Rosamond Lehmann was born the day after Queen Victoria’s funeral. When the First World War broke out she was 13, on holiday with her family on the Isle of Wight. The imminence of hostilities had put an end to a plan, much dreaded by Rosamond, to send her and her sister to stay with relatives in Germany. From her own point of view the war was ‘a personal and miraculous reprieve’: ‘of the world crisis, I remember only that sudden emptiness of the beach and the expression on my father’s face as he sat reading the papers all day.’
For many women who made literary or artistic reputations in the 1920s and 1930s the war remained, for all its horror, a boon. E.M. Delafield, whose ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’ in Time and Tide offered readers the agonised thoughts of Bridget Jones’s great-aunt, remembered it as ‘pure liberation’. The overthrow of the awful Edwardians, the triumph of Bloomsbury over the Kensington of Leslie Stephen, were unmitigated joys. Lehmann, who published her first novel, Dusty Answer, to sensational acclaim in 1927, smoked, danced and divorced her way through the interwar years with gayer abandon than most. During one particularly frank sexual discussion at a party she was tapped on the shoulder by Virginia Woolf, who said, somewhat dampeningly, ‘Remember: we won this for you.’
Nearly twenty years younger than Woolf, on the threshold of adolescence in 1914, Lehmann was more ambivalent about the past. The world before the war was her childhood, it remained sealed off, a self-contained idyll whose certainties gave her what all romantics need, a permanent sense of loss. For her the ancien régime never quite lost its glamour; she dearly loved a lord and her literary heroes were the Great Victorians. The power of the past, as childhood or simply nostalgia, was a recurring theme in her work, at odds with the modernity of her material; just as her sensitivity to women and her obsessive interest in female experience sat oddly with her entrenched anti-feminism.
All the elements were there already in Dusty Answer, a swiftly written tale of youthful passion, shocking at the time for its portrayal of sexual mores and intense emotional relationships between women. The older generation in Lehmann’s own family thought it the ‘outpourings of a sex-maniac’. The 18-year-old heroine, Judith Earle, over-earnest and inexperienced, is a little in love with all the members of the family who come to live next door, and madly in love with one of them, Roddy. The first part of the book is a long retrospective, the story of Judith’s first meeting with the Fyfes and of her own childhood. Lehmann was good on children, especially the anxieties of the very young. She was good, too, on the mixed moods of life, less commonly found in fiction: the nostalgia of adolescence in Dusty Answer, or, much later in The Echoing Grove, the interplay of habit and passion when a married couple fall asleep in the middle of a row, wake up, make love and go back to sleep again.
The psychological semitones tend, however, to be drowned out by the crashing chords of the major theme. It was Lehmann’s impetus as a writer and her misfortune as a woman to be incurably in love with romance. Judith allows Roddy to make love to her and afterwards writes to him, pouring out her happiness and looking forward to their shared future. He is aghast. Her coup de foudre was his fling. At the end of the book Judith is alone, her future thrillingly lonely.
‘Oh Miss Lehmann,’ hundreds of admiring readers wrote when the book appeared, ‘this is my story.’ To a great extent it was the author’s, too. Roddy was just one of the handsome, disappointing men with period names like Rudie, Rollo, Wogan and Cecil, who dominated Lehmann’s life and art. She could never apply the psychological insights she possessed as a writer to her own life, which came increasingly to resemble a badly plotted novel.
The idyllic childhood was passed in Buckinghamshire in her father’s substantial Thames-side house, Fieldhead, just upriver from Cliveden. Rudie Lehmann, the original unattainable man, fond of his wife and children when he noticed them but impatient if Rosamond cried, was a clever, indolent charmer, a champion oarsman with inherited money. He was briefly an MP, intermittently a journalist and a member of the Punch round table, entertaining the magazine’s readers with his ‘Francescas’. These were dialogues between himself, ‘the genial, wise . . . husband’, and an adorably hare-brained suffragette full of feminine ‘logic’, based on his American wife, Alice. ‘I hope you sometimes feel miserable, too!’ she wrote to him once, but it seems unlikely he did.
Lehmann later said that she was always in love with her father, and Selina Hastings confirms that her parents’ relationship set the psychological pattern for the rest of her life. She was attracted to men who loved her too little, repulsed by anything that smacked of the ‘unfeminine’ in women – it seems to have been as simple and as hopeless as that. The two things that made matters worse were her remarkable beauty, which gave her an enormous choice of unsuitable men, and her inability, despite her interest in the nuances of character, to judge it in real life. She was vulnerable even to men she had created herself. ‘Rollo is not a cad,’ she wrote of the leading man in her best novel, The Weather in the Streets. He strikes many readers as a rotter, and Hastings’s assessment of him as ‘spineless’ and ‘childish’ is pretty fair, but Lehmann was sure he was misunderstood. ‘He’s trapped by conventions,’ she maintained, ‘and yet he’s also very charming and rather touching.’
She wasn’t stupid in any other way. She went up to Girton to read English in 1919 and narrowly missed a First, largely, she thought, because as she left her viva, the examiner asked if she was going to teach and she said: ‘Good God, no. I’m going to be a writer.’ ‘Mr Prior,’ she recalled, ‘thought I was a spoilt arrogant hussy – which I was.’ It was at the end of her time at Cambridge that she got her own first ‘dusty answer’. She fell for the dashing David Keswick, who seemed so ‘very, very smitten’ that after one kiss she knew they would be together for ever. She was devastated when he explained he had been engaged to somebody else for years. She renounced love and made a short, disastrous marriage on the rebound to Leslie Runciman.
Dusty Answer was written early in 1926, driven by Lehmann’s determination to live her own life ‘and not be Runcimanised’, but spurred on also, inevitably, by a new love affair. The huge success of the novel, which turned her somewhat farcical disappointment with Keswick into a complex, convincing fiction, was quite unexpected. She was disturbed by the scandal and not deeply moved by the acclaim – she was, she explained, ‘quite uninterested in fame because all I wanted to do was get divorced and marry Wogan’.
Wogan Philipps, the son of a shipping magnate, was a handsome man, ‘the life and soul of the hunt ball’ as a friend recalled: ‘everybody loved him. But clever he was not.’ Divorce meant more scandal, another clash of pre and postwar attitudes. For their son and heir to marry a divorcee was, as Wogan’s father put it, ‘the greatest injury decent-minded (Victorian if you like) parents could receive’. In fairness, he didn’t say this to Lehmann until she was trying to divorce Wogan as well. Ros and Wog embarked on married life between Oxfordshire and Bloomsbury, where Philipps was colonised by the Stracheys: Lytton was his mentor, John got him into left-wing politics, and at various points he was in analysis with James and in bed with Julia. Philipps’s father funded him while he tried to develop a career as a painter, but even by the lowish standards of Bloomsbury he was a terrible artist. ‘Rosamond . . . is always driving him to it and making him “follow his art”,’ Ursula Ridley noted glumly, ‘whereas really he can’t paint at all.’
It was one of Lehmann’s difficulties with love that she was such a driving force, far too big, physically and mentally, to fit into the glass slipper femininity she admired. Like that other deceptively docile beauty Diana Spencer, ‘she spoke hesitantly . . . glancing sideways and slightly downward as she talked.’ Admirers often compared her with a bowl of ripe peaches, an orchid or a rose. Dadie Rylands, a friend for most of her life, knew better. She was more like ‘a great eiderdown of rose petals’, he wrote, suffocating the men she loved. When Wogan was ill she looked after him with such relentless devotion that eventually he could no longer bear her in the room and got a professional nurse.
While Wogan dabbed away, his wife produced two much longed-for babies and another novel, Invitation to the Waltz. Her happiest book, it is again shot through with memories of Fieldhead and childhood. Its protagonists are sisters and once again there is a charmed circle, this time an aristocratic house party, in which they can never be included. ‘How you bring out the horror of the English country house,’ E.M. Forster once wrote to her. ‘Were they ever not horrible?’ In this he was rather missing the point. For Rosamond the aristocracy were only half horrible: they were daunting but alluring, and it was the element of forbidden glamour that many of her readers enjoyed.
The New Yorker now proclaimed her ‘the greatest living woman novelist’. But still nobody bought Wogan’s pictures, and his long-suffering father suggested bee-farming might be a more rewarding line of work. Lehmann’s fame, her absorption in her children, on whom her devotion was now focused, and her temporary loss of libido were all starting to annoy her husband. ‘We couldn’t go abroad,’ he recalled. ‘The children came before anything; they became a bloody nuisance.’
Not being able to go abroad was about as close to deprivation as Lehmann’s life ever came. Although she and her various lovers and husbands went through real emotional agonies, the fact that they always seemed to be at I Tatti or Cap Ferrat at the time cannot but lessen the reader’s sympathy. Philipps escaped from the tensions in his marriage by having affairs and holidays, motoring round Wales with Augustus John and touring the Continent with Napier Alington, who knew all the crew of the cross-channel ferry ‘by their Christian names & the curves of their bottoms’. This did nothing to improve things at home, and the marriage fell apart by agonisingly slow degrees.
With a small trust fund and alimony Lehmann never needed to earn a living. Neither was she, despite a reputation that stood higher than now seems credible, inclined to write unless she absolutely felt like it. She was impressed when she stayed with Somerset Maugham at the Villa Mauresque to find that he had a regular routine, working from breakfast right through to cocktails at 12.30. She did work hard, however, on The Weather in the Streets, published in 1936. The process – ‘like dragging a grand piano out of a bog’ – was worth the effort. The more sombre sequel to Invitation to the Waltz, it reflected Lehmann’s own unhappiness and the grittier mood of the years just before the war. It continues the story of Olivia, now living and working alone in London. Rollo, her unattainable man, now married, becomes her lover, his appeal sexual but also social. He comes from that secure world of the upper classes, of expensive restaurants, large cars, ‘good soap and clean linen’.
The book succeeds because of its seeming truthfulness about Olivia’s inner life and because it is precisely set, not in Cap Ferrat, but in London. Olivia’s abortion, undergone alone, her ability to understand, but not to prevent, the failure of her love affair, her loneliness, her insecurity, her sensitivity to every slight change in the emotional temperature, all of this Lehmann rendered faultlessly. As types Rollo and Olivia represent the extreme, but not unreal, cases of masculine and feminine sensibility. Nine-tenths of the action is in Olivia’s mind, Rollo the blank screen on which it is projected. The novel was an exact diagnosis of her own character, but not, of course, a remedy.
Anita Brookner, who became a friend late in Lehmann’s life, said that when she looked at her she saw ‘a woman sitting alone, inconsolable’. This of course is what Brookner always sees – a woman sitting alone is as central to her fiction as the unattainable cad to Lehmann’s – but it was also true. Lehmann wanted more from love than any man, any person could ever give. She not only used her life for fiction, she treated it as if it were a novel, parcelling out her own feelings and characteristics to friends, family and lovers. Fascinated as she was by other people, she usually got them wrong. The first inkling she had that she was not the only woman in the life of the notoriously unreliable Goronwy Rees was when she read of his engagement in the Times.
After she and Wogan finally parted he settled down in Gloucestershire to a characteristic routine of ‘farming, painting and his work for the Communist Party’. Lehmann’s last great love and ultimate disaster was Cecil Day-Lewis. He was more her intellectual equal and, she thought, a ‘truly reliable grown-up character’. This despite the fact that he had a wife and two children in Devon who had no idea he was living with Lehmann in Berkshire. His family thought Day-Lewis’s month-long absences were due to his war work at the Ministry of Information. This tense, untenable situation suited Lehmann’s temperament. In many ways the early years with Day-Lewis were the happiest of her life: there was no slackening of the romantic tempo, it was always an affaire. They were a popular, striking couple in literary London, invited everywhere, knowing everyone. Nevertheless, she became impatient with his refusal to leave his wife. As usual she discussed everything with all her friends, many of them mutual friends of whose discomfiture she was oblivious. To Rupert Hart-Davis she wrote that Cecil and his wife were ‘like two wheels of a bicycle propelling the stark frame of their life together, never meeting’.
It is a good image. Hastings, who is a sympathetic but not an indulgent biographer, knows when to introduce Lehmann’s own words, usually at the point where the reader wants to give her subject a good smack. The effect is always disarming. Day-Lewis, too, unlike her other men, valued Lehmann as a writer. She could always get a metaphor back over the net. ‘I am sick of hearing him talk of his “roots”,’ she wrote to Laurie Lee, ‘as if they didn’t often bind and strangle – as if the flower & the fruit weren’t the proof of a relationship.’ When Lehmann asked her son, still at Eton, what he would think if she married Cecil, he burst into tears and said: ‘You’re not to! He only wants you for his poetry.’ Day-Lewis mined the relationship for his writing and lifted images from Lehmann’s letters. Later, she resented this, her determination to live for and through her men at odds with her ego and her talent.
He cut the Gordian knot after nearly a decade by announcing that he was leaving both his wife and his lover for Jill Balcon, the actress. More had apparently been going on behind the scenes at the BBC’s Time for Verse than Lehmann, typically, had realised. Stunned by his desertion, she briefly joined forces with his wife, who suddenly seemed rather a splendid person, to try and get him back. Mary Day-Lewis, however, knew it was hopeless and had anyway had enough. ‘I just wondered which of us was going to have Cecil if we did get him back,’ she remarked afterwards, with no more enthusiasm than if he were a lost canary.
After that, Lehmann’s love affairs repeated the same exasperating pattern in ever more rapid cycles, and having passed from tragedy to romantic comedy they whirled on into farce. A fling with Ian Fleming ended badly when he accidentally double-booked her in his house in Jamaica with his wife, Ann. ‘She was unbelievably rude to me,’ Lehmann noted, hurt. Fleming’s attempt to amuse her by throwing a live squid into the bedroom misfired badly and in the end she had to go and stay with Noël Coward.
Maurice Bowra told Edith Sitwell that he would shoot himself if Lehmann had one more affair: he could no longer stand ‘being kept up all night’ while she ‘examined her and everybody else’s motives’. Bowra christened her, unkindly but brilliantly, the meringue-utan, for with age her beauty became overblown and more oppressive, her character exaggerated. She simply could not be discreet. In 1951, when Burgess and Maclean defected, she remembered that Goronwy Rees had told her years before that Burgess was a Comintern agent, something she had interpreted at the time as ‘just Guy’s way of helping’. She was interviewed by the Secret Service and told to say nothing. ‘mystery woman phones mi5,’ screamed the Daily Express two days later.
In 1956 Lehmann’s daughter, Sally, died suddenly of polio, in Java, where she had been living with her husband, Patrick Kavanagh. Just as Lehmann had at first faced the loss of Day-Lewis with disbelief, so she refused to accept Sally’s death, taking refuge this time in spiritualism. She became convinced that she was regularly in contact with her daughter. Her friend and mentor in the spiritualist world, one of her last gallants, was Wellesley Tudor Pole, a retired major from Sussex, initiator of the Armistice Day minute’s silence and ‘part-time visitor to Planet Earth’. At night he would leave his body and travel among the recently dead or visit King Arthur. Occasionally he saw Sally. Lehmann helped him to write his memoir, A Man Seen Afar, reminiscences of his meetings with Christ.
Her kind friends, like Laurie Lee, were embarrassed. The unkind ones were merciless. Dadie Rylands and Hester Chapman used to save up Lehmann’s articles in the spiritualist magazine Light all year and then read them aloud on Christmas Day. Yet Lehmann had always believed in impossible things and improbable men. Spiritualism made her happier than other projections of her imagination onto the material world and Pole, if he had deceived her, at least deceived himself as well.
By the 1970s Lehmann had suffered a decline in her reputation and the loss of her looks, the two things that had made her egotism and her emotionalism into something splendid. This left her a rather sad, at times grotesque figure, ‘collapsed like a big pudding’, as James Lees-Milne put it. With her belief in the afterlife she was also a persistent and often unwelcome presence at the sick-beds of friends. ‘It’s odd to think what a fantastic bestseller I was before the war,’ she wrote in 1979. ‘Perhaps if I took to the bottle like poor Jean Rhys . . . it would help.’ In the end, for all her anti-feminism, it was the sisters who saved her. Carmen Callil’s newly founded publishing house, Virago, managed to wrest her work from Collins and relaunched her as a Modern Classic. Lehmann, a better judge of women than men, adored Callil.
In very old age she took to her bed. The last fiction she perpetrated on the world was that she was blind and immobile. In fact she could see perfectly well and move if she chose to, but to acknowledge that would have cut off some sympathy. She forgot, gradually, about the spirit world but she never forgot Fieldhead and her Edwardian childhood. These memories consoled her at the end of a life so painfully caught entre deux guerres. ‘I dream,’ she wrote in her last book, ‘that I shall wake up after death sitting in a branch of the walnut tree, watching my father open the French windows of the library, step down, and start strolling towards the river.’