Although my reading and subsequently my blogging has improved a bit, it’s still not great. When I planned to review Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets for the 1936 Club, I thought I would write on the novel that precedes it, Invitation to the Waltz (1932) first. Unsurprisingly, that did not happen! Then I thought I’d pair it with Zadie Smith’s Swing Time for books on dancing, but the front cover is as far as I’ve got with that despite two weeks of trying. So I’ve given up and here is a post on Invitation to the Waltz only, but it’s wonderful and entirely deserving of a post all to itself 😊
It is Olivia Curtis’ seventeenth birthday. She lives with her pleasant middle-class family, in a pleasant middle class house:
“These walls enclose a world. Here is continuity spinning a web from room to room, from year to year. It is safe in this house. Here grows something energetic, concentrated, tough, serene; with its own laws and habits; something alarming, oppressive, not altogether to be trusted: nefarious perhaps. Here grows a curious plant with strong roots knotted all together: an unique specimen. In brief, a family lives here.”
She wants to sleep in, although she’s still young enough to be excited regarding her birthday, but her perfect sister Kate wakes her from such indulgence. In this simple scene Lehmann sets up so much regarding the themes of the novel: love and irritation regarding family, being of an age where you teeter from childhood to adulthood and back again in a moment, the demands of society that need to be met. It’s a superbly subtle and clever piece of writing.
Somehow Lehmann manages to capture all of Olivia’s naivete, exuberance and indolence without her becoming annoying. She is on the cusp of something, she knows it but doesn’t know what. Her adulthood at once seems entirely plotted by social convention, and entirely open:
“I want to do something absolutely different, or perhaps nothing at all: just stay where I am, in my home, and absorb each hour, each day, and be alone; and read and think; and walk about the garden in the night; and wait, wait. …”
The novel is set in 1920, so part of Olivia’s conflict regarding adulthood is also about what it means to be a woman at this time. Kate seems cut out for domestic bliss, but the effects of the war are still working themselves out, and roles for women are changing:
“She looked at her nails: they were clean, but that was all. Kate had spent an hour manicuring hers. All these dainty devices, so natural to Kate, seemed when she performed them to become unreal, like a lesson learnt by heart, but not properly understood. Something in her fumbled, felt inharmonious, wanted almost to resist.”
The second part of the novel builds to Kate and Olivia attending the titular dance which the local landowners are throwing for their daughter Marigold. The day of the dance arrives and we meet the Spencers, who are richer and more privileged than the Curtises, but also welcoming up to a point. Olivia wears a dress made from flame-coloured silk which she got for her birthday, and like everything else about the highly anticipated dance, it’s not quite right, but it’s also not completely terrible.
The girls have had to invite a chaperone, Reggie, who is not horrible but is a total bore:
“Lady Spencer looked him over rapidly. Commonplace; but not flashy. Clean fingernails. Only son—country parsonage? Bad manner. But steady. Heavy look. Stoop—(scholar’s?). You never knew. He’d do. She dismissed him for ever.”
We also meet Kate and Olivia’s flaky cousin Etty, who would drive me to distraction in real life but who I greatly enjoyed on the page:
‘Oh, but how divine! You must introduce me. Do you think he’d say a prayer with me if I asked him? My very first love was a vicar who prepared me for confirmation at school. I adored him. How difficult for you, though. Never mind.’
The rest of the evening passes in a vaguely unsatisfactory way, in dances with people Olivia only knows slightly and has to make small talk with. Lehmann perfectly captures how hugely anticipated events are rarely the momentous occasions hoped for, and instead are often a mixture of tedium, excitement and being ill at ease, certainly for someone like Olivia who is young, awkward, and prefers books (at 44 I’m only two out of those three things 😊). The only time Olivia makes a genuine connection with anyone other than Kate, is with son and heir Rollo Spencer, who she meets alone on a terrace:
“It was quite an effort to speak to him; like coming back from being dead. She felt herself rooted to the ground and very calm, not embarrassed at all. Rather as if I might say anything. …
Their voices dropped into the air one after the other with an impersonal lost sound, as if they reached one another from a distance; yet the sense of isolation seemed to enclose them together in a kind of intimacy. His voice was deep and rounded, both vigorous and lazy.”
There was an extra poignancy re-reading that scene knowing how it plays out in The Weather in the Streets, but actually the sadness is already there without the sequel. The reader gets a sense of Rollo’s dissatisfaction with his life, even as he leaves Olivia to return to the beautiful woman he will marry. At this point Olivia is unaware of the foreshadowing:
“[Rollo and] Nicola meet at the foot of the stairs and start to talk earnestly, their heads close together. They do suit. … She went away.”
Invitation to the Waltz is deceptively well-written. In one way it is a story of not very much happening, for an ordinary middle-class family during the interwar years. Yet it is also about so much: anticipation, disappointment, the damage that expectations of self and others can do, the deep-rooted sadness that people live with every day and never voice, and the love and pleasure that exists alongside it. It’s a novel of riches that I’m sure will reward re-reading.
To end, an obvious choice but I couldn’t resist such perfection: