What pleasure! Another Twentieth Century female novelist to get stuck into. Dusty Answer was Rosamond Lehmann’s first novel and her most successful in that it became a best-seller. Some were scandalised by it, for in 1927 young women were not supposed to write about such sensuality, and hardly to experience it. Some thought this novel would pervert the young and campaigned for it to be withdrawn from sale.
It’s hard to understand these fears and criticisms today. We know that women were not supposed to be concerned with sex. But this is not a sexy book. There are certainly overtones of homosexuality, male and female, as well as young people behaving in a headstrong manner. There is very little overt sex. What is very heady is that the text and the story are suffused with the protagonist’s emotional responses.
Judith is the only child of an eminent and well-off father and a distanced mother. They live in a large and beautiful house on the banks of the river (?Thames). The next door house is occupied occasionally by the Fyfe family, a large group of cousins, 4 boys and one girl. Judith longs to be included in their circle and her life seems to switch on and off with their arrivals and departures. The first part concerns the time they spent together as children and is most romantically described.
The First World War intervenes and the most attractive of the boys, Charlie, is killed. Just before he left for the Front he had married Mariella and she has a son, Peter, although she still acts like a child herself. Judith continues to live in the shadow of the Fyfes, as she anticipates her time at Girton College.
The first evening at college Judith is crippled with social embarrassment and finds herself quite unprepared to live with other young women. Her isolated and privileged upbringing is evident in her reaction at her first evening meal. She finds her fellow undergraduates to be boorish and ugly. The crucial difference is that they are not self-absorbed as she is.
Trips. Labs. Lectures. Dons. Vacs. Chaperons. The voices gabbled on. The forks clattered. The roof echoed.
‘Ugly and noisy,’ muttered Judith. ‘Ugly and noisy and crude and smelly …’ You could go on for ever.
There were eyes staring from everywhere, necks craning to look at her …
‘But I can abstract myself. I can ignore their rudeness …’
[…] She studied the row of faces opposite her, and then more rows, and more, of faces. Nearly all of them plain, nearly all with a touch of beauty: here and there well-cut heads, broad white placid brows, young necks; white teeth set in pleasant smiles; innocent intelligent lovely eyes. Accepting, revealing faces they were with no reserves in them, looking at each other, at things – not inward at themselves. But just a herd, when all was said: immature, untidy, all dull and all alike, commonplace female creatures in the mass. How boring it was! (110)
But in the very next paragraph she finds Jennifer and for two years they are inseparable. It is a very intense relationship. Then Jenifer abandons Judith for another woman and leaves the college. Judith finishes her degree, aware that she has become more and more in love with Roddy Fyfe.
After gaining a good degree Judith drifts around and becomes more involved with the Fyfes cousins. Each of them finds reasons to be close to her. She reveals her love to Roddy and is again rejected. She agrees to marry Martin, on the rebound, then tells him she won’t. Mariella confides in her about her marriage and son. Judith goes abroad with her mother. Julian meets up with them and offers to knock the edges off her as his mistress. She has made up her mind that she will do this when Martin dies in a sailing accident.
Everything is resolved in a flurry of grief and letters, including a promise to meet from Jennifer, who does not appear.
Judith returns home to an empty house a little wiser and more experienced and able to shake off the Fyfes’ influence.
She was rid at last of the weakness, the futile obsession of dependence on other people. She had nobody now except herself, and that was best. (303)
The epigraph suggests that Judith will deceive herself if she feels that she understands.
Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life? (George Meredith)
It’s a complex set of relationships with a large number of characters, which I found quite difficult. I never managed to differentiate the Fyfe boys until the final section.
The author lived until she was 89 (born 1901 died 1990) and she drew on her childhood for this novel. 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.
The success of this first novel enabled her to escape from her first marriage and she went on to write six more novels, a play and some short stories. 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.
Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann, first published in 1927 republished in the Virago Modern Classics in 1996, which I used for this post. 303pp
My Bookword review of Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann appears immediately before this post.
Heavenali wrote an excellent review of Dusty Answer last month on her blog. You can read it here.