Rosamond Lehmann




Films from her books:

'The Heart of Me' (2002) from the 1953 novel  ''The Echoing Grove” - Critic in the New York Times

“The Weather in the Streets” (1983) from the novel with the same name (1936)

Rosamond Lehmann's sad retreat

Rosamond Lehmann: A Life
Selina Hastings (Chatto, £25)

Reviewed by Gillian Tindall


Fifty-odd years ago Rosamond Lehmann was famous both for her novels and for her beauty. Twenty-five years on she had fallen into that obscurity awaiting writers who are perceived as being too typical of a recently past era. Even among those who remembered her, she was vaguely stigmatised as " romantic" or as "writing about the upper classes" or some other sin against the contemporary literary cannon.

However, Rosamond was resurrected, as she herself put it, at the beginning of the 1980s, and enjoyed 10 years of real prestige. Concerning The Weather in the Streets, her archetypal account of the anguish of an affair with a married man, a new generation of readers exclaimed "Oh Miss Lehmann, that's my story exactly!"



More durably, the real originality of form that distinguishes this novel and a couple of others - a sophisticated art concealed by the apparently artless emotion - began to be recognised.

Now safely dead, she has been the subject of literary conferences in Cambridge and at the Sorbonne; studies have been written, her books have been dramatised on radio and television. Now this long-awaited authorised biography appears from someone who knew her well for many years as a family friend.

Selina Hastings has the incomparable skill of capturing the essence of a life rather than taking the reader on a long plod through the dates of Bloomsbury house parties. At the same time, no relationship or encounter is omitted that can add another touch to the picture that gradually emerges.

Mistress of her material, she pays full tribute to Rosamond's qualities of intelligence, warmth, interest in others and passionate commitment; not till halfway through this book and the subject's life, does a lethal quote appear. The poet Stephen Spender remarked: "(She) was such a delightful person, very sympathetic, very charming: the most puzzling thing about her is that she was a total egotist."

This Rosamond, whom I, too, knew, was lamentably unfitted to cope even with the commonplace batterings of time and chance, let alone with a serious blow, and her insatiable demands upon family, friends and lovers did not make them love her more. Two marriages and two high-profile romantic affairs (as well as several others) came to grief, and she never either forgave or understood.

Violet Hammersley, no stranger to turbulent affairs herself, remarked perspicaciously to Rosamond's brother John that she thought "it was like a grave illness, this need of flattery and worship", and that what each new man provided was "not falling in love but the giving of the injection, as it were".

Inevitably, by the time Rosamond was a large and over-made-up 60-year-old, men prepared to supply the injection were few on the ground, but this she ignored, claiming non-existent passions in others' breasts and creating, by her genuine hospitality, the illusion of being sought-after. Similarly, and far more horribly, when her beloved daughter Sally died, she was completely unable to accept that such a tragedy could befall herself. Her solution was to insist that Sally still lived and sent her enthusiastic messages about the flowers and the life on the Other Side.

As her biographer observes: "She had to have Sally back, in some shape or form, and if the price was the total and uncritical acceptance of what the rational world regarded as the simplistic imaginings of a group of mediums, then it was a price she was only too willing to pay."

The price she actually paid for retreating into self-enhancing pretences was that she lost the capacity to focus on truth and was thus finished as a novelist. Her last, late venture into fiction was a feeble fantasy. But her other books remain, untarnished by time, arresting in their reality, bringing genuine messages to new cohorts of readers: that, in the end, is what counts.

Selina Hastings singles out for particular praise the lucid Invitation to the Waltz and the short stories, while I rate highest the subtle construction of The Echoing Grove - but as a life revealed, this biography could not be bettered.


'O I must tell Osbert!'

Alex Clark on the poisonous gossip that surrounded the life and loves of Rosamond Lehmann

Saturday June 8, 2002
The Guardian

Rosamond Lehmann
by Selina Hastings
476pp, Chatto & Windus, £25

If you are greatly interested - perhaps to a slightly unhealthy degree, as I am - in women novelists who flourished in the first half of the 20th century, then you are likely to enjoy this biography enormously. If you aren't, but appreciate literary gossip of a viciousness that borders on blood sport, the same applies. If neither appeals, then you should give it a wide berth - because you will find it entirely mystifying.

Perhaps one of the greatest mysteries is how Rosamond Lehmann managed to find time to write her novels at all. The apparently ceaseless flow of husbands and lovers (cads, pretty much to a man), friends, family, Bloomsberries, house-parties, holidays, lunches, suppers and terrific rows must have left little scope for leisurely composition. Hastings mentions at one point that Lehmann often took to her bed to write. No wonder, one feels; she must have been permanently exhausted.

It all began in 1901, when Lehmann was born into a family of German, Jewish, Scottish and American origins. Her father, the Liberal MP, champion rower and humorous writer Rudie Lehmann, dissipated much of his natural talent in a craze of minor projects. A poem written for Punch to celebrate the late Edward VII's dog perhaps provides the best example: it begins "Hail, Caesar, lonely little Caesar, hail!" Her mother, a New England disciplinarian, was so ferocious that the young Rosamond drew a picture of her swiping the air with a tennis racquet and shouting "I HATE everybody".

It might be said of Lehmann, as it might of anybody, that she never recovered from her childhood. It was revived endlessly in her fiction, most notably in her three most distinguished novels, Dusty Answer (which contains one of the finest depictions of a sexual rebuff of the last century), Invitation to the Waltz and The Weather in the Streets. She grew up in a seemingly idyllic setting, all make-believe fairies and children's theatricals in a sprawling riverside house, with Rudie acting as "Prospero of their magic isle", as Hastings somewhat purply puts it. But much later in her life, when a disagreement with her brother escalated into sibling fisticuffs, Rosamond was to cite the trauma of witnessing her parents' bitter arguments in mitigation.

Whatever the pains of childhood, adult life was to inflict much worse, largely due to a combination of Lehmann's huge sexual magnetism and her weakness for "wonderful young men" who turned out to be not so wonderful after all. Husband number one whisked her off to drizzly Liverpool and Newcastle and then forced her into an unwanted abortion. She quickly decamped with the dashing dilettante Wogan Philipps - only to find herself indulging his painterly aspirations, bringing up their two children almost single-handedly, and waving him off to the Spanish civil war.

The marriages have the feelings of practice runs for the real thing, which was to be a nine-year affair with the poet Cecil Day Lewis. Her interim affair with Goronwy Rees ended when she read of his impending marriage in the Times; with Day Lewis the desertion was more gradual and, in the end, more brutal.

For years he shuttled between glamorous Rosamond and his country-mouse wife Mary, hinting at jam tomorrow; when he eventually absconded with the actress Jill Balcon, Lehmann was driven, more or less, to madness. A vengeful victim, she harried her numerous friends - Elizabeth Bowen, Frances Partridge and Laurie Lee among them - half to death, pleading with them to intervene on her behalf, to choose their side, or simply to listen to endless self-pitying rants. Those less directly involved were delighted with the spectacle: Edith Sitwell enquired into the state of play with a gleeful "O I must tell Osbert!"

Much worse was to come. Although Lehmann's romantic disappointments had led to excessive self-absorption, she was still able, on occasion, to stand beyond them and to channel them into her increasingly sporadic work. Love affairs may have broken her heart, but they also gave her work the understanding that encouraged similarly afflicted women to write to her in droves.

But when her adored daughter Sally died suddenly on holiday at the age of 24, Lehmann was dealt a blow from which she never recovered. Finding comfort in the ministrations of spiritualists - including a "clairaudient" who mediated the dead through an "unhealed head centre" - she entered a world so far removed from reality that her friends could hardly bear to follow her. When one realises that Lehmann became convinced that Sally was in heaven teaching unborn baby birds to sing with St Francis of Assisi, one sees their problem. Yet the section dealing with her bereavement makes the most intensely painful reading. "It was self-deception on such a moving scale," wrote Laurie Lee. Others were horrified and concerned, while some merely mocked. "I said bad luck on the girl," said Nancy Mitford, hearing that Lehmann believed that she could communicate directly with Sally. "Imagine a heavenly butler saying 'The Hon. Mrs Philipps on the line again, Ma'am' just when one was gambolling in a green pasture" - which merely goes to show what a poisonous bitch Mitford really was.

Indeed, although Lehmann's behaviour often sounds ghastly, her circle also fails to cover itself in glory. Hastings animates these and other scenarios vividly and with diligent even-handedness. Only at the end of the book does she reveal her personal connection with Lehmann, and she is at pains to show how carefully she evaded her subject's attempts to have this biography completed in her lifetime. Hastings brings us far more of the private life than the professional one, sensing that here is the real story. Although her analyses of the novels are competent, they do little to explain Lehmann's peculiar position as a bestselling writer at odds with the prevailing literary climate. Her last major work, The Echoing Grove, was published the year before Lucky Jim, but could hardly have been more different in sensibility and style. Despite a revival, via Virago, in the 1980s, she is probably no longer widely read - a neglect that, as with writers such as Rose Macaulay and Sylvia Townsend Warner, is a greater pity for us than for them.


The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition.  2001.

Lehmann, John

1907–89, English poet, editor, and publisher. Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, he began working at Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1931 and managed it from 1938 to 1946. In that year he founded a publishing house, John Lehmann, Ltd., which he directed until 1952. He also founded the London Magazine and edited it from 1952 to 1961. Lehmann is perhaps best remembered as the editor of New Writing, an English book-periodical that appeared (under various titles) about twice yearly between 1936 and 1946; it included work by writers considered too radical to be published elsewhere and came to be considered an important influence on 20th-century English literature. Lehmann also edited the paperback Penguin New Writing from 1946 to 1950. Among his works are the volumes of poetry A Garden Revisited (1931), The Age of the Dragon (1951), and Collected Poems (1961); and the study A Nest of Tigers: The Sitwells in Their Time (1969). Lehmann’s sister, Rosamond Lehmann, 1901–90, was also a writer. She is noted for her delicately crafted studies of women, particularly of young girls. Her first novel, Dusty Answer (1927), concerning a deep emotional attachment between two college girls, was highly successful. Invitation to the Waltz (1932) describes the launching of a young girl into society; The Weather in the Streets (1936) treats the same girl 10 years later, after an abortion and a divorce. Lehmann’s other works include The Gypsy’s Baby and Other Stories (1946) and the novel The Echoing Grove (1953).

See Rosamond Lehmann’sher autobiographical The Swan in the Evening: Fragments of an Inner Life (1967).



Love in a literary climate

 (Filed: 02/06/2002)

Anne Chisholm reviews Rosamond Lehmann: A Life by Selina Hastings

Like it or not, the exploration by women writers of their emotional and sexual lives has been one of the most striking developments in 20th-century literature.

Rosamond Lehmann, whose life spanned almost the whole century (1901-1990) was one of the first to take full advantage of this freedom, and the best of her novels (Dusty Answer, Invitation to the Waltz, The Weather in the Streets) made a real contribution to the genre. She was beautiful, gifted, well-connected, demanding, and unlucky in love; her books have always appealed greatly, though not exclusively, to women.

In this finely textured, exceptionally perceptive and wonderfully readable biography, Selina Hastings disentangles the connections between Lehmann's life and her writing. What emerges is a story richer, funnier and more painful than any of her fiction.

Although Lehmann was born into an affluent, well-educated family, she seems to have carried with her from childhood a pervasive sense of insecurity. Although she would in later life ascribe the family's good looks and intelligence to their Jewish blood, she knew it was not an advantage in the aristocratic circles to which as a young woman she eagerly aspired. She adored her father, but for all her prettiness, and her efforts to please him with fairy stories and verses, she always felt that she was not his favourite child. As Hastings ominously says, "she came first with nobody".

By the time Rosamond Lehmann arrived at Cambridge in 1919, she knew she was beautiful and that she wanted to write. Her first love ended in tears, when she took the casual advances of a rich, confident young man too seriously; this commonplace disappointment set a pattern for her fiction, as for her life.

She plunged rashly into marriage with an apparently suitable man, Leslie Runciman, from the wealthy shipping family. He panicked when she became pregnant and insisted on an abortion, after which he praised her for being once again "all clean and clear inside".

It was hardly surprising that she soon fell in love with Wogan Philipps, another handsome, well-off, immature man; after prolonged dramas, as the Runciman and the Philipps families disapproved of divorce, they were married in 1928.

By this time Lehmann's first novel, Dusty Answer, based on her Cambridge years, had been published to instant acclaim. The young couple found a desirable Queen Anne house in Oxfordshire, had two children, and through their friend George (Dadie) Rylands were taken up by Lytton Strachey. Hastings is sharp-eyed about Bloomsbury's affectionate, slightly patronising attitude to "Ros and Wog"; here was another magic circle where Rosamond never quite felt she belonged.

Romantic happiness, for Rosamond, was dangerously linked with her capacity to write. As Hastings observes, "being in love was a vocation, just as important as - if not more important than - being a writer". When during the 1930s Wogan Philipps's attention shifted towards painting, other women and eventually the Communist Party, it became imperative for her to find another great love.

After a brief, intense affair with the attractive, famously unreliable Goronwy Rees, whose engagement to another woman she learned about from a newspaper, she fell upon the romantically ravaged-looking poet Cecil Day Lewis, despite the inconvenient fact that he was already married with two children. They set up house together in 1941, with Lehmann determined to detach him permanently from his wife.

Around this point in the book the reader senses that the biographer's patience with her subject is under strain. In this book, as in Rosamond Lehmann's life, the huge universal drama of the Second World War has to take second place to the desperate emotional battle being waged over her tortured, indecisive lover.

When finally, in 1950, Day Lewis solved his problem by taking up with the actress Jill Balcon, even those fondest of Lehmann found her prolonged rage and desperation hard to take. She never stopped looking for love, but her "voraciously demanding" nature became more and more obvious and alarming as her beauty faded. As Dadie Rylands once reflected, being the object of Rosamond Lehmann's attentions must have been "like being suffocated by a great eiderdown of rose petals".

In 1958 the tragedy of her daughter Sally's sudden death at the age of 24 threw Rosamond Lehmann into a strenuous effort to fill the emotional gap by communicating with the spirit world. Not even death was to be allowed to deny her the loving presence she needed. Here Hastings is at her best, never losing sight of the courage and pathos behind Lehmann's driven, occasionally comic search for comfort.

It is only in her concluding pages that Hastings reveals the extent of her own connection with Rosamond Lehmann, whom she knew from childhood. Appointed her biographer some years before she died, Hastings herself had to resist her subject's powerful need for worship by declining to write the book to order. She has produced, in the end, the best possible tribute; an understanding, clear-eyed portrait.

Ann Chisholm is writing a biography of Frances Partridge.

Read excerpts of critics to her books here