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Saturday, November 15, 2008 11:19 pm
Dusty Answer
Posted by: Misha Stone

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“Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul/When hot for certainties in this our life!”–George Meredith

My father-in-law introduced me to Rosamond Lehmann. He sent me a copy of “The Heart of Me,” a film starring Paul Bettany, Olivia Williams and Helena Bonham Carter, a film based on Lehmann’s novel The Echoing Grove. Rosamond Lehmann was a British, 20th-century author who wrote incisively about women’s interior lives. Her writing is deft, accomplished, and, at times, a little melodramatic. Her characters live life large, their emotions strong and formidable, and they dream and love big even as reality thwarts and sometimes destroys them.

Lehmann’s first novel, Dusty Answer , published in 1927, delves into a young woman’s life and mind in an emotional coming-of-age story. It also explores the then taboo theme of homosexuality.

Judith Earle grows up in rural England with mostly indifferent parents who homeschool her. In the house next door, a group of cousins comes periodically to stay with their grandmother. The Fyfe children, Roddy, Julian, Charles, Martin and Mariella, absorb and enchant Judith’s life and daydreams, unbeknownst to them. The passages in the beginning of the novel float in a realm of memory and obsession:

She saw it all with the quivering overclear sense of exhaustion. It was too much. Roddy’s pale pace was all at once significant, even Charlie, floated away while she looked at him and loved him. And as she looked she saw the deep light falling on him and he seemed mingled with the whole mysterious goldenness of the evening, to be part of it; and she felt herself lost with him in a sudden dark poignant intimacy and merging,–a lifting flood, all come and gone in a timeless moment.

Judith idealizes the Fyfes, and it is this dance of knowing they do not reciprocate (until they do) and that she must hide it from them that makes and unmakes her. Judith is not a terribly likeable young woman at times, but Lehmann takes you into her mind and into her inexhaustible well of feelings and impressions and you cannot help but understand and empathize with her. When Judith goes to college and falls in with the magnetic Jennifer and is carried away into a friendship/affair with her, she almost escapes the mysterious, brooding Fyfes. But even Jennifer, who eventually leaves Judith for a more open lesbian affair (the lesbian themes are quite tame and veiled for today’s readers), cannot curb Judith’s love for the elusive Roddy.

Virago Press has been reprinting many of Rosamond Lehmann’s books, as well as other books by women writers that might otherwise be forgotten. I own the Virago edition of The Echoing Grove, but my copy of Dusty Answer was an on Harvest/Harcourt copy whose glue was so brittle the entire book cracked apart as I read it. I taped the spine so I could keep reading it on the bus.

I can’t say I loved this book, but I appreciated aspects of it. But what I find fascinating in today’s world, where reading blogs and social networking sites abound, is that now you can read an out of print or semi-obscure book and find others in far flung places who are reading the very same things. I was delighted to find this blog, where I found my reading itinerary was taking some similar twists and turns.

It says something about this generation of readers that we can take Christopher Morley’s mantra, “Read, every day, something no one else is reading,” and then find other readers who are doing the same. Does this defeat the purpose, or take away the mystery of wondering who else out there might be discovering a book or author? Perhaps. But it also means that book discussions can happen in new and fascinating ways. Call it book groups without boundaries.


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