Rosamond Lehmann (1901 – 1990) was a very distinguished British novelist who wrote eight works of fiction, seven novels and volume of short stories, of which I still have two to read. I really loved these books, one of which I have read twice and also enjoyed Selina Hasting’s biography (although she doesn’t come out of that book quite so well). I was therefore quite keen to read this book – Rosamond Lehmann’s only work of autobiography, however I must admit to approaching it with some slight trepidation. I was nervous of it I suppose, because I knew from the blurb that it relates Rosamond Lehmann’s psychic experiences that followed the death of her beloved daughter Sally in 1958. Now when it comes to all things psychic and spiritual I am not exactly what could be called a believer. However I do believe that things can happen to people that are difficult for the rest of us to understand, call it self-deceit or call it spiritualism it is no doubt real to them.
The Swan in the Evening is told in three sections , the first section about Rosamond’s childhood, the second section sets out her relationship with her daughter Sally, the third section is about the time following Sally’s death and Rosamond’s unexpected psychical experiences. I found the first two section’s very readable, written with Rosamond Lehmann’s beautiful gift for prose, the descriptions of Rosamond’s childhood quite poignant. Death is always present in this little book, in the first section of the book Rosamond tells of her family’s stableman William Moody – who’s adored little daughter Wilma died tragically of diphtheria – Moody’s grief so terrible and so memorable to her all those years later. Young Rosie was often concerned with death, the risk to pets and the demise of birds, trying to save them from raspberry nets and creating a little bird hospital. Beautiful Dora from the local sweet shop is murdered, which little Rosamond discovers only after having run there on a Wednesday to find the shop unaccountably closed.
I suspect that following the death of her daughter Rosamond Lehmann placed greater importance on events from the past – giving them the status almost of omens. Thus perhaps do the bereaved sometimes lie to themselves.
“Since Sally was nearly always in my thoughts it is no wonder that, as I prepared for bed in my hotel room, looking out over the sea towards the lights of the mainland opposite, another memory of her should have slipped, very quietly and clearly, into the forefront of my mind. Once, when she was five years old, as we walked together on the downs above Compton in Berkshire where we spent the war years she said, without the slightest warning:
‘One day…one day..’
‘What about one day?’
‘One day I might call you and call you and call you over the whole world. Over the whole world, and you might not answer. What shall I do then? Her voice seemed to toll. Taken aback, I quickly promised her that I would always answer.”
Rosamond Lehmann had two children, Hugo and Sarah known as Sally, but she seems to have a particularly close relationship with her daughter. The portrait that is painted of this relationship, and the dreadful tragedy of Sally’s death is very moving, Rosamond’s grief was naturally extreme.
“All the details I treasure of her beauty – the ravishing lines of her lips in smiling (the archaic smile –she really had it – its mysteriously subtle curve), her rather gliding walk, her odd slow buoyant grace when she danced, the something unforgettable about the modelling of her eyes and eyelids – their extended outer corners, the grey-blue large iris flecked with green, the cut of the luminous lids, like segments of magnolia petal …such images seem to set her in an antique world; in some golden age of plastic and poetic harmony, meaning beauty; startling me now only a little more profoundly than they always did.”
So although I admit I found the psychic element slightly disturbing and odd – making me re-evaluate a woman whose work I admire enormously, the whole book I found strangely beguiling and hard to put down. That though, is almost certainly because it was after all written by Rosamond Lehmann – and I just love the way that she writes. As I mentioned above – the Rosamond Lehmann who emerged from Selina Hasting’s biography is not a woman I would find it easy to sympathise with – selfish shallow indulging in affairs which she put ahead of her family, but although I find the woman who emerges from A Swan in the Evening, to be someone who thinks very differently from me – I do find her surprisingly likeable, and I am glad of that.