intensity, would later pull back, finding her too intense, too emotionally demanding, too keen on long, deep, sensitive, analytical conversations in which she tried (unsuccessfully, it seems) to help them get to the root of whatever it was that made them so elusive, evasive, and unreliable.

As successful as she was in attracting men, the love life of this profoundly romantic woman proved to be a long series of sad disappointments. Was Lehmann, then, attracted to the wrong sort of men, or was she simply too hard for most men to take? From what Ms. Hastings shows us in this biography, both seem likely. Lehmann’s first marriage, at age 22, to Leslie Runciman, the childish son of a prominent Liberal politician, was a bad mistake, especially when it became clear to her that her new husband was absolutely opposed to having children.

Her second husband was the dashing but foolish Wogan Philipps, (later the 2nd Baron Milford), a starry-eyed convert to Communism who fought in Spain and subsequently left her to marry a fellow Communist in obeisance to the party line. Lehmann’s greatest, most intense love affair took place during World War II with the poet Cecil Day Lewis, but instead of leaving his wife for her, he ended up leaving both of them for a much younger actress.

Lehmann had a weakness for dashing, aristocratic men, or, at any rate, men with an aristocratic air of aloofness, and she tended to fall in love precipitately (she with them and they with her). Her disappointment in the wake of these rash choices fueled her insecurity (the shadowy underside of her narcissism), transforming her in men’s eyes from the perfect mate to an emotional millstone, making them flee from her that sometime her did seek.

But the important thing about Rosamond Lehmann, the reason for reading her biography (not that one really needs a reason: Ms. Hastings, who’s also written stylish lives of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, has made Lehmann’s story as enticing and absorbing as a good novel) is the marvelous body of fiction that she created in the course of her long and tempestuous life. Ms. Hastings puts it well: “As a novelist, she was subtle and perceptive, but in reality she never learned from her tumultuous adventures, driving through her personal high dramas high on a sense of injury and injustice, pursuing her perfidious lovers like an avenging Fury.”

One reads the biography for the colorful story of this unhappy femme fatale, but one reads Rosamond Lehmann’s fiction for much more: not only for subtlety and perceptiveness, but for the beauty and skill of her writing, and not only for her artistry, but because so much of her work is imbued with a quality that justly can be called visionary. “The kind of novel that might have been written by Keats,” was how the poet Alfred Noyes hailed her debut in 1927 with “Dusty Answer.” John Galsworthy, Compton MacKenzie, Lytton Strachey, and Archibald MacLeish were similarly impressed by Lehmann’s shimmering portrait of love’s lost illusions.

In the 1930s came the two novels that Ms. Hastings considers “among the most distinguished English fiction produced in the years between the wars:” the delicately comic “Invitation to the Waltz” (1932) and its darker sequel, “The Weather in the Streets” (1936), chronicling the heroine’s adventures 10 years later, including a back-street abortion.

By the 1950s, Lehmann’s reputation was at its peak: “I do not think there is any living English novelist whose work, at its best, and within its limits, so nearly approaches perfection as Rosamond Lehmann’s,” wrote R.A. Scott-James in his 1951 survey “Fifty Years of English Literature.”

Lehmann’s standing waned in the 1960s and 1970s as cultural fashions came and went. Stunned by the death in 1958 of her much-loved daughter Sally, Lehmann turned to spiritualism, which featured in some of her later work. Then, in the 1980s, (her own 80s, as it happened: she was born in 1901, the day after Queen Victoria’s funeral), she was given a new lease on literary life by the redoubtable Carmen Calill, who set about reissuing her work in the Virago Modern Classics series.

“The Echoing Grove,” published in 1953, was not her last novel, but it is a kind of culmination, as Lehmann herself clearly felt: “Everything I think I have discovered about the jungle of the human heart has gone into it.” Although some reviewers derided its “soggy,” “feminine” qualities, others hailed it: Elizabeth Janeway called it a “masterpiece,” George Scott pronounced it “a great novel by any standards, ancient or modern,” Rebecca West said it was the book she had most enjoyed that year.

British novelist Jonathan Coe, who wrote the introduction to the Virago edition published over 40 years later, sees “The Echoing Grove” as the completion of the cycle of novels begun 26 years earlier with “Dusty Answer.” In it, he finds “something approaching a final statement, a resolution of the themes which had preoccupied her for most of her writing career.”

For Lehmann was a writer in the great 19th century tradition, a Romantic visionary descendent of Wordsworth, Keats, and the Bronte sisters. She was also an acolyte of Bloomsbury, an admirer and friend of Virginia Woolf. Love, art, and personal relations were the heart of her beliefs. Drawn from her experiences, but transformed and distilled into the clearer crystal of art, her novels reflect and illuminate a century of flux.

Towards the end of “The Echoing Grove,” two sisters, wife and mistress of the same man, contemplate the way he finally evaded them both: “I can’t help thinking it’s particularly difficult to be a woman just at present,” muses the free-spirited mistress, Dinah.

“One feels so transitional and fluctuating… .So I suppose do men. I believe we are all in flux — that the difference between our grandmothers and us is far deeper than we realize… .Our so-called emancipation may be a symptom, not a cause. Sometimes I think that it’s more than the development of a new attitude towards sex: that a new gender may be evolving — psychically new — a sort of hybrid. Or else it’s just beginning to be uncovered how much of woman there is in man and vice versa… .It’s ourselves we’re trying to destroy when we’re destructive: at least I think that explains the people who can never sustain a human relationship.”

The point here is not so much an explanation as a poignant expression of a pervasive anxiety, a state of consciousness itself in flux. The characters in “The Echoing Grove” seem to be living in a state of perpetual liminality, rather like the lovers swirling round in the second circle of Dante’s “Inferno.” They are haunted by visions of perfection that can’t be realized, visions that are simply too powerful to let go of.

The enduring power of Lehmann’s art requires no intermediary, and Ms. Hastings, who knew Lehmann personally, never makes the mistake of conflating her life and her art. In giving us this deft biography, however, she has issued an invitation to discover the character and gifts of a writer whose extraordinarily acute perceptiveness made her sensitive to the hidden crosscurrents of her — and our — age.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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