by Rosamond Lehmann. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1927. 12mo. vi+ 353 pp. $2.50.
AH, what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life!
In choosing this quotation for the title-page of her first novel, Miss Rosamond Lehmann prepares her reader for an effect of bafflement and inconclusiveness. She does not prepare him for the exquisite beauty that will linger in his mind far longer than the beating of wings, so wild and bruising, of an ardent young soul on its quest for certainties. ‘Amazing’ is a word much overworked; but it may be used quite soberly to describe Miss Lehmann’s sensitiveness to beauty and her power to reproduce it. Whoever loves the earth, and especially whoever loves English earth, will drink delicious draughts from this book; for not only beauty, but the ache of beauty, is alive in it. The larch copse in spring, ‘lit all over with plumes of green fire,’is not to be forgotten; nor the apple blossoms against the sky ‘in a tender childish contrast of simple colors — pale pink upon pale blue’; nor the beeches which ‘sprang up clear from their lovely symmetrical pattern of naked roots and climbed the air in one long pure lift and flow’; nor the ‘frail-spun snow’ of the blackthorn; nor ‘the tragic light crying out for a moment at sunset.’
Dusty Answer tells the story of a modern English girl from her childhood through her years at Cambridge and a few emotionally eventful months beyond. At twelve, Judith Earle could pray fiercely, ‘Oh God, let the skating last. Let me skate. Take not my happiness from me and I will love Thee as I ought.’ At twenty, her only spiritual anchorage is in her own courage, and her power to look straight at her own acts.
Most refreshingly Judith, for all her beautiful sensibility, is not that supercreature sometimes found in a first novel, who gives the effect of being the author’s highly idealized notion of himself. She is full of simplicities and ineptitudes. Mentally mature, she is socially infantine. In sheer ignorance she coasts closely and cleanly past a miasmic spot in her Cambridge experience; and through her own credulity and importunity she turns her passion for the magnetic, elusive Roddy into a memory full of humiliation and anguish.
The latter part of the book falls short of the earlier chapters in originality and in convincing quality. It contains, however, one of the most perfect effects of atmosphere, in the desolateness in beauty, the strangeness in familiarity, of Cambridge as Judith finds it after only four months of absence. Indeed, all the pictures of Cambridge have vivid and lovely reality: the Backs, for example; the buttresses of King’s Chapel rising up in the twilight; or the sleepy wash of sunshine; and always the mystery. But on the whole the book is at its rarest in the early parts. The subtleties and the extremes that belong to a temperamental childhood and adolescence are remarkably depicted: the almost unbearable ecstasies, the scorching mortifications, the wild abandonments to glorious silliness — as in the skating scene, that apotheosis of the silly.
Over all the moods hovers that passionate and delicate magic of beauty, the quality of which may perhaps be suggested by this passage: ‘All at once the sun, like a bell, struck out a poignant richness, a long dark-golden evening note with tears in it, searching all the land with its fullness.’
ETHEL WALLACE HAWKINS