Rosamond Nina Lehmann (LAY-muhn) was a consummate stylist and a careful observer whose attention to detail has secured her place in British letters. Born into a literary family, Lehmann was the second daughter of Rudolph Chambers and Alice Davis Lehmann. Her father was a liberal member of Parliament who frequently wrote for Punch. Her mother was a descendant of John Wentworth, an early lieutenant governor of New Hampshire. Lehmann’s sister, Beatrix, became a highly regarded actress. Her brother, John, four years her junior, was a poet and, after 1938, a partner in the Hogarth Press, established by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, who were close friends of the Lehmann family. Lehmann’s early marriage to Leslie Runciman ended in divorce shortly after she completed her first novel. In 1928 she married Wogan Philipps, later Lord Milford, father of her two children. Lehmann’s marriage to Wogan Philipps ended in divorce in 1942.
Lehmann became famous after the publication of her first novel, Dusty Answer, at the age of twenty-six. To many of her contemporaries in the 1920’s, she was part of a vanguard, including Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, who chose female characters as the voices of a new fictional style called “stream of consciousness.” This novel, remotely autobiographical, explores the special consciousness of adolescence as the protagonist grows into early adulthood; the book is distinguished in part by its frankness with regard to sexual attitudes. Her second novel, A Note in Music, overtly depicting lesbianism, is one of the first modern novels to address the theme of homosexuality directly, and its publication in 1930 caused considerable consternation in Great Britain.
Invitation to the Waltz is a sensitive book about a seventeen-year-old girl, Olivia Curtis, who is living through the trauma of her first dance, which becomes something of a rite of passage. The Weather in the Streets is a sequel to Invitation to the Waltz; in this novel, Olivia marries, has an adulterous love affair, divorces, and is forced into having an abortion. These topics, easily accepted in later literature, seemed extremely daring to British readers in the mid-1930’s.
Two additional Lehmann novels, The Ballad and the Source and A Sea-Grape Tree, share a single set of characters. The first of these is generally considered Lehmann’s finest book. It succeeds in the difficult task of presenting its story through the eyes of ten-year-old Rebecca Landon, maintaining consistently the child’s point of view. Between these two books came The Echoing Grove, a novel that presents the difficulties two sisters face when one sister has an affair with the other’s husband. Lehmann’s only collection of short stories is The Gipsy’s Baby, and Other Short Stories. Its title story is particularly impressive for its controlled depiction of the female characters. The other stories show Lehmann at various stages of her literary development.
Quite different from Lehmann’s other work is her autobiographical The Swan in the Evening: Fragments of an Inner Life. The book was motivated by the death of her only daughter, Sally, of poliomyelitis. After recounting her own early life, Lehmann examines closely the effect Sally’s death had on her. Then, alluding to psychologists, including Carl Jung, to support her argument, she goes on to express the conviction that her daughter’s spirit has survived and recounts elements of her continuing relationship with that spirit. With C. H. Sandys, Lehmann published Letters from Our Daughters, an indirect reminiscence about her daughter. Rosamond Lehmann’s Album, largely pictorial, appeared in 1985.
Lehmann, who served as president of the English International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN) and as international vice president of that organization, was an active translator of French works, including some of Jean Cocteau’s. Lehmann is at her literary best in her characterization of women and the anxieties of youth and love. The great theme of her fiction is the evanescent quality of love in a world where love is the only thing worth having. Although she will be remembered primarily as a woman’s writer, more important is her significant contribution to the British novel: representations of consciousness and realism.