Rosamond Lehmann was only 26 years old when her first novel “Dusty Answer” was published in 1927. She had sent the manuscript unsolicited to the publishers Chatto and Windus, and within three weeks they wrote back to tell her that all three of their readers agreed that the work showed “decided quality” and they wished to publish it.
The novel was a succes de scandale, a huge popular and literary success. Since I have read and still very much admire “Dusty Answer” as well as many of Rosamond Lehmann’s other novels, I was keenly interested in what she had to say about the publication of “Dusty Answer” in her memoir “The Swan in the Evening”. Jonathan Franzen has nothing on Rosamond Lehmann as these excerpts show.
- “’Dusty Answer’, my first novel uncorked a torrent of letters, literally hundreds of letters – chiefly from America in the beginning, later chiefly from France – explaining I had written their own unhappy love story: how could I have possibly known or guessed it! More than one Lesbian lady urged me to abandon my so obviously frustrated heterosexual life and share my hearth and home. One young Frenchman withdrew to a mountain-top and there typed out a two hundred thousand word sequel to “Dusty Answer”, accompanied by photographs and letters designed to prepare me for our joint future, when he would teach me love. And so it went on, with twists and variations which it might be tedious to multiply. It was one of those curious, unaccountable explosions of the zeitgeist.”
- “It seems comical in retrospect that this impassioned but idealistic piece of work should have shocked a great many readers: but it did. It was discussed, and even reviewed, in certain quarters as the outpourings of a sex-maniac.”
Then some words about her own situation:
- “Unhappily married, childless, separated, wishing for a divorce; and now all at once, good heavens, one of the new post-war young women writers, product of higher education, a frank outspeaker on unpleasant subjects, a stripper of the veils of reticence; a subject for pained head-shaking; at the same time the recipient of lyrical praise, of rapturous congratulation, of intense envy, of violent condemnation, in the contemporary world of letters: a world I had burst into unawares.”
Rosamond Lehmann explains her own literary background.
- ”In those days I knew no other female writers, young or old; with the exception of May Sinclair whose novels excited me, I was singularly ill-read in fiction published in the twentieth century. With the Victorians I was well acquainted. I thought of the nineteenth century literary giants as my great ancestresses, revered, loved, and somehow intimately known. So I remembered how acutely they had suffered from censorious and sententious critics…Also I thought with yearning of the androgynous disguises, the masculine masks they had adopted for the sake of moral delicacy.”
Much of the remainder of “The Swan in the Evening” is about the death of Lehmann’s daughter Sally at age 24 in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1954. Sally’s death was sudden and unexpected, and Rosamond Lehmann never completely recovered from it.
With all her husbands and lovers and would-be-lovers, Rosamond Lehmann’s real life has probably over-shadowed her fiction. Yet her fiction is never less than compelling and entertaining. This is one writer you have got to read. Of her novels that I have read, I highly recommend “Invitation to the Waltz”, “The Weather in the Streets”, “A Note in Music”, “The Ballad and the Source”, and, of course, “Dusty Answer”.