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I have been wanting to read A Note in Music for a very long time, and yet for some reason I only acquired a copy about a week ago. Not able to wait, I began reading it right away, and fairly flew through it. It was worth the wait.

Rosamond Lehmann is certainly one of my favourite writers (the list is pretty long I admit). I came to her in a roundabout way, I first read a biography about her by the eminent biographer Selina Hastings back in 2009. It set me on a course to read everything she had written, and now, apart from a play she wrote in the 1930s I have. A Note in Music was the last of her books I had left to read, and I am sad there are no more. I suppose I shall have to begin re-reading (there is in fact one novel I have read twice). She is a quite exceptional writer, a fascinating woman who was very much a part of the Bloomsbury group.

A Note in Music was Rosamond Lehmann’s second novel. Her first novel Dusty Answer published three years earlier was an enormous success, and A Note in Music is a worthy successor to that extraordinary debut.

This is a gloriously nuanced novel, a portrait of marriage and the disappointments of an ordinary middle-class life.

Grace Fairfax is thirty-four, childless following a still-birth some years earlier, she is married to the dull, hard-working, conventional Tom. Living in a dull northern town, her life is one of unvaried routine. However, Grace has a glorious inner life, a woman of imagination, in tune with the countryside she loves so much, she knows herself capable of great love, and still misses the southern country of her youth. A year earlier, a fortune teller had told Grace that her life lacked purpose, Grace wasn’t surprised.

“The country haunted her still, she said to herself: not a day passed without bringing some picture remembered or imagined. Dawn and sunset were not in these skies, behind the slate roofs and red brick chimneys of the residential quarter – but in her mind’s eye, over country spaces; and spring and autumn still made her sick for home. How many times had she not thought of the summer evening when a bird had sung in the poor lilac tree in the front patch?… But that would never happen again, now that the trams came to the end of the avenue.”

Norah MacKay is Grace’s best friend, she too a woman living a somewhat disappointed life. Married to bad tempered university professor; Gerald, mother to two boys, Norah once knew great passion with Jimmy – lost in the war.

“It was such a great love, she whispered to herself: how could it be (for the thousandth time) that it had not availed to save him? That was his fault…so like him…just as everything was coming right at last. In spite of her, he would not, could not care to save himself. To her passionate feminine instinct for life he had opposed his masculine indifference; and somehow, in the general destruction of mankind by man, he had disappeared with a smile and a shrug, and defeated her.”

When brother and sister Clare and Hugh Miller arrive, temporarily, in the town they bring with them the sense of another way of life – a freedom, and independence that both Grace and Norah recognise and respond to similarly. Clare, an old friend of Norah’s stays with the Mackays for a time, infecting even the dour Gerald with the promise of unimagined possibilities. Hugh is passionate, exudes vitality, freedom and the ability to do just as he pleases. Clare is young, beautiful and irresistibly unconstrained. Hugh, the reader realises is perhaps not quite all Grace and Norah think he is, and while his charisma is not as obvious to the reader at times, (and I think this is deliberate – as it shows how we can respond most extraordinarily to the almost anyone if our imaginations can make them into something else) there is no doubting his effect upon Grace in particular.

Grace sees Hugh first when she in the cinema with Tom, the cinema one of the few pleasures in her life, has evolved into part of a weekly expected routine. Over the coming months Grace meets Hugh only a handful of times, yet each moment is imprinted on her mind, as she develops a gentle unspoken love for the young man who represents all that her life lacks. There is an unforgettable afternoon of tennis, fishing and summer fun at the house of Norah’s relatives – that seems to live long in the memories of those who were there.

Another character we meet is Pansy – a young woman living with her brother. She makes her living as both a hairdresser and a prostitute. She too, drawn to Hugh, who she met at the local dance hall, seeing in him that promise of another life. Pansy, engaging most of her energies in remaining respectable, striving to fool her neighbours into believing she is not what she is (as ever, in these cases, they are not fooled). When Grace goes away by herself on a holiday in the countryside – Tom, miserable, unable to cope, meets Pansy at the fair.

A Note in Music is quite simply a beautiful novel, exquisitely written, moving and revealing, it’s the kind of novel I love best.

rosamond lehmann

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swanevening

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.

Rosamond Lehmann

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As it is the Rosamond Lehmann reading week, and as I have loved reading her work so much in the past (I’ve yet to read everything she wrote) I decided to take a short break in my month of re-reading when I found this in Waterstones just waiting for me. I popped in (never usually going to full price book shops) just to see if they had a copy of one of the Rosamond Lehmann books I hadn’t read – they had, this one – I decided it was meant to be.
This short collection of stories Rosamond Lehmann wrote during the Second World War. They concern primarily the minutiae of everyday rural life. These stories do seem to offer the reader a different view of the world than Rosamond Lehmann’s novels which are more concerned with romantic love and the women who are hurt or betrayed by it. The war looms large particularly in the last of these stories, the families are socially speaking like those of the novels I have read – yet their worlds have been shrunk by the war. A lost trunk could prove disastrous- there is no chance of just replacing everything during such times.
The title story – and “The red-haired Miss Daintreys” are narrated by Rebecca, the memorable narrator of Rosamond Lehmann’s brilliant complex novel “The Ballad and the source” which I read about a year ago. In “The Gipsy’s Baby” Rebecca and her sisters strike up a fragile, unlikely friendship with the Wyatt children, who live in a tiny cottage at the end of the lane. The social gulf however is just too hard to bridge and when the gypsies arrive the scene is set for tragedy.

“In October, the gipsies came back. They came twice a year, in spring and autumn, streaming through the village in ragged procession, with two yellow and red caravans; men in cloth caps, with handkerchiefs knotted round their throats, women in black with cross over shawls and voluminous skirts, some scarecrow children, and several thin-ribbed dogs of the whippet race running on leads tied, much to Jess’s disquiet, under the shafts of the caravans.”

In “The red-headed Miss Daintreys” Rebecca and her family meet the four Daintrey daughters and their parents while on holiday on the Isle of Wight. The relationship with the family continues for some years – seeing the eldest Miss Daintrey the subject of an unlikely romance.
The next three stories: “When the waters came”, “A dream of winter” and “Wonderful holidays “are each about Mrs Ritchie and her children Jane and John. A bee man arrives during winter to take the swarm living in the walls of the house; there are village amateur dramatics during school holidays, while a WW1 veteran misses his absent wife.

“I wrote to her yesterday and told her she better come back. I don’t like the idea of her being up in town. Those last raids were child’s play to what’s coming, so I hear. They might start any moment. I can’t have her exposing herself to them. Besides’ his voice went up his nose, weak with self-pity – ‘I can’t see to everything myself day in day out like this. There’s all the potatoes to go in. It means too much stooping for me”

I loved these wonderful stories – they are quite different to the novels of Rosamond Lehmann that I have read – but they are beautifully written, the characterisation just as well developed. The world of adults seen mainly through the eyes of children during those war years is brilliantly portrayed.

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 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.

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Two sisters: Madeleine and Dinah. One husband: Rickie Masters. For many years now, Dinah, exotic and sensual, has conducted a clandestine affair with Rickie. Madeleine, calm and resolute, has accepted that her marriage has been of limited success. Rickie’s sudden death makes widows of both sisters in this highly imaginative novel that explores with extraordinary insight the sublimity, the rivalry and the pain of personal relationships.

I have come to really like Rosamond Lehmann’s novels, and although this won’t be my favourite of her books, it is an accomplished beautifully written novel. The central characters Madeleine, Dinah and Rickie are each given a voice, and as the narrative weaves back and forth in time, we see the complexties of thier relationship through their eyes. None of these characters are totally sympathetic, there is no victim – they each bear some responsibility in what happens. This novel certainly differs greatly to An invitation to the waltz or The Weather in the Streets, it is darker and more meloncholic, her characters deeply flawed. I did find the final third of the novel a tiny bit tedious – not helped by my tiredness – but I had loved the first half of the book particularly, Rosamond Lehmann’s writing is brilliant. This is a complex novel about human relationships.

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Ten-year-old Rebecca is living in the country with her family, when Sibyl Jardine returns to her property in the neighbourhood. The two families – once linked in the past – meet again, with the result that Rebecca becomes drawn into the strange complications of the old lady’s life.
This is a masterly piece of writing. The Ballad and the Source is the fourth of Rosamond Lehmann’s novels I have read, and I am enormously impressed with it.  The story of Sibyl Jardine is told mainly in three long conversations, between Rebecca – who is ten at the start of the novel, and Tilly a sewing maid, Sibyl herself and later Maisie, Sibyl’s grandaughter. Sibyl, both saint and sinner is a fascinating figure. An unhappy marriage leads her to leave her home, and become cut off from her child. The consequences of this are far reaching and tragic. The young Rebecca is drawn to Mrs Jardine, and determined to find out the story of her life. This story takes some years to unfold fully, and as it does Rebecca’s perceptions of Mrs Jardine and her story are challenged. The writng is powerful and hugely accomplished. This is in some ways a complex novel, but Rosamond Lehmann’s brilliant writing brings it all together, the story, so much of which is told through dialogue never gets lost among the speech. I found this an enthralling novel, beautifully written.

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This book has not been rated.

Amazon Editorial Review:

Taking up where Invitation to the Waltz left off, The Weather in the Streets shows us Olivia Curtis ten years older, a failed marriage behind her, thinner, sadder, and apprently not much wiser. A chance encounter on a train with a man who enchanted her as a teenager leads to a forbidden love affair and a new world of secret meetings, brief phone calls, and snatched liaisons in anonymous hotel rooms. Years ahead of its time when first published, this subtle and powerful novel shocked even the most stalwart Lehmann fans with its searing honesty and passionate portrayal of clandestine love.

Absolutely loved this book. I finished it (very) late last night and have been thinking about the characters on and off all day today. Surely that is a sign of a great book. Written in 1936 this novel was years ahead of it’s time, with it’s story of an extra marital affair, secret meetings and hotel rooms and the resulting consequences. Olivia is ten years older than when we last met her in the also brilliant An invitation to the waltz. Her marriage has broken down, and she lives with her cousin Etty in a small London house, works for a photographer and associates with other artists and writers in a somewhat bohemian style existence. Things begin to change when she meet Rollo Spencer, whom she had fantasised about in her youth, on a train. Like so many other authors of this period I have found the real brilliance of Rosamund Lehmann is in the detail – her writing is exquisite – but her sense of time and place, her characterisation, and the way in which those characters speak to the reader is just excellent. The way in which, for example, Rosamund Lehmann portrays Olivia’s sister’s children, as they play in the garden, in one small (not especially important) section is a fine example, it was just so beautifully written I was thoroughly impressed.

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