Rosamond Lehman was like the Zadie Smith of the 1920s – young and beautiful when her first novel was published she immediately enjoyed literary stardom. She went on to write another half dozen or so novels, culminating in what is arguably her best novel, The Echoing Grove. Then her daughter died and so deep was her grief that Lehman didn’t write any more novels. The Swan in the Evening was published after ten years of silence on her part.
It should be said this isn’t really autobiography in the conventional sense. The first section is a series of isolated childhood vignettes, reminiscent in mood and form to Virginia Woolf’s idea that we all have a handful of defining childhood moments, moments of being. These reminded me of the lithe beauty of Lehman’s prose, the romantic lyricism of her descriptive writing. Lehman was always brilliant at dramatising the emotional life of her heroines. At the same time there’s a kind of detachment about these memories as if Lehman is the novelist at work and these are sketches for a character in a book.
The second section concerns itself largely with her daughter Sally. A parent extolling the virtues of her offspring is always going to cause some embarrassment on the part of a listener who never knew the person in question. The sludge of grief begins to suck both vitality and clarity from the prose. You begin to sense Lehman still hasn’t effectively dealt with her grief and the writing of this book is another attempt.
The third part makes for distinctly uncomfortable reading. In fact I couldn’t get through it. Lehman refuses to believe her daughter is dead. Spiritualism has taken over her life. She recounts a few moments when she is reunited with her daughter. Apparently her old Bloomsbury friends dropped her at this point in her life. They couldn’t countenance her ideas. The impression she wants to give is that she’s been born again. However it isn’t convincing. The writing becomes increasingly muddled and bogged down by the ugly terminology of psychic experience. She protests too much about the healing qualities of her mystical experiences. She appears as precariously balanced as a recovering addict addressing an audience for the first time. Perhaps the encrypted text of this book is an inadvertent exposition as to why she was unable to write fiction after the death of her daughter. In fact the more mystical the text becomes the more slumbering and awkward becomes the prose. It lacks the easy grace of imaginative lucidity. It becomes clear she’s lost the clarity of detachment necessary to write fiction. While I can understand her writing this book I’m not sure she should have published it. It’s too personal. Too subjectively needy and distressed. It reads like a testament to the harrowing distorting properties of grief, a hurricane that lifts the roof off a home. Ultimately you’re left with the feeling Rosamond Lehman, very sadly, was never able to recover from her grief.
If however you want to experience Lehman at her best I recommend The Echoing Grove.