Rosamond Lehmann was one of those immensely successful authors of the interwar period whose work is still (thankfully) published by Virago Press. I'm happy to see that the importance of women authors such as Lehmann is recognized and appreciated and hasn't been allowed to fade away like so many others. I've been slowly collecting Viragos, and an author whose work I'm keen on acquiring is Lehmann. Dusty Answer was her first novel, published in 1927 when she was 26 years old. I suppose it could be considered a coming of age novel.
As an only child Judith Earle leads a solitary and insular existence living with her upper middle class parents and is schooled at home, so she has little interaction with other children of her own age. It's not surprising when the family next door, a group of cousins, is in residence they appear enchanting and glamorous to her. Brothers Julian and Charlie, and their cousins Marietta, Roddy and Martin flit into and out of Judith's life over the years. As a young girl Judith is enamored of the beautiful Charlie, but he will eventually die on the battlefields of France.
When Judith is eighteen years old, the Fyfes return without Charlie, but with a baby in tow, the result of the short marriage between Charlie and Marietta. She still finds the cousins attractive yet elusive. Julian is cynical and worldly-wise, having survived the War, but is psychologically damaged. Staid and boring Martin has always seemed taken with Judith, and it's obvious he would like to be more than just friends, but it's charming yet erratic Roddy that Judith longs for. Although a flirtation takes place, nothing is settled and Judith eventually goes off to Cambridge, where she'll experience a relationship of an entirely different sort. A romantic liaison with a classmate is alluded to, what I imagined as being a schoolgirl crush from the description, though readers of the period likely understood it to be a lesbian relationship. Both women experience intense feelings, but Jennifer throws Judith over in the end.
After she leave Cambridge Judith will become involved with each cousin in turn, but all her affairs are unsatisfying and transitory. She projects upon Roddy her own romantic ideals that he can't or won't live up to, and though Martin and Julian want to love her, she can't reciprocate their feelings in the way they want. While the ending might be a bit on the bleak side, I think I liked Judith the most when she asserted her own independence.
I read that Dusty Answer was published to little fanfare initially, but an effusive review by a respected critic of the day, Alfred Noyes, thrust it into the limelight and turned it into a bestseller. Considering the content, some controversy was stirred up as well. Nicola Humble in The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism (I knew this book was going to come in handy) writes:
"Rosamond Lehmann's first novel, written in her early twenties, Dusty Answer achieved tremendous critical acclaim and popular success on its first publication. While in part the result of its daring treatment of sex, it's reception also reflected the novel's innovative tone and philosophy, it's capturing of the self-conscious cynicism of the first post-war generation, for whom romance was just one of the many illusions destroyed by the Great Trauma."
In 1919 Lehmann herself read English at Girton when she was only seventeen. This was considered daring and unusual for a woman of her social status. Bluestockings were no doubt thought to be unmarriageable (and ungovernable, too). Lehmann did marry, though it was an unhappy one and ended in divorce. I'm curious how much her own experiences show up in her fiction, quite a lot it seems in this case anyway. It was interesting to read in Jonathan Coe's introduction to the book just how Lehmann felt about all the controversy it caused. The "moral guardians" of society thought it had a corrupting influence on the youth.
"'All the reviews and publicity made me feel as if I'd exposed myself nude on the platform of the Albert Hall' (Lehmann was quoted as saying). In her memoir The Swan in the Evening she also recalls that, besides these published responses, she was inundated with letters from would-be suitors, male and female, many of them enclosing provocative photographs. One French reader even sent her a 200,000-word sequel to the novel, written in order to 'prepare me for our join future, when he would teach me to love'."
I thought that was a pretty wild to read. I think the shock value of the novel is gone for today's readers, but that doesn't make it any less powerful to read. I really liked Dusty Answer, though it was a slightly bumpy ride at times. I wasn't entirely sure what I thought of Judith--so sentimental yet holding such a power over her would-be suitors, but after all was said and done, I thought the novel was really well done, particularly as it was a first novel.
I plan on continuing with my Virago Reading Project. I want to read all of Lehmann's books (and perhaps a biography of her) in order that they were published to see how her work develops, which means A Note in Music would be next, but I also said I would read Antonia White's Frost in May this year, which is the first Virago ever published. I'm also in the mood for something by Elizabeth Taylor, but then there are so many to choose from. I will still be working on finishing one or two more books from this list while I decide, however.