In her introduction, Janet Watts calls this novel from 1930 “sombre in colour and mood.” I agree, and yet, like its protagonist, the unprepossessing middle-aged housewife, Grace, there is something about it that attracts and holds me, almost I might say enchants me.
Grace's existence in a provincial town in northern England is humdrum indeed. She has Annie to do the housework and cooking, so there is little for her to do all day while her husband Tom is at the office. She lumbers along, thinking that “Nothing mattered, nothing would ever happen for her again.” She has only one friend, Nora, who occasionally drops by to take her for a drive. Tom, himself, has no friends, aside from some people he goes fishing or plays golf with on weekends. Tom's goal in life is to keep everything “comfortable and jolly”, but Grace does not have even such a slight ambition.
Nora has left behind her gay, debutante years to keep house for her morose husband, Gerry, and their two rowdy boys. She possesses all the vitality that Grace lacks, but even Nora sometimes longs for “rest from this perpetual crumbling of the edges, this shredding out of one's personality upon minute obligations and responsibilities. She wanted, even for a few moments, to feel her own identity peacefully floating apart from them all.”
The two couples' lives are upended when handsome, cosmopolitan, young Hugh Miller comes to town to try his luck working for his uncle who owns the firm where Tom works. His sister briefly joins him; she had known Nora in the old days but has managed to retain her sophisticated lifestyle. This bright twosome bring home to Grace, Tom, Nora and Gerry just how dull their lives are.
As I started the book I could not imagine that people could lead such unexamined lives. But Lehmann gently teases out what is good in them, their small wounds and disappointments. We see Nora coaxing Gerry back from depression, Grace unselfconsciously entertaining the dazzling Hugh. We hear Gerry's thoughts, and it is the beauty of the sentences that raise all this above the mundane: “in the bitter times, he whispered to himself, looking with a faint hope to the years ahead: Calm of mind, all passion spent. But in the worse he knew that he would make a desert around him and call it peace.”
Even Hugh, who seems to lead such a charmed life, suffers his own grief and comes to realise his own shortcomings. I think it is his view of Grace that interests me and in turn interests me in her. Initially dismissing her as a frumpy older woman, he is charmed by her light touch, her sense of the ridiculous. He stays for tea and is unexpectedly drawn to Grace. Not romantically, this is a much more subtle connection, a fragile one. I think it is my curiosity about such an unusual relationship that draws me on.
And the power of Lehmann's prose. Here is Grace, remembering the beech woods of her childhood: “She went into the wood and saw the first wild flash of the bluebells. They ran away into the shadowy distance on every hand, flooding the ground with urgent blue—with a blue that cried like the sound of violins. She sat beneath the smooth, snake-striped, coiling branches of her chosen tree, and saw beneath her a creaming tide of primroses, clotting the mossy slopes, brimming in the hollows.”
Far from sombre, such sentences take me back to the woods above Robin Hood's Bay where the bluebells did indeed run away. This is a book about that stage of life when we realise our choices are narrowing, and we can't help but wonder if it's too late to change our way. I feel privileged to have been given access to the inner lives of these people, to have my perplexity cajoled into compassion.