Upon first reading Invitation to the Waltz I thought it was a lively charming novel, which it is. This re-read of it however, has given me the chance to appreciate just how very good it is. First published in 1932, but set around 1920 Invitation to the Waltz is the story of a dance, seventeen year old Olivia’s first ever, which she will attend with her beautiful older sister Kate. On the surface there isn’t much to the story at all. Olivia wakes to her seventeenth birthday, is given some marvellous scarlet fabric to have a dress made for the coming ball, a ten shilling note, a diary and an ugly ornament from her sweet little brother. Then there are the days leading up to the dance, the dress which must be made and the anticipated arrival of Reggie who will accompany them to the dance, and provide a possibly much-needed partner for Olivia. Olivia and Kate’s family comprises a socially aware mother an elderly father, odd Uncle Oswald, and their endearing 7-year-old brother James. Olivia is a wonderful character – brought up to be polite, she is terrified of hurting people’s feeling, she is so overly conscious of herself as we so often are at that age – that her trials and agonies could belong to almost any young girl – even today.
“I want to do something absolutely different, or perhaps nothing at all: just stay where I am, in my home, and absorb each hour, each day, and be alone; and read and think; and walk about the garden in the night; and wait, wait…”
Then comes the evening of the party and the awful, exciting anticipation, of a longed for event. The flame coloured fabric that Olivia is given for her birthday has been made into a dress by local seamstress Miss Robinson, another wonderful creation from Rosamond Lehmann, as we are allowed a poignant glimpse of this sad woman’s life, her disappointments and inadequacies. The dress surprisingly not tried on in its finished form until the evening itself is inevitably a disappointment. The evening of the dance takes up three-quarters of the book with the people Olivia and Kate meet – especially Olivia, the conversations they have, and the feelings they awake in her. Olivia meets some interesting characters at the dance – a young blind man, a rather miserable poet as well as the son of the household Rollo Spencer.
“I’ve had a lot really, one way and another. What was it that, at last, had made almost a richness? Curious fragments odd and ends of looks, speeches…Nothing for myself really. Rollo leaving me to go to Nicola. Rollo and his father smiling at one another. Peter crying, saying “are you my friend?” Kate looking so happy…Waltzing with Timmy. Marigold flying downstairs to him. Yes, I can say I’ve enjoyed myself.”
The dance held for the effervescent Marigold Spencer – is both an excitement and an agony for Kate and Olivia. They just daughters of a middle-class businessman, while aristocratic Marigold and Rollo Spencer are from an altogether different world. A world of glamour, house parties, trips to London, fast cars and hunting. As they leave childhood behind them, they will inevitably become more separate from the glorious beings from the big house who they were once more equal to, as children. Rosamond Lehmann portrays the differences of class, and social position brilliantly in this novel. From the sad thirty-year-old dressmaker, aware she was too good to marry a bricklayer, left on the shelf and reduced to a life of tedium and ill-health. To the sweep’s bedraggled little children, to the selfish, vain young things who arrive for the party, she has a brilliantly observing eye.
I first read this novel about two and a half years ago and loved it – though after reading the sequel The Weather in the streets – I decided I prefered that one. Although of the two I think I still do like The Weather in the Streets best, I was glad of a chance to re-visit this one and see where it all began for Olivia. In re-reading Invitation to the Waltz I noted the finer points that I had forgotten, the class consciousness and the wonderful characterisations. Throughout the novel Rollo Spencer the glorious son of the Spencer family flits tantalisingly in the background – only finally appearing fully in the last thirty pages or so. One of the things Rosamond Lehmann does so well is to leave the reader with the feeling that this glorious young man was present throughout. Leaving things as she does – there just had to be a sequel didn’t there? For anyone who hasn’t read it yet – The Weather in the Streets is also really wonderful.