Howard Coster (© NPG) - Laura Freeman on Rosamond Lehmann, Invitation to the Waltz
Howard Coster (© NPG)

Mood Music

Share this

‘Dance after dance with an old fogey. Three running now, pressed to his paunch.’ Oh, the hell of parties! The small humiliations. The shy, smudged-mascara, wallflower-grief of it all. Where was Rollo? Archie? Tony? Even Reggie, dreaded Reggie, would do. In Rosamond Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz we share every agony, every spurning, every smallest saving grace with Olivia Curtis, just 17 and, as her dressmaker cheerfully tells her, ‘no bewtee’. We meet her on her birthday, staring into the bedroom mirror with a mix of adolescent pride and doubt. And such is Lehmann’s uncanny power that the reflection in the glass isn’t Olivia’s: it’s our own.

‘Dear Miss Lehmann, How did you know? This is my story exactly.’ So wrote reader after reader to the 26-year-old Lehmann when her first novel Dusty Answer, about first love, first university terms, first friendships with girls more glamorous than oneself, became a ‘terrifying’ success. Lehmann catches the voice of the young woman trembling between girlhood and sophistication. Judith in Dusty Answer and Olivia in Invitation to the Waltz are hesitant, resolute, gauche and vain. Olivia asks when – when? – will her life begin. Yet, when drunk, boorish Archie forgets he has marked his dance card with her name, she thinks: ‘It can’t be true. It’s too much. How can I live if things like this are going to happen?’

Invitation to the Waltz is a book not just about going to a party, but about how going to a party, when you’ve never been to one before, can mark the moment between callow childhood and adolescent assurance. The experience offers Olivia a tantalizing glimpse of the future with all its promised tragedy, romance and conquest.

There are three parts to the Waltz. We hear the orchestra tuning up as we see Olivia and her older sister Kate (now Kate is a ‘bewtee’) preparing, powdering, pinning, pining, dreami

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

‘Dance after dance with an old fogey. Three running now, pressed to his paunch.’ Oh, the hell of parties! The small humiliations. The shy, smudged-mascara, wallflower-grief of it all. Where was Rollo? Archie? Tony? Even Reggie, dreaded Reggie, would do. In Rosamond Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz we share every agony, every spurning, every smallest saving grace with Olivia Curtis, just 17 and, as her dressmaker cheerfully tells her, ‘no bewtee’. We meet her on her birthday, staring into the bedroom mirror with a mix of adolescent pride and doubt. And such is Lehmann’s uncanny power that the reflection in the glass isn’t Olivia’s: it’s our own.

‘Dear Miss Lehmann, How did you know? This is my story exactly.’ So wrote reader after reader to the 26-year-old Lehmann when her first novel Dusty Answer, about first love, first university terms, first friendships with girls more glamorous than oneself, became a ‘terrifying’ success. Lehmann catches the voice of the young woman trembling between girlhood and sophistication. Judith in Dusty Answer and Olivia in Invitation to the Waltz are hesitant, resolute, gauche and vain. Olivia asks when – when? – will her life begin. Yet, when drunk, boorish Archie forgets he has marked his dance card with her name, she thinks: ‘It can’t be true. It’s too much. How can I live if things like this are going to happen?’

Invitation to the Waltz is a book not just about going to a party, but about how going to a party, when you’ve never been to one before, can mark the moment between callow childhood and adolescent assurance. The experience offers Olivia a tantalizing glimpse of the future with all its promised tragedy, romance and conquest.

There are three parts to the Waltz. We hear the orchestra tuning up as we see Olivia and her older sister Kate (now Kate is a ‘bewtee’) preparing, powdering, pinning, pining, dreaming of the dance at the Spencers’. They worry about knicker lines and bodices and whether their seams will show. They agonize about Not Knowing Any Boys. Then comes the party, thrown by Sir John and Lady Spencer for their son Rollo and daughter Marigold, a schoolroom friend of Olivia’s, who is wearing a ‘fascinating frock’ sent by her godmother from Paris. The third and final movement sees Olivia and Kate safely back home. As they pour cocoa from a Thermos, the sisters yawn and ask: Did I enjoy myself?

We know, even if Kate, who can think only of Tony, has forgotten to ask, whether or not Olivia has enjoyed her evening. It was hell – ‘Bombshells. Death and damnation . . . Consternation. Humiliation.’ And it was rapture – alone with Rollo on the terrace, talking together about books. ‘She hadn’t felt so happy all the evening. Such an interesting, serious conversation.’ She is taken by Rollo to meet his father. ‘Here’s another recluse,’ says Rollo. ‘She’s a great reader, Daddy . . . You can’t catch her out. Every one of your pet classics.’ Not a bewtee, but a brain. And that is better, surely? Better to talk about Dickens and Thackeray and Eliot and Austen with clever Rollo than be Kate gazing into Tony’s eyes as he tells her, ‘You’d look corking on a horse.’ Every minute of the evening is an eternity – and it is all over in an ecstatic instant.

I first read Rosamond Lehmann after I broke bounds. It was at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival where I was due to appear with Lucy Mangan. We had both written books about books – The Reading Cure and Bookworm – and had been registered, hustled into the green room and told to stay put. Festivals are frightened of losing authors. Once they have you, they don’t like to let you go until you’ve made it on to the stage, spoken and signed a dozen books. But Lucy had heard that the Oxfam bookshop in Chipping Norton was a good one and so, twenty minutes before our slot, we bolted. On the principle that you should always ‘Pick up a Penguin’, I bought Rosamond Lehmann’s The Echoing Grove.

Over the following weeks, slyly, secretively, rather in the manner of an affair, I read The Echoing Grove (1953), The Weather in the Streets (1936), Invitation to the Waltz (1932) and Dusty Answer (1927) – all in the wrong order. I say an affair because Lehmann’s books have a clandestine feel, like the sharing of a secret. Sometimes you draw back – I shouldn’t have pried, forgive me . . . Sometimes you lean in – Go on. I won’t tell a soul . . .

Olivia Curtis isn’t Rosamond Lehmann, but there are similarities. Olivia is a ‘secretive adolescent’ given to sitting in the walnut tree in her parents’ garden with a notebook, pencil and bag of caramels. Lehmann, from the age of 8, would balance in the fork of her own walnut tree, writing plays, poems and epics which she remembered in rueful adulthood as coming to her in torrents of sentimental inspiration: ‘heather, weather, brim, dim, bloom, gloom and off we go: every rhyme rhyming, every fairy flitting, stars glimmering, moon beaming, wind sighing, buds breaking’. Her mother Alice, the author said, had subtle ways of ‘deflating vanity’. Once, Alice overheard the young Rosamond boasting to a group of family friends about her poetic gifts. Alice interrupted her daughter with: ‘Rosie writes doggerel.’ Lehmann said her mother’s words ‘went through me like a sword-thrust’.

Like Olivia, Rosamond was a middle child, the second of four, a position she described in her short story ‘The Red-haired Miss Daintreys’ as ‘like the jam in a sandwich. Snug.’ They were a literary family. Her great-grandfather Robert Chambers was co-founder of Chambers, the publishing firm, her father Rudolph Chambers Lehmann founded Granta, wrote for Punch and edited the Daily News. Her younger brother John Lehmann was a poet, publisher and editor of Penguin New Writing. (He bought Virginia Woolf’s share of the Hogarth Press and described their often prickly partnership in Thrown to the Woolfs (1978).)

There’s a younger brother, James, who plays a small but beautifully observed part in Invitation to the Waltz. But this is a book about sisters. Since I have only a brother I have often tested out literary sisterhoods. Jo and Meg in Little Women? Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility? Pauline, Petrova and Posy in Ballet Shoes? Would I have liked sisters like that? Only Olivia and Kate have felt completely real: practical, fond, disapproving, liable to squabble. Reading the scene in which Kate and Olivia sit at opposite ends of the bath before the party – Nannie has run the water and laid out the towels – soaking in Heart-of-a-Rose salts, I can’t help thinking: how lucky to have a sister, someone to tell you your dress is on back to front, to keep you company in cabs, to say: ‘Sh! Be quiet. Don’t think about it’ when you tell them your insides have turned to nervous water.

The Spencers’ party is a fiasco and a triumph. Olivia is buttonholed by a morbid, half-drunk poet who lectures her on modern verse and refuses to ask her to dance. She is introduced to a blind soldier who had wanted to be an architect before the war but now keeps chickens with a dumpy wife who was his nurse. As he dances with Olivia he steps on her feet. You can’t read this scene without tears. Lehmann makes Olivia’s partner stand for every young man who fought in the First World War and was injured in body and spirit. Rollo’s older brother Guy never came home. But for Olivia Rollo redeems all. A few moments talking about Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy, and all those shameful hours hiding in the cloakroom, hovering in corridors, sitting out dances without partners are as nothing.

An hour before the party Olivia, dressed and smelling a little too strongly of Lily of the Valley, bumps into her Uncle Oswald in the upstairs corridor. ‘Oh . . . I’m all wrong,’ she bursts out. ‘I know I am.’ Her red silk is cutting in at the armpits, her hair is pulled back too tight. ‘Never mind,’ Uncle Oswald whispers to her. ‘You must just wait. Say another ten years . . . It all quiets down. Yes. It gets better. Don’t worry. You’ll be all right in the end.’ It is the proper advice for a girl on the eve of her first ball.

In The Weather in the Streets, set ten years after the Spencers’ party, we meet Olivia at the moment forecast by Uncle Oswald. Now Kate is married – though not to Tony – with four flourishing children. Good, dependable, sensible, irritable Kate, a ‘fresh young matron from the country’ Olivia calls her older sister, trying to wind her up. So what can one say about Olivia? She is too thin. She is an assistant to a photographer. She is separated – though not divorced – from her husband Ivor. She has only 1s 6d left in her purse.

In the novel’s opening scene, Olivia is summoned home to say goodbye to her ailing father. Frantic, fearful, wondering if she ought to buy black gloves, she rushes for the train at Paddington. The man opposite her in the carriage, ordering sausages, scrambled eggs, coffee, toast and marmalade and half-hidden behind The Times, is . . . Rollo. I won’t spoil it. But Uncle Oswald was wrong. Life doesn’t quieten down. It is here, in the breakfast car as the train pulls away through the London fog, talking once again about books with Rollo Spencer, that for Olivia the dance really begins.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 67 © Laura Freeman 2020


About the contributor

Laura Freeman is gladder than she can say that she is no longer 17. She hopes one day to grow out of hiding in the cloakroom at parties.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Distraction-free
reading mode