Lehmann, Rosamond (1901–1990)

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Lehmann, Rosamond (1901–1990)

British novelist, short-story writer, translator, and editor who articulated themes exploring women's sexualities and creative expression. Born Rosamond Nina Lehmann on February 3, 1901, in Fieldhead in Bourne End, Buckinghamshire, England; died on March 12, 1990, in London; daughter of Alice Mary (Davis) Lehmann (an American) and Rudolph Chambers Lehmann (a poet, writer, editor of Punch until 1919, and member of Parliament, 1906–14); educated privately in family home, Fieldhead, and at Girton College, Cambridge, 1919–22; married Walter Leslie Runciman, in 1922 (divorced 1927); married Wogan Philipps (a painter and member of House of Lords), in 1928 (divorced 1942); had intimate friendship with Cecil Day-Lewis (a poet and writer), 1941–50; children: (second marriage) Hugo Philipps (b. 1929); Sally Philipps Kavanagh (1934–1958).

Awards, honors:

president of English Center and International vice-president of International P.E.N.; a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (member of Council of Authors); Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres (1968); Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for service to literature (1982).

Selected fiction:

Dusty Answer (1927); A Note in Music (1930); Invitation to the Waltz (1932); The Weather in the Streets (1936); The Ballad and the Source (1944); The Gipsy's Baby and Other Stories (1946); The Echoing Grove (1953); A Sea-Grape Tree (1976).

Other writings:

A Letter to a Sister (1931); (play, first produced in London, 1938) No More Music (1939); (editor with others) Orion: A Miscellany 1–3 (3 vols., 1945–46); (translator from the French) Genevieve by Jacques Lemarchand (1947); (translator from the French) Children of the Game by Jean Cocteau (1955); (with W. Tudor Pole) A Man Seen Afar (1965); (autobiography) The Swan in the Evening: Fragments of an Inner Life (1967); (with W. Tudor Pole) Zeuge im Leben Jesu (1969); (with Cynthia Hill Sandys) Letters from Our Daughters (1972); (editor with Sandys) The Awakening Letters (1978).

In her novel The Weather in the Streets (1936), Rosamond Lehmann depicts a contemporary working woman, Olivia Curtis, experiencing the euphoric joy of passionate love with a man, but her lover is married to another woman. Despite her liberated modernity, Olivia suffers socially and economically. She loses her sense of personal identity. Is she an independent woman or a mistress? Her passion dissipates; she is disillusioned. Olivia pays for the affair; the man does not. Lehmann has crafted the seductive strategies of conventional romance fiction to indict a culturally constructed idea of love as well as the romantic literary genre it engenders.

It does all come out of the unconscious, my unconscious, which is very well stocked—with images, memories, sounds, voices, relationships. There comes a moment when they seem to coalesce and fuse, and suddenly something takes shape, like seeing a whole landscape with figures, or a whole house with all its rooms.

—Rosamond Lehmann

Lehmann's stories have drawn a large readership of women since the popular and critical success of her first novel, Dusty Answer, in 1927. Indeed, a half-century of conventional masculine literary assessment of her work praised its technical virtuosity, its lyrical rhapsodies, its rich psychological insight, yet relegated it to the margins as "women's literature." However, reassessments by late 20th-century critics have come to recognize that her novels use the mechanics of traditional romance in order to question the dominant cultural ethos and challenge masculine hierarchies. For instance, the critic Judy Simons praises Lehmann's exploration of the emotional and erotic lives of women "caught in a culture that appears to liberate but in fact imprisons them." Simons continues: "Lehmann is also an acute social historian, a bitter analyst of the British class system and of its impact on gender and identity." During the 1980s and '90s, The Weather in the Streets was assigned reading in women's studies courses in Britain and the United States. In 1983, the BBC produced television films of Lehmann's novel Invitation to the Waltz (1932) and its sequel The Weather in the Streets.

Rosamond Nina Lehmann was born on February 3, 1901, in Bourne End, Buckinghamshire, the second child of Alice Davis Lehmann and Rudolph Chambers Lehmann. Rudolph Lehmann was a talented poet and athlete, the heir of Scottish intellectual and artistic traditions represented by his grandfather, Robert Chambers, of Chambers' Encyclopaedia. He courted and married his American wife, Alice Davis, while coaching the crew team at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1890s. Rosamond Lehmann's father was first a contributor to and then an editor of Punch, the British humor magazine, from which he retired in 1919. He was elected as a Liberal Party candidate from Harborough to Parliament in 1906 and again in 1910, after which he withdrew because of declining health. Rosamond was one of four children, three girls and a boy. Her younger sister Beatrix Lehmann became a widely admired actress and novelist, and her younger brother John Lehmann became a well-known writer, critic, as well as founder and editor of New Writing and editor of London Magazine.

Rosamond Lehmann came from an unusually privileged and talented family. Her childhood was the protected site of innocence, albeit uneasy and anxious, to which she returned for inspiration in her fiction. Her father built their home, Fieldhead, on the River Thames in Bourne End in Buckinghamshire. Its property and vast gardens encompassed a horse stable, a dog kennel, a boathouse, and a brick pavilion built as a school for the education of Rosamond, her sisters, and about 20 selected girls in the neighborhood. Her childhood was highly regulated by parents, teachers, nannies, and governesses, and punctuated by the Boat Races, the annual rowing competition between Cambridge and Oxford. Lehmann reproduced fragments of her childhood in much of her fiction and also in her autobiography, The Swan in the Evening (1967), in which she remembers: "Myself in extremis, floored; myself saved, rejoicing: each of these opposed conditions deemed while it lasts, to be perpetual; yet even then a shadowy third, an onlooker, watching, recording, in the wings." Lehmann credited her father with identifying her early talent as a poet. Humorous, whimsical, generous, and declining with Parkinson's disease in his 60s, he encouraged her to write verse and short stories.

In 1919, at age 18, Lehmann left the shelter of her family to study at Girton College, Cambridge. Her protected upbringing was immediately pierced by the disillusionment and cynicism generated during the intellectual aftermath of the First World War. She was among the first wave of women allowed to study and sit for university exams, although degrees were not yet conferred on women by Cambridge University. As a student, she joined a cohort of young men attending university who, as returned veterans, went about examining the assumptions of a society that had thrown them into the devastating conflict of the Great War. Several years later, Lehmann would record her Cambridge years in Dusty Answer, a novel that won instant fame in both Britain and the United States for its lyrical prose and delicate treatment of sexuality in general and particularly adolescent lesbianism, a subject rarely raised in public discourse.

Shortly after leaving Cambridge, Rosamond Lehmann married Leslie Runciman and moved to Newcastle, where her husband went to work in his father's shipping business. Striving to offset her unhappiness in both her marriage and its setting, a northern provincial town, Lehmann began to write Dusty Answer. Her marriage dissolved in 1927. In her second novel, A Note in Music (1930), Lehmann describes two early middle-aged women reconciling to emotionally stultifying marriages: "'I was brought up to believe in matrimony,' [Grace, the heroine] said, 'and monogamy, and pure womanhood waiting for pure love to come and lead it off to a pure home. A spade was called anything but a spade. I was a very slow developer. By the time I started to wake up and think for myself, it was too late: I'd lost my chance.'"

In 1928, Lehmann married the Honorable Wogan Philipps, a painter and eventually the first Communist to have a seat in the House of Lords. Lehmann's biographers agree that Wogan Philipps aptly bridged the chasm between Lehmann's traditional Edwardian childhood and the artistic avant-garde then flourishing in Bloomsbury. Their son Hugo was born in 1929, and their daughter Sally in 1934.

Ipsden House, the home in Oxford that Lehmann established with Wogan Philipps, became a center of hospitality for the artists and writers who were among the younger generation of the Bloomsbury crowd. Her friends included Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington , as well as W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Stephen Spender. According to Spender, Rosamond Lehmann was "one of the most beautiful women of her generation." One of her biographers, Ruth Siegal , records that the painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant had her sit for them, Cecil Beaton photographed her, Bernard Berenson lavished praise on her, and her exceptional beauty impressed Julian Bell and Christopher Isherwood when they first met her.

Lehmann's next novel, Invitation to the Waltz (1932), describes a 17-year-old girl's awakening into imaginative empathy and self-conscious isolation. The upper middle-class Olivia Curtis attends a "coming-out" dance in an aristocratic upper-class circumstance. The shadow of the First World War falls on the heroine: "She had a moment's dizziness: a moment's wild new conscious indignation and revolt, thinking for the first time: This was war—never, never to be forgiven or forgotten, for his sake." Olivia is presented with a variety of age groups, social classes, and points of view, which, according to the literary biographer, Diana E. LeStourgeon , provide "[h]ints of tragedy, of illness, of despair, of cruelty, and of lust. … The dark side of life is there, always balancing the lighter, though never, because Olivia is young and still undisillusioned, overwhelming it."

Lehmann, Beatrix (1903–1979)

English actress and author. Born in Bourne End, Buckinghamshire, England, in 1903; died in 1979; daughter of Alice Mary (Davis) Lehmann (an American) and Rudolph Chambers Lehmann (a poet, writer, editor of Punch until 1919, and member of Parliament, 1906–14); sister of Rosamond Lehmann (1901–1990).

Beatrix Lehmann made her stage debut at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1924. In 1946, she became director-producer of the Arts Council Midland Theater Company. She also wrote short stories, two novels, and appeared in films.

In 1936, Lehmann produced The Weather in the Streets, a pessimistic sequel to Invitation to the Waltz. Olivia, now divorced, self-sufficient, and working in London, falls in love with a married man and aristocrat. Siegal contends that Lehmann uses a clandestine relationship in order to complicate and intensify the problems of a woman's sexuality: "how the state of being in love consumes a woman's will and obliterates her sense of self; how she constricts her world to the single reality of her love: 'being in love with Rollo was all important, the times with him the only reality.'"

Confronting the threat of fascism both on the Continent and at home, many British intellectuals turned to leftist politics in the 1930s. Nevertheless, Lehmann refused either to change her politics or to overtly infuse politics into her writing. Surrounded by friends who were socialist and communist, she remained staunchly a fair-minded, middle-of-the-road liberal—although speaking out in the mid- and late-'30s in anti-fascist organizations and meetings. She wrote passionately in support of the Republican cause in Spain. Her husband Wogan Philipps volunteered as an ambulance driver for Spanish Medical Aid in 1936, was wounded, and returned to Ipsden House to declare his formal membership in the Communist Party. Ruth Siegal, Lehmann's biographer and friend, characterized him as a political fanatic. Lehmann separated from her husband in 1941 and divorced him in 1942.

Leaving Ipsden House, Lehmann established a home with her children in London, then in the Berkshire hills, and later, after the financial success of The Ballad and the Source (1944), in a rambling Georgian manor house in Wittenham near Abingdon and the River Thames. In the early 1940s, she began an intimate, romantic relationship with the married poet and writer, Cecil Day-Lewis; they shared life at Little Wittenham. The affair ended bitterly in 1950 when Day-Lewis divorced but married a much younger woman, actress Jill Balcon . Thereafter, Lehmann resided in London.

In 1938, Lehmann's play, No More Music, was produced in London. Berthold Viertel directed Rosamond's sister Beatrix in the lead, and though Elizabeth Bowen predicted that the play would have a regular run, it failed. The stories that Lehmann wrote during the first years of the Second World War for her brother John's prestigious magazine New Writing were collected in a volume entitled The Gipsy's Baby and Other Stories (1946). The stories are intense, crafted explorations of social class and gender from the subjective perspectives of women at home during war. In "A Dream of Winter," for instance, a mother, feverish with influenza, expresses anxiety and responsibility for having removed a bee hive from the eaves: "One performs acts of will, and in doing so one commits acts of negation and destruction. A portion of life is suppressed forever. The image of the ruined balcony weighed upon her: torn out, exposed, violated, obscene as the photograph of a bombed house."

For a short period in 1943, Lehmann—together with Day-Lewis, Edwin Muir, and Denys Kilham Roberts—edited the hardcover journal, Orion. Three issues were produced. In 1946, after the war, her brother set up a publishing firm, John Lehmann Limited. Rosamond was a director and official advisor. In 1947, the firm was bought out; John Lehmann was retained as its managing director and Rosamond as its salaried reader.

In her fifth novel, The Ballad and the Source, Lehmann created the powerful, mythical character of Sibyl Jardine, an aging enchanter bent on attempting to mold yet a third generation to her will. Harking to Victorian origins and sweeping through the eras of the First and Second World Wars, The Ballad and the Source embodies a desire to explore the past in order to give "meaning and spiritual fortification in the dissolving present," John Lehmann's agenda for New Writing. Of Lehmann's novels, it is the most overtly feminist. The intimate love of young women for one another reverberates in the memories of grandmothers and in the honest sexual attraction between granddaughters, one of whom determines to train as a physician, declaring: "I shall have a different sort of life from other people, … I shall never fall in love." Sibyl Jardine enjoins her young interlocutor, Rebecca Landon, not to forget the debt 20th-century women will owe the generations of feminists who have preceded them:

"One day, Rebecca, women will be able to speak to men—speak out the truth, as equal, not as antagonists, or as creatures without independent moral rights—pieces of men's property, owned, used and despised. … When you are a woman, … living … a life in which all your functions and capacities are used and none frustrated, spare a thought for Sibyl. … Say: 'She helped to win this for me.'"

The narrative is a maze of stories woven by Sibyl Jardine and the dying seamstress Tilly; they are refracted through the storytelling of Rebecca Landon, a young woman awakening to imaginative creativity. The critic Judy Simons asserts that Lehmann's exploration of narrative self-reflection and reflexivity in this novel is surprisingly post-modern.

In The Echoing Grove (1953), Lehmann reasserts the importance of intimacy between

women. She describes the reconciliation of two sisters after the death of a man who had been husband to one and lover to the other. In her last novel, A Sea-Grape Tree (1976), about psychic healing, the character Sibyl Jardine is resurrected under her nom de plume, Sibyl Anstey. Although dead, she lives in spiritual medium, dominating the narrative and the young heroine until they reconcile.

In 1958, Lehmann's daughter, Sally, who had married the writer Patrick Kavanagh and moved to Jakarta, died of poliomyelitis. In 1967, Lehmann wrote: "Nowadays I measure my life by Sally, not by dates. There was the time before her birth; the time of her life span; the time I am in now, after she slipped away from us." Soon after Sally's death, Lehmann had a mystical experience that convinced her that Sally had contacted her from a world on the other side of death. The experience changed her life. Lehmann began to read widely in the field of psychic phenomenon. She recounted her spiritual encounter with her daughter first in a psychic journal, where she felt she was whispering to the converted, and then more bravely in her autobiography, The Swan in the Evening, in 1967. In 1971, the College of Psychic Studies published letters from Sally which were transcribed by the clairvoyant medium, Baroness Cynthia Sandys .

In The Swan in the Evening: Fragments of an Inner Life, Lehmann explained why she would never write a proper autobiography and describes the source of her creativity:

[S]o much of my "life story" has gone, in various intricate disguises, and transmuted almost beyond my own recognition, into my novels, that it would be difficult if not impossible to disentangle "true" from "not true": declare: "This is pure invention. This partly happened, this very nearly happened, this did happen"—even if I could conceive it to be a worth-while operation.

Lehmann wrote fictions of womanhood, writes Simons, "as they map out the territory for an expanding feminine consciousness on its journey of development through the twentieth century."

Rosamond Lehmann lived to enjoy renewed fame with the republication of her works by Penguin and Virago in the 1980s. She died in London on March 12, 1990, at the age of 89.


Lehmann, Rosamond. The Ballad and the Source. London: Collins, 1944 (reprinted with an introduction by Janet Watts, London: Virago, 1982).

——. The Gipsy's Baby and Other Stories. London: Collins, 1944 (reprinted with an introduction by Janet Watts, London: Virago, 1982).

——. Invitation to the Waltz. London: Chatto & Windus, 1932 (reprinted with an introduction by Janet Watts, London: Virago, 1981).

——. A Note in Music. London: Chatto & Windus, 1927 (reprinted with an introduction by Janet Watts, London: Virago, 1982).

——. A Sea-Grape Tree. London: Collins, 1976 (reprinted with an introduction by Janet Watts, London: Virago, 1982).

——. The Swan in Evening: Fragments of an Inner Life. London: William Collins, 1967 (reprinted London: Virago, 1977).

——. The Weather in the Streets. London: Collins: 1936 (reprinted with an introduction by Janet Watts, London: Virago, 1981).

LeStourgeon, Diana E. Rosamond Lehmann. NY: Twayne, 1965.

Siegal, Ruth. Rosamond Lehmann: A Thirties Writer. NY: Peter Lang, 1989.

Simons, Judy. Rosamond Lehmann. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

suggested reading:

Gindin, James. "Rosamond Lehmann: A Revaluation," in Contemporary Literature. Vol. 15, no. 2. Spring, 1974, pp. 203–211.

Lehmann, John. The Whispering Gallery: Autobiography I. London: Longmans, 1956.

——. I Am my Brother: Autobiography II. London: Longmans, 1960.

Tindall, Gillian. Rosamond Lehmann: An Appreciation. London: Chatto & Windus, 1984.


Papers of Rosamond Lehmann are located in the King's College Library, Cambridge.

Manuscripts of Rosamond Lehmann are held by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the University of Texas at Austin.

related media:

"Invitation to the Waltz," BBC-TV film, 1983.

"The Weather in the Streets," BBC-TV film, 1983.

Jill Benton , author of Naomi Mitchison: A Biography, and Professor of English and World Literature at Pitzer College, Claremont, California

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