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

Mood Music

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‘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

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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.

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