Invitation to the Waltz & The Weather in the Streets – Rosamond Lehmann

Lately, I have been drawn a lot towards the writing of 20th century female authors, a lot of them I had not heard of previously. I have made some wonderful discoveries – the novels of Elizabeth Taylor, Muriel Spark, Barbara Pym, Barbara Comyns to name a few. Then I came across Rosamond Lehmann. After seeing a lot of love for her on Twitter, I picked out two of her 1930s novels which garnered considerable acclaim during her time – Invitation to the Waltz and The Weather in the Streets – both focusing on the protagonist Olivia Curtis. And, with these two books, Lehmann has turned out to be another wonderful discovery.

So here are my brief thoughts on both the novels…

Invitation to the Waltz

Invitation to the Waltz is the first of the Olivia Curtis novels. When the book opens, Olivia has turned seventeen and there is a family gathering to celebrate her birthday and present her with gifts. We are introduced to Olivia’s parents, her elder sister Kate, her younger brother James and their uncle Oswald. Olivia’s parents gift her a material of flaming red which gives Olivia considerable joy. She can now get a dress stitched for her very first social event – a ball at the residence of the wealthy Spencers.

Nowadays a peculiar emotion accompanies the moment of looking in the mirror: fitfully, rarely a stranger might emerge: a new self.

It had happened two or three times already, beginning with a day last summer, the languid close of a burning afternoon; coming from the burdened garden into the silent, darkened house: melancholy, solitary, restless, keyed up expectantly-for what?

She looked in the glass and saw herself…Well, what was it? She knew what she looked like, had for some years thought the reflection interesting, because it was her own; though disappointing, unreliable, subject twenty times a day to blottings-out and blurrings, as if a lamp were guttering or extinguished: in any case irremediably imperfect. But this was something else. This was a mysterious face; both dark and glowing; hair tumbling down, pushed back and upwards, as if in currents of fierce energy.

The novel charts the emotions of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood – the anxiety as well as the excitement of making a good impression at the ball, Olivia’s hopes for a thriving schedule of dances, which alternate with the fear of being left alone.

The novel is divided into three sections – the first two portray Kate and Olivia’s anticipation and preparations for the dance, while the last section is entirely devoted to the ball.

The ball itself is beautifully presented with vivid details as Olivia manages to get her share of dancing partners while at the same time is also let down by one or two. The dialogues between Olivia and her various dance partners sparkle and through them we are given a brief sketch of various characters.

Lehmann’s prose is lush and beautiful and I was immediately struck by her impressionistic writing style. Set in the 1930s, she also subtly brings to the fore the class differences prevalent in the society at the time.

The Weather in the Streets

Set ten years after Invitation to the Waltz, The Weather in the Streets revolves round the doomed love affair between Olivia Curtis and the married Rollo Spencer who is first introduced to readers in the final few pages of the first novel.

Olivia is the narrator and she is now residing in London, in cramped quarters with her cousin Etty and is leading a bohemian lifestyle with her artist set of friends. The Curtis sisters could not have turned out more different. Kate, who in the first novel, gives the impression of being sassier of the two, eventually ends up taking the traditional path of marriage, children and settling in the countryside. It’s Olivia who shifts to the big city choosing to lead an independent life with a failed marriage behind her.

While on a trip to the countryside to meet her family, particularly her father who is down with pneumonia, she starts talking to Rollo Spencer on the train and they hit it off.

An invitation to a family gathering of the Spencers follows. And from thereon Olivia and Rollo embark on a passionate affair, snatched moments played out behind closed doors – in wretched hotels, stuffy cars and Olivia’s tiny rooms interspersed with a couple of getaways, all of it shrouded by a veil of secrecy.

It was then the time began when there wasn’t any time. The journey was in the dark, going on without end or beginning, without landmarks, bearings lost: asleep?…waking…Time whirled, throwing up in paradoxical slow motion a sign, a scene, sharp, startling, lingering as a blow over the heart. A look flared, urgently meaning something, stamping itself for ever ever, ever…Gone, flashed away, a face in the train passing, not ever to be recovered.

There was this inward double living under amorphous impacts of dark and light mixed: that was when we were together…Not being together was a vacuum. It was an unborn place in the shadow of the time before and the time to come. It was remembering and looking forward, drawn out painfully both ways, taut like a bit of elastic…Wearing…

Lehmann brilliantly captures the stages of the affair as it pans out from Olivia’s point of view – the first heady days of the affair when the world is seen through rose-tinted glasses, and then gradually followed by moments of desperation as Olivia endlessly waits for Rollo’s calls. Olivia begins to fall in love with Rollo even though it is evident right from the start that their affair has no future.

Besides the two of them coming from different social backgrounds, one of the main obstacles to the affair ever blossoming is the strict moral codes of the time. Status and social standing is critical as is keeping up appearances. There is simply no room for divorce.

Lehmann’s prose in this novel is incredible turning the ‘done-to-death’ tale of an extra-marital affair into something entirely new. Her sensitive portrayal of Olivia’s plight is truly heartbreaking and evokes the sympathy of the reader. One striking aspect of Lehman’s writing style is the shift in narration from the first person to the third in the space of a few paragraphs. Indeed, it feels that at one point we are inside Olivia’s head as she experiences the turmoil and the anguish of the affair, and at the same time we are the observers watching Olivia’s fate from a distance. This instantly reminded me of Damon Galgut’s wonderful novel  In A Strange Room where Galgut effortlessly switches from the first person to the third in a single paragraph and pulls it off with aplomb.

While Olivia and Rollo are the focal point of the novel, it is also peppered with some wonderful set pieces that paint a picture of Olivia’s bohemian and vibrant friend circle.

In the afterword of my Virago Classics edition, Elizabeth Day highlights how the novel was quite ahead of its time, more so because certain developments described were perhaps shocking for audiences in the 1930s. However, Lehmann stood her ground and ensured that the novel was published the way it was intended to be.

The Weather in the Streets was one of my favourites last month and easily one of the highlights of my reading in the year so far.

Earth and High Heaven – Gwethalyn Graham

I have a very small Persephone Books collection. But what I have read from their catalogue so far has been simply great. Earlier this year, in March, I really liked Isobel English’s Every Eye, and followed it up with Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven this month. What a lovely novel it turned out to be.

Earth and High Heaven is a wonderfully absorbing novel the focal point of which is a love affair between a Gentile woman and a Jewish man portrayed against a backdrop of racial prejudice.

The novel is set in the city of Montreal in Canada in the early 1940s when the war was still raging in Europe. The opening lines pretty much sets the tone for what is to follow…

One of the questions they were sometimes asked was where and how they had met, for Marc Reiser was a Jew, originally from a small town in northern Ontario, and from 1933 until he went overseas in September 1942, a junior partner in the law firm of Maresch and Aaranson in Montreal, and Erica Drake was Gentile, one of the Westmount Drakes. Montreal society is divided roughly into three categories labeled ‘French, ‘English’, and ‘Jewish’, and there is not much coming and going between them, particularly between the Jews and either of the two groups, for although, as a last resort, French and English can be united under the heading ‘Gentile’, such an alliance merely serves to isolate the Jews more than ever.

We know from this that Erika Drake and Marc Reiser fall in love with each other but we are also made aware of how the couple are going to have a long struggle ahead given the backgrounds they come from. Racial tension was rampant in Montreal at the time, but Graham points out that the Jews weren’t necessarily singled out although they bore most of the brunt. There were nuances in discrimination within various strata of Montreal society.

Hampered by racial-religious distinctions to start with, relations between the French, English and Jews of Montreal are still further complicated by the fact that all three groups suffer from an inferiority complex – the French because they are a minority in Canada, the English because they are a minority in Quebec, and the Jews because they are a minority everywhere.

Erica is an English Canadian born in the affluent Drake family. Her father Charles Drake is the President of the Drake Importing Company and the family resides in a sumptuous home in Westmount. Erica has two siblings – an elder brother Anthony and a younger sister Miriam. Both Anthony and Miriam marry partners against Charles Drake’s wishes, but ultimately it doesn’t matter much because he is not close to either of them and does not care greatly for their opinion.

But Charles shares a special bond with Erica. They get along very well and Charles respects her in a way he does not respect his other two children.

Marc Reiser is Jewish, his parents having migrated to Canada from Austria several years earlier. Leopold Reiser, Marc’s father owns a small planning mill in Manchester, Ontario. Marc has an elder brother David who is a doctor in a remote, rural region of the country.

The book opens right in the midst of a big dinner party held at the Drake residence. Marc Reiser is brought to the gathering by an acquaintance of the Drakes’ – the French Canadian Rene de Sevigny whose sister has married Anthony Drake. Marc Reiser knows no one at the party and soon Rene abandons him leaving Marc to fend for himself. Eventually Erica and Mark meet and strike up a conversation. They immediately hit it off. When it’s time to say goodbye, Erica offers to introduce Marc to her father but Charles looks through Marc and completely ignores him.

Erica is offended by Charles’ rudeness. Attempts to make him understand this are futile because Charles is set in his ways and refuses to budge from his deep-seated prejudices against the Jews.

Charles behaviour does not deter Erica from seeing Marc. Quite the contrary. Soon the relationship between the two blossoms and starts getting serious. And Erica’s parents are aware of this.

A significant chunk of the novel then revolves around the discussions that Erica has with her parents regarding Marc as she tries to make them come around to her point of view. Erica, thankfully, is not entirely on her own. Her sister Miriam supports her and immediately likes Marc when she is introduced to him for the first time. Their parents, however, think differently and judge Marc without even meeting him. Continuous quarrels with her parents finally begin to take a toll on Erica and her health.

Will Erica succeed? Will she and Marc eventually surmount all odds so that they can marry?

Erica Drake is an interesting creation. Her upbringing means that she grows up with the same set of prejudices but she is discerning enough to be ashamed of them and change her way of thinking.

She had met a good many Jews before Marc, but in some way which already seemed to her inexplicable she had neglected to relate the general situation with any one individual. Evidently some small and yet vital part of the machinery of her thought had failed to work until this moment, or worse still, she might even have defeated its efforts to function by taking refuge in the comfortable delusion that even if these prejudices and restrictions were actually in effective operation, they would only be applied against – well, against what is usually designated as ‘the more undesirable type of Jew’. In other words, against people who more or less deserved it.

Now she saw for the first time that it was the label, not the man, that mattered.

Indeed, by working as a reporter at the Post, she has no qualms coming down the society ladder a bit or two even among her own set.

When she was twenty-one, her fiancé had been killed in a motor accident two weeks before she was to be married; not long after, she awoke to the realization that her father’s income had greatly shrunk as a result of the depression and that it would probably be a long time before she would fall in love again. She got a job as a reporter on the society page of the Montreal Post and dropped, overnight, from the class which is written about to the class which does the writing,. It took people quite a while to get used to the change.

Marc loves Erica enough to keep meeting her till regimental duty beckons him, but at the same time he is bogged down by the seemingly insurmountable odds against them. He has a fatal sense of the relationship not surviving even though Erica thinks otherwise.

The implication of racial prejudice, then, is a big theme of the novel, particularly the danger of making sweeping generalisations. Erica tries hard to make Charles see Marc as an individual and appreciate his many qualities rather than being dead set against him because of general racism towards Jews. Every individual is different and it is important to understand these nuances as against taking a collective approach and putting everyone on the same boat.

The other theme Graham looks at is the power play between men and women. This is displayed in details, such as Erica’s irritation when Rene orders lunch for her at a restaurant without consulting her and also explored a bit deeper when Charles tries to persuade Erica to leave her job at the Post and join the family business instead.

…as a woman you can just go so far and then you’re stuck in a job where you depend your life taking orders from some fathead with half your brains, whose only advantage over you is the fact that he happens to wear trousers.

Earth and High Heaven then is a brilliantly immersive novel. Graham’s writing is sensitive and intelligent and many of the discussions and arguments between Erica and her parents and Erica and Marc are tense but riveting. The characters are wonderfully fleshed out. Plus, Graham has a deep understanding of the various facets of 1940s Montreal society and this is superbly articulated in various dialogues between the characters.

Highly recommended!

Two Faber Stories – Edna O’Brien & Claire Keegan

The Faber Stories is a wonderful series of short books devoted to either a single story or a couple of them by an author. They are akin to wine tasting – you want to sample a sip before deciding whether to go in for the bottle.

On a recent weekend getaway, I packed two of them in a suitcase – Paradise by Edna O’ Brien and The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan. Honestly, I had never heard of Claire Keegan before and was dimly aware of Edna O’Brien. Both the writers are from Ireland and these stories are a great reminder of how rich Irish literature really is.

Both the stories come in at around 60 pages in these Faber Stories editions. And both have done their job of piquing my interest in trying out more of their work in the future.

Since these stories are short, I intend to keep the reviews brief too.

Paradise – Edna O’Brien

In Paradise, the protagonist – an unnamed woman – is on vacation with her millionaire lover, who is also not named. They are holidaying in the countryside and staying in his mansion. They are not alone though. Guests stream in and out on all days and the couple are required to entertain. It is a milieu of wealthy people. 

At once we are made aware of the woman’s discomfort in these surroundings. There is this unspoken code of the super-rich she is pressured to confirm to, which causes her great distress. It is mainly evident in the swimming lessons she takes everyday despite the fact that she enjoys neither the sea nor the water.

To the rest of the guests, swimming is akin to any other activity that naturally comes to them. Thus, the woman is burdened by the expectations placed on her of becoming a swimmer when the lessons end in the final days of their stay.

‘Am I right in thinking you are to take swimming lessons?’ a man asked, choosing the moment when she had leaned back and was staring up at a big pine tree.

‘Yes,’ she said, wishing that he had not been told.

‘There’s nothing to it, you just get in and swim,’ he said.

How surprised they all were, surprised and amused. Asked where she had lived and if it was really true.

‘Can’t imagine anyone not swimming as a child.’

‘Can’t imagine anyone not swimming, period.’

Meanwhile, the sex with her lover is great but she feels that when it comes to intimacy they are not yet on the same level; he is particularly reticent. Given that he already has had a few marriages under his belt, everyone around is pretty sure that his relationship with the woman is not going to last either. Painted in nuanced scenes, the strength of their relationship is something the woman begins to question too.

She knew she ought to speak. She wanted to. Both for his sake and for her own. Her mind would give a little leap and be still and leap again; words were struggling to be set free, to say something, a little amusing something to establish her among them. But her tongue was tied. They would know her predecessors. They would compare her minutely, her appearance, her accent, the way he behaved with her. They would know better than she how important she was to him, if it were serious or just a passing notion.

Paradise then is a gorgeous story about the pressures of meeting expectations imposed by society, the differences in class, and how the wealthy have invisible barriers around them that are difficult to break in order to be accepted.  There’s a sense of dread throughout the story that keeps you on the edge – will the woman survive the ordeal or will she snap?

Edna O’Brien is an assured writer and her prose drips with elegance. Luckily, I do have a collection of her short stories Love Object sitting on my shelves, so I am eager to savour them too, hopefully sooner rather than later.

The Forester’s Daughter – Claire Keegan

While in Edna O’ Brien’s Paradise, the spotlight is on a mansion peopled with the moneyed class, The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan is set in the heart of the Wicklow countryside in Ireland. The protagonist is Victor Deegan, a hardworking, sincere farmer who is struggling to make ends meet and hold on to his house (both literally and figuratively).

When Victor’s father dies and his siblings express no interest in taking over from him, Victor inherits the house. He takes a loan against the property to buy out his brothers’ share so that the place now truly becomes his own. But being indebted has its own share of ills, and Victor is under constant pressure to ensure that there is a steady income to pay off the loan after a certain number of years while at the same time keeping the expenses minimal. The prospect of a comfortable, retired life is what keeps him going.

Wanting to settle down, Victor persuades country girl Martha to marry him. Martha is unsure at first, but seeing that she has had no good marriage proposals, succumbs to his demands.

It is clear at the outset though that the marriage is an unhappy one. Both fail to live up to expectations that they have from their union.

Before a year had passed the futility of married life struck her sore: the futility of making a bed, of drawing and pulling curtains. She felt lonelier now than she’d ever felt when she was single. And little or nothing was there to around Aghowle to amuse her.

The couple go on to have three children – two sons and a daughter. To Victor, the sons are a disappointment. The eldest has no interest in farm life and yearns to move to Dublin when the right opportunity comes along. The second son is a simpleton. It is the daughter who has the intelligence and brains. While her presence somehow makes Victor uncomfortable, she is Martha’s favourite child.

One day, Victor comes across an abandoned gun dog when out in the fields. Having no clue who the owner is he takes the dog home and gives him as birthday gift to his daughter. She is thrilled. To her this is evidence that her father loves her.

And so the girl, whose father has never given her so much as a tender word, embraces the retriever and with it the possibility that Deegan loves her, after all. A wily girl who is half innocence and half intuition, she stands there in a yellow dress and thanks Deegan for her birthday present. For some reason it almost breaks the forester’s heart to hear her say the words. She is human, after all.

But Martha is not happy, she knows better. She is filled with foreboding that it is all going to end badly.

And while the story hurtles towards its sad but inevitable conclusion, there is nevertheless a ray of hope expressed in the possibility of new beginnings.

The Forester’s Daughter then is a wonderful, riveting tale of the consequences of an unhappy marriage and how it affects others around them, particularly the children. It is also a statement on the mundaneness of everyday life and the constant struggle to keep head above water financially, all of which can have a crippling impact on any family unit.  Is there any meaning to it all?

I don’t have any Claire Keegan on my shelves and a book buying ban means I don’t see reading more of her work anytime soon, but I will be looking out for her books later.

All in all, two excellent reads from the Faber Stories collection!