Recent Reads – Rosamond Lehmann, Romain Gary and Ellen Wilkinson

Mini reviews of three recent reads – hopefully you’ll find something of interest across the mix.

Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann (1932)

This beautiful, charming novel – presented through a blend of stream-of-consciousness and more traditional narrative – manages to combine a lightness of touch with a real depth of personal feeling.

On the day of her seventeenth birthday, Olivia Curtis receives from her parents a roll of flame-coloured silk to be fashioned into an evening dress for a forthcoming dance. The occasion will represent Olivia’s introduction to society, a world already glimpsed by her older sister, the attractive, more self-assured Kate.

In the days leading up to the dance, we sense Olivia’s anticipation of the event, a mixture of excitement and apprehension over various aspects of the evening: nervousness as to how her dress will turn out; speculation over who else will be attending, particularly which boys; worries about there being sufficient dance partners for the girls; and ultimately, whether her first experience of a ball will be a success or a disappointment. The idea of ending up as a wallflower is almost too much for Olivia to bear.

Why go? It was unthinkable. Why suffer so much? Wrenched from one’s foundations; neglected, ignored, curiously stared at; partnerless, watching Kate move serenely from partner to partner, pretending not to watch; pretending not to see one’s hostess wondering: must she do something about one again? – (but really one couldn’t go on and on introducing these people); pretending not to care; slipping off to the ladies’ cloakroom, fiddling with unnecessary pins and powder, ears strained for the music to stop; wandering forth again to stand by oneself against the wall, hope struggling with despair beneath a mask of smiling indifference. (pp. 126-127)

The ball itself is beautifully conveyed in a series of vivid scenes, immersing the reader in the atmosphere of the event. Lehmann’s style is evocative and impressionistic, like the brushstrokes of watercolour artist practising their craft. The little pen-portraits of various attendees are very finely sketched, giving just enough detail to bring the characters to life.

Ali has written a characteristically perceptive review of this book, highlighting some interesting observations on class. Simon has also written about it here (his piece focuses on Olivia’s clothes and appearance). Olivia and Kate are very much viewed as country mice by their sophisticated cousin, Etty, also present at the dance – while bright and respectable, the middle-class Curtis family belong to a somewhat different social sphere to that of their hosts, Sir John and Lady Spencer. Olivia’s seamstress, the rather tragic Miss Robinson, provides another contrast – a woman whose narrow, unfulfilled life is heartbreaking to see.

I really enjoyed this novel for its expressive, impressionistic style, the exquisite prose, and its insight into the inner life of an expectant young girl. Very highly recommended indeed.

Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary (tr. John Markham Beach) (1961)

A thoroughly engaging memoir of this French writer’s early life and ongoing quest to fulfil his mother’s ambitions, namely for Gary to become a great artist, a person of distinction. In addition to these creative pursuits, the memoir also touches on Gary’s time as an instructor and pilot during the Second World War. It is by turns humorous, entertaining, charming and poignant, a story that blends the light-hearted with the moving and profound.

I stood there in my leather flying jacket, with that ridiculous cigar in my mouth, my cap pulled down jauntily over one eye, my hands in my pockets, and the familiar tough look on my face, while the whole world around me became a strange, foreign place empty of all life. That is what I chiefly remember of that moment today: a feeling of utter strangeness, as though the most familiar things, the houses, the trees, the birds, and the very ground under my feet, all that I had to come to regard as certainties, had suddenly become part of an unknown planet which I had never visited before. My whole system of weights and measures, my faith in a secret and hidden logic of life were giving way to nothingness, to a meaningless chaos, to a grinning, grimacing absurdity. (p. 212)

Grant has already written an excellent review of this book, and I agree with pretty much everything he says in his piece – do take a look. Emma has a page devoted to Romain Gary on her blog, so you’ll be able to find more posts about the author’s work there.

This is a thrilling yarn laced with philosophical reflections on this nature of life – my first encounter with this esteemed writer, but hopefully not my last.

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson (1932)

I do love these British Library Crime Classics with their vintage settings and stylish covers. This is an interesting entry in the series from the Labour politician and writer, Ellen Wilkinson. In short, it is a most enjoyable mystery with a political edge.

Up-and-coming Conservative MP and parliamentary private secretary, Robert West, turns amateur detective when an influential financier is shot dead during a private dinner at the House of Commons. What appears at first to be a case of suicide turns out to be far more complicated than that, especially once the official investigation – led by Inspector Blackitt of the Yard – gets underway.

This is a compelling little mystery with a likeable central character in Robert West. While the ending feels a little rushed, the atmosphere in the House of Commons is captured in vivid detail, bringing to life the hustle and bustle of political life in the 1930s.

Shaw followed West along the locker-lined corridor to that octagonal space where the heart of Parliament beats. The House of Commons had risen soon after the nine o’clock division, and it was now ten-thirty, but groups of Members still stood excitedly discussing the sensation of the day–-for the threatened crisis had disappeared with the announcement of the Government’s majority. Again Shaw had to admire his friend’s technique.

Every one made a dart at West, who somehow managed to deny rumours, to quieten agitated and elderly M.P.s and even to deal with a cynical young woman who wanted to know why he had only shot one poor little millionaire instead of turning a machine-gun on to the whole Front Bench. (p. 43)

There are some nice reflections on the changing nature of Britain too, as the old traditions and values must give way to new sources of business and revenue streams. The economic context/state of the nation forms an important backdrop to the story, adding to the political intrigue.

Karen has written a great review of this, and I agree with everything she highlights in her piece. In spite of a few flaws, this is an interesting mystery with an atmospheric sense of place.

My copies of Invitation to the Waltz, Promise at Dawn, and The Division Bell Mystery were published by Virago, Penguin, and the British Library respectively; personal copies.

30 thoughts on “Recent Reads – Rosamond Lehmann, Romain Gary and Ellen Wilkinson

  1. Brian Joseph

    All of these sound very good. I have been meaning to read Romain Gary for years. Memoirs can be so insightful.

    I think that my wife would like The Division Bell Mystery. She tends to like older mysteries of this sort. I do not think that she has read Wilkinson. I will recommend this to her.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      In some ways, I’m quite glad I read Gary’s memoir before any of his fictional works. It really gives a sense of him as an individual – not only as a writer, but some of the other aspects of his life too. I think you’d like it.

  2. inthemistandrain

    I have an unread copy of The Weather In The Streets on the bookshelf, been waiting until I acquired Invitation To The Waltz. Your, and Ali’s review are all the nudge I need. Off to Hive.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely post Jacqui, and thanks for the link to my Ellen Wilkinson review – I must admit to being a fan of her writing and I wish she’d produced more books. But I guess politics got in the way…

    And a really interesting and varied selection. Despite owning everything Lehmann ever wrote, I think I’ve only read her first novel, Dusty Answer. I did love it, and I don’t really know why I haven’t gone of to read more.

    As for Gary, another one I want to read, and I do have at least one of his books. If only there were more time…

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome. It was your review that prompted me to pick up the Wilkinson when I spotted a copy in one of the local charity shops. I do worry that the BL may end up diluting the quality of this series if they carry on at the current publication rate – there must be so many of them by now! Anyway, no real signs of that yet, which is a relief.

      I think you’d like the Gary. Best to read the ones you already have first, though. I’ll be interested to see how you get on…

  4. heavenali

    I absolutely love Rosamond Lehmann, I have read all her books, and this one twice. So glad you liked it so much. You’re right about how visual it is, so many scenes have stayed with me.
    I haven’t read either of those other two books, but they both sound excellent. I have wanted to read The Division Bell Mystery since its reissue

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You were right to encourage me to read her. I’m so glad I finally got around to giving her a proper try! She captures that blend of emotions so well – the excitement and anticipation, the worry and sense of apprehension. I think we can all relate to feeling that way at some point in our teenage years, irrespective of the differences in period, occasion and social context. The Weather in the Streets is in my sights too, courtesy of another lucky secondhand find – it sounds just as good.

      As for the Division Bell, I think you’d find it very enjoyable indeed. Definitely worth picking up at some point.

  5. A Life in Books

    I remember reading Rosamund Lehmann’s novels many years ago and loving her writing. Have you read The Weather in the Streets, Jacqui? Same beautiful writing but rather more sober as I recall.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Not yet…but I do have a lovely old green Virago copy of it though, so maybe later this year. I think you’re right about it being a more hard-hitting read than Waltz; that’s certainly my impression from listening to Backlisted.

  6. Anokatony

    And I thought I was Rosamond Lehmann’s most enthusiastic fan. Besides ‘Invitation to the Waltz’, and ‘The Weather in the Streets’, don’t forget ‘Dusty Answer’, ‘The Ballad and the Source’, ‘A Note in Music’, and ‘The Echoing Grove’, all very fine novels indeed.
    Here are two pieces I’ve written regarding Rosamond Lehmann:

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes. Dusty Answer definitely rings a bell – it may well have been recommended to me in the past, but it’s always good to have another endorsement. Thanks for the links to those pieces. I’ll take a look. :)

  7. Emma

    I’m so happy to hear that you enjoyed Promise at Dawn. Thanks for the link to my blog.
    The other two are unknown to me but sound great.

  8. Radz Pandit

    I am tempted by the Rosamond Lehmann. Once again another author I have not read, but i do have a copy of ‘The Weather in the Streets’ so that will be up first I think. I must try the British Library Crime Classics one day. They look good overall. Perfect to dip into between some heavy reads.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lehmann’s definitely worth trying. She is perhaps more modernist in style than someone like Elizabeth Taylor – more impressionistic, I guess. The Weather in the Streets sounds excellent. I remember it being featured on the Backlisted podcast a few years ago, always an encouraging sign!

      As for the BLCCs, you’re absolutely right – they’re great as palate cleansers or comfort reads in between the weightier stuff.

  9. madamebibilophile

    All these sound appealing. I have the Lehmann in the TBR, I must dig it out, it sounds wonderful. I’ve not read any Gary but I recently got a copy of The Kites so I’m hoping to get to that soon. And a BLCC is always so tempting!

  10. 1streading

    Thanks for the link. I’m so glad you enjoyed Promise at Dawn – I not only liked the book, I think it made me like Gary! I think you will certainly enjoy The Kites. It’s a pity so much of his work is out of print.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You were absolutely right in your review. I did fall a little bit in love with Gary while reading the book. He’s virtually impossible to resist!

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