Written after a lengthy period of literary silence, A Sea-Grape Tree was the 1976 sequel to Rosamond Lehmann’s 1944 novel The Ballad and the Source. In 1958 Rosamond Lehmann’s beloved daughter Sally died, a life changing episode she recounts movingly in her autobiography The Swan in the Evening: fragments of an inner life (1967), prior to the publication of that autobiography Rosamond Lehmann had published nothing since 1953. Sally’s sudden death had changed everything for Rosamond, she had begun to explore quite deeply the possibility of other worlds and undergone spiritual like experiences, although she herself apparently disliked the term spiritualism. Having read all but one of Rosamond Lehmann’s novels, one volume of short stories and that aforementioned autobiography, I was immediately aware of a discernible difference in tone. The woman who wrote A Sea-Grape Tree was a sadder more reflective and certainly more spiritually aware person that the one who wrote The Ballad and the source.
“Stereoscopically vivid in the powerful lens, the sea-grape tree reared up, its pale trunk twisting smooth and serpentine, its branches carrying a canopy of glaucous blue-fleshed leaves and pendant clusters of green berries, sterile and hard as stone. Beneath the tree the hut: a sort of Cottage orné set up on stilts, with a high-pitched roof of rosy shingles, its walls stuccoed a deep shade of tawny pink; ornamented with shell encrustations: silvered-bronze shells, pearl, honey-coloured, milky flushed with rose and violet; shells of all shapes and sizes in convoluted patterns. A clumsy tarred old rowing boat was pulled up close to the front step, its oars propped against the tree. In the lambent twilight between lingering end of sunset and rise of the full moon every detail was still sharply defined. The close of day suffused the images in a dramatic darkly rose-gold light, defining every detail. Next moment all was blotted out. A long low whistle, an owl’s hoot twice repeated floated up from the direction of the hut. Who was the inhabitant?”
I have loved everything I have read by Rosamond Lehmann so far, yet this book seems to have been something of a whimper on which to finish her writing career. A Sea-Grape Tree is a slightly odd little novel, although certainly not unenjoyable, it probably wouldn’t stand alone, it really only makes sense to those who have already encountered The Ballad and the Source – I rather wished I had read it more recently than almost four years ago. The Ballad and the Source set in Edwardian England, is narrated by the child Rebecca, who is irresistibly drawn to Mrs Sibyl Jardine. Over the course of three long conversations related by Rebecca, she discovers much about this fascinating figure.
Now, in A Sea-Grape tree, Rebecca is an adult, Mrs Jardine apparently in the past, the setting the 1930’s. Following the sudden ending of her relationship with a married man, Rebecca arrives alone on a small Caribbean island. Rebecca (eventually the reader is made aware of her identity) remains an un-named enigma to the eccentric bunch of ex-patriots that she encounters during her stay. Instead to them she’s seen as the visitor and named Anonyma or sometimes Anemone. The viewpoint shifts around from time to time, and as it does so the narrative switches from third to first person and back again.
“The visitor once more raised the binoculars and gazed at the shore penetrated now with the full moon’s lambent pallor: the leaf-crown of the tree was rimmed with silver; the hut was a square patch of darkness. She strove to reach the person living silent and invisible within, who never gives himself away.
I will never give myself away”
Here Rebecca encounters Captain and Mrs Cunningham, who lives in a bungalow in the grounds of their guest house, managed for them by Miss Stay (known as Staycie), old Mr Bartholomew Miss Stay’s special pet who was once a great traveller, Kit and Trevor “the gay lads” and Johnny. Johnny, with his film star good looks, lives reclusively in a beach hut beneath a Sea-grape tree, once an ace pilot, he is estranged from his wife Jackie who lives close by, and cared for by an ancient old retainer Louis. It isn’t long after her arrival that Rebecca discovers that Mrs Jardine was on this very island among these very people just a couple of years earlier, and that she had made a particular favourite of Johnny. Now Sibyl Jardine (or Anstey as she called herself on the island) is dead, and yet she is all around. In the stories told of her, Rebecca’s memories and the conversations she has with Johnny, Sibyl Jardine remains a constant presence. Rebecca undergoes one paranormal experience – during which she speaks to Mrs Jardine one last time. Johnny and Rebecca embark on a passionate affair as this is a novel which is about love primarily, the suddenness, healing power and possibility of it.
Although beautifully written, with much to recommend it this won’t be my favourite Rosamond Lehmann novel –but it has made me want to re-visit The Ballad and the Source, which is a brilliant, very readable but ultimately complex novel. I am also reminded that I must get myself a copy of A Note in Music (1930) – the only Lehmann novel I have yet to read, I think I am looking forward to having an earlier novel to read for I expect to encounter a novel more like those of Lehmann’s written around the same period.