Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

Set in the social milieu of the well-to-do and being saturated with the raw sensitivities of the protagonist, a girl of 17 one might think that Invitation to the Waltz would not appeal to many readers. The main character, Olivia Curtis, is a girl on the cusp of adulthood and about to attend her first important social event – a dance. Nevertheless, for all readers it is an easy book to get into. The structure is simple, and everyone can identify with the awkwardness, doubts and surprises of an important social event.

I thought I had read this book, but I was remembering its sequel Weather in the Streets, which I seem to no longer possess. I enjoyed my first read of Invitation very much, and still have the sequel to reread.

Invitation to the Waltz

Olivia wakes up on her 17rth birthday. The Curtis family are moderately well off and accepted by the high ranking families in the neighbourhood. One of these families is giving a ball in honour of the coming out of their daughter, Matilda, a childhood friend of Olivia and her older sister Kate. The event hangs over the first half of the novel.

In Part 1 we follow Olivia Curtis through her birthday. It turns out, like most birthdays, to be a mixture of anticipation for Olivia and the everyday necessities for everyone else. We are introduced to her family through their presents: a china ornament from her young brother, a roll of flame coloured silk from her parents, money from her uncle, a diary from her sister. She takes the fabric to be made into a dress for the upcoming dance. Olivia is a sensitive young person, meeting with many of the people in the locality, aware the social hierarchies and those who require her consideration. 

However, she lacks confidence in her taste and her judgement about how to deal with people. She finds herself unable to risk offending people, not Mrs Robinson with her grudging and pessimistic tone, relating the same catalogue of complaints every time; not her daughter the seamstress who is not as skilled as Olivia would like in designing the all-important dress, and would rather gossip about their neighbours; not the social outcast Major Skinner with the dubious wife; not even the sweep’s children who shout after her in the street. And she finds herself relieved of her birthday money by a travelling salesgirl against whom she has no defences. 

Part 2 is concerned with the day of the party, and especially with Olivia and Kate as they prepare. One pressing problem has been to acquire at least one partner, and a godson of mother’s is summoned. They are very unsure if he will do the right thing. All the anticipation involving in bathing,  doing one’s hair and dressing … Here Rosemond Lehmann inserts a magical and believable moment. Putting on her new red frock Olivia is dismayed to see that it is terrible.

Uneven hem; armholes too tight; and the draping – when Olivia looked at the clumsy limpish pointless draping a terrible boiling-up, a painful constriction from chest to forehead started to scorch and suffocate her.
‘It simply doesn’t fit anywhere …’ The words burst from her chokingly. ‘It’s the most ghastly – It’s no good. I won’t go looking like a freak. I must simply rip if off and burn it and not go to the dance, that’s all.’ She clutched wildly at the bodice, as if to wrench it from her.
Kate cried suddenly: ‘You’ve got it on back to front!’ (131)

And right way round it will do. Kate is beautiful and wears her clothes with ease.

And in Part 3 (about half the book) we follow Olivia at her first dance with all its awkwardness, false starts, gaps in her dance programme and uncoordinated partners. She has hoped that Tony Heriot will remember her and her evening will end in his arms and in happiness. But it is Kate he has eyes for.

Olivia wanders around the assembly, being introduced to a very awkward young man who claims to be a poet and behaves badly to her. And has to be rescued from a creepy old man – an ‘old fogey’ – who dances with all the young ladies. Marigold confides to Olivia that she calls him ‘a dirty old man’. And finally Timmy, about whom Marigold warns her in an inaudible whisper, so Olivia must find out for herself that he is in fact blind. She escapes to the terrace where Rollo, Marigold’s handsome older brother is also escaping the fray and he takes her to the library where his father shows her rare books and she begins to enjoy herself, contrasting the warmth of the library to the unreal world of the dance. 

By the end of the evening, Olivia has made the transition to adulthood, been a little scarred and hurt but also complemented. And she is aware that Kate is moving on and she herself has learned more about adults and their fragilities than one would want for a girl of 17.

Rosamond Lehmann

The author lived until she was 89 (born 1901 died 1990). She was brought up in Buckinghamshire, her father a Liberal MP and her family high achievers in the Arts. She was first educated at home and then won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, graduating in English Literature and in Languages. 

Her first novel Dusty Answer was a best seller, and she never achieved such financial or popular success again. It was considered scandalous, to have been written by a sex maniac. She was able to escape from her first marriage with the income from it and went on to write six more novels, a play and some short stories. Invitation to the Waltz was her third novel. She had two children in her second marriage, but when her daughter died of polio in 1958 her life took a new direction. She became interested in psychic matters.

Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann, first published in 1932 and republished in the Virago Modern Classics in 1981, which I used for this post. 301pp

Comments on two other blogs

Heavenali reread The Invitation to the Waltz in 2012 and in her post noted how Rosamond Lehmann draws attention to class differences in 1920s English society.

In 2016 Tredynas Days also reviewed the novel, looking in particular at the work done by descriptions of clothes. It’s an interesting and effective approach.


Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

7 Responses to Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

  1. I think I read some of Rosamond Lehmann’s novels many years ago, but can’t remember them now. This makes me want to re-read and rediscover her – so many wonderful 20th century women writers who have been neglected of late – the Persephone press and bookshop is wonderful in drawing attention to so many of these – I am currently reading ‘Saplings’ – an adult novel by Noel Streatfeild – who know she also wrote for adults? It is such a well-written and interesting novel, too.

    • Caroline

      I am so pleased you want to explore C20th woen writers. Yes the Persephone books and shop are wonderful resources along with the Virago Womens Classics.
      I shall have to look into Noel Streatfeild’d adult books, having reread Ballet Shoes last year for the Decades Project.
      Thanks for visiting, and come again soon. Caroline

  2. Carole Abbotts-Jones

    Thanks for this post, it encouraged me in a trip to the past – via memories of a wonderful group of European women and an Eng Lit MA in ‘Women’s Literature’. Lehmann was one of the authors studied and, although I still have many of my books, only ‘Invitation…’ and ‘Weather …’ have survived of the Lehmann works. However, a good place to start for a reread/revisit of the period. I also have two biographies of Lehmann by Gilliam Tindall and Selina Hastings.
    I will now scroll back through your earlier posts to check what I’ve missed and see what – if anything – still survives in the neglected corner of my (far too many (!) bookshelves. Thanks, Carole.

    • Caroline

      So pleased you are encouraged to read more and to reread. There are penty of posts by women writers of the C20th on the blog. (Not so many biographies however.) I hope you find lots to enjoy.
      Thank you for your enthusiasm, and visit again soon.

  3. The only Lehmann novel I’ve every read is Dusty Answer – twice! And I did love her writing. You do make me keen to read more. Her later life was intriguing and her daughter Sally’s husband P.J. Kavanagh wrote a very moving memoir called “The Perfect Stranger” which I read alongside Lehmann’s own memoir – if you’d like to read my post it’s here:

  4. Susan Kavanagh

    What an excellent review! It really sharpened my memories of the book. I read the sequel, Weather in the Streets, more recently and remembered how much I like RL’s writing. Dusty Answer is next up for me.

    • Caroline

      And Dusty Answer is next for me. I’ll be looking at Weather in the Street and The Echoing Grove later this year.

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