Sunday, 7 September 2008
I've started writing a new column called 'Bibliotherapy', and the first one is published in Seven, in the Sunday Telegraph, today. I hope the title is self-explanatory -- I wanted to write about what to read at different times in one's life, in order to find some consoling words. Anyway, here it is, but if you read it on the Telegraph website, there should be a place where you can suggest your own ideas for future columns. All suggestions gratefully received!
There are times in one’s life when a good book – the right book – feels like a voice speaking in the darkness, or a hand reaching out from the past; providing solace when all else seems lost. Thus it was when I was 18, and heartbroken; awash with tearful misery until a friend’s mother gave me a second hand copy of “Dusty Answer”, Rosamond Lehmann’s coming-of-age classic that was first published in 1927. I devoured it overnight.
The title is taken from George Meredith’s poem, ‘Modern Love’ – ‘Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul/ When hot for certainties in this our life!’ – and its themes, of passion betrayed and love lost, were to recur in Lehmann’s subsequent novels. All remain relevant now, especially in times of emotional turmoil; but her debut, telling the story of Judith Earle, and her passage from lovelorn adolescent to the verge of clear-sighted adulthood, has an emotional intensity that subsequent generations have recognised as their own, so that a myriad individual stories seem to be reflected within this book in particular.
Lehmann wrote “Dusty Answer” in her mid-twenties, when she was still young enough to remember the agony of a crushing rejection she’d received as a Cambridge undergraduate, from a handsome old Etonian who seemed on the verge of proposing to her after a whirlwind romance, but turned out to be engaged to another girl. In ‘Dusty Answer’, Judith falls for Roddy Fyfe – who is careless and inscrutable and irresistible – only to be discarded after a single, summer’s night of lovemaking. Over 80 years after the novel was written, Roddy’s callous dismissal is as recognisably cruel as any 21st century account of rejection; for when Judith confesses she has loved him ever since they were children, he responds with silence, and “a face as smooth and cold as a stone”.
Like the rest of us, Rosamond Lehmann went on to suffer other heartbreaks – most devastating of all was the end of her affair with the poet, Cecil Day Lewis, which is fictionalised in her later novel, ‘The Echoing Grove’. But the conclusion of her first book gives some consolation in its suggestion that heartbreak, however painful, can be a beginning, rather than a bitter ending. “She had nobody now except herself, and that was best… This was to be happy – this emptiness, this light uncoloured state… Soon she must begin to think: What next?”