When Rosamond Lehmann's brother, John, asked her to contribute a few short stories for a monthly periodical he was editing, the timing was far from perfect. World War II was being waged, her second marriage had failed a few years earlier, and she had two young children to look after. On the other hand, this tumultuous backdrop along with memories of her childhood made for bountiful scenes of everyday life, enough to fill The Gipsy's Baby with five short stories to sink into and ponder.
The story that lends its name to the title of the book is told through the eyes of young Rebecca Ellison. Her family is well-enough off to afford the small pleasures in life whereas the Wyatt family further along the lane live in squalor. Mrs Wyatt is a haggard woman, worn out from years of childbearing, housework and doing without but '...in the middle of each hollow cheek was a stain of rose, like one live petal left on a dead flower'. The house is falling down around them but Mr Wyatt doesn't seem very bothered. Reminiscent of Katherine Mansfield's The Dollhouse the less advantaged Wyatt children gain an invitation to have tea at Rebecca and Sylvia's house. When they arrive it's not the bounty of food that widens their eyes but the toys and fancy dresses locked away in Mrs. Ellison's closet. When caught out by the nursemaid, Rebecca burns with humiliation.
The Red-Haired Miss Daintreys is pure Englishness. Once again the story is told through Rebecca's eyes when her family become friends with the Daintrey family while on holiday at a seaside hotel. The four sisters all have red hair in common and stand over six feet in height. Each has a distinctive personality though. Miss Mildred is the unselfish one, Miss Viola shines as the beauty but Lehmann describes her as having a ',,,long curving goitrous neck. Miss Rosie is the athletic one but much to the detriment of her now over-developed calves. Poor Miss Dollie is weak-minded for being dropped when she was born. There are two older siblings but while Arthur has been married for five years, sadly there are no children - 'not even a Disappointment'. I have never never heard of a miscarriage being referred to that way before and I have to say it made me laugh. The last line in the story says it all 'There will be no more families in England like the Daintreys'.
The next three stories show a slice of life in rural England during the World War II and I loved them. Mrs Ritchie lives in a cottage with her son, John, and daughter, Jane. Rosamond Lehmann freely admits that she didn't disguise herself very well in the writing. Wnen the Waters Came eerily duplicates the sort of winter we're having this year with everything covered in ice at first and then the dreadful flooding that follows a thaw. In A Dream of Winter Mrs Ritchie lies in bed suffering with influenza. From her bed she watches through the window as the bee man removes a portion of roof to access a swarm of bees that have been humming through the walls for far too long. It's the most fun John and Jane have had in ages as they climb the ladder to peek into their mother's room. Ever the gentleman, John tucks his sister's bloomers into her kilt before her climb. Wonderful Holidays is absolutely packed with storylines - everything from a horse with colic that requires turning every four hours to Jane's missing school trunk. The poor thing is stuck wearing her only decent outfit for days on end while there is an investigation as to what could have possibly gone wrong. In one hilarious scene Mrs Ritchie comees upon Jane wearing her friend's old skating costume as a change of clothes. And then the vicar rings...
"'But I say, though! - beastly lot they're turning out everywhere to-day - public schools and all. Damned impudent swearing young brutes. All smoking like chimneys. Girls just as bad. If not worse. Vile lot. It's all the fault of the parents. What goes on in the homes nowadays? Nothing but beastly language - that's all they hear. What can you expect? It's a filthy outlook. I say, look here, there's another damned nuisance coming on us. Book drive in June, or some such rot. Who ever heard of a book drive? Heard of a whist drive, never heard of a book drive.'"
Mrs Carmichael has some drama when her little dog, Puffles, goes missing but eventually returns from a day of hunting with a canine friend of bad influence...
'"Oh, what a bad bad naughty boy! And a good good boy to come home before dark. Does he want his dindin?"
Mrs Carmichael flew to fetch it for him. Wagging frenziedly, he devoured it, then, still wagging, took a hearty draught of water from his bowl, and retired to his basket to lick his paws.
"He gets his poor paws so sore," said Mrs Carmichael.
"That beastly Airdale he goes hunting with makes him do all the digging...."'
That last sentence made me burst out laughing and says that the author had a wicked sense of humour. By the end of these stories I had completely warmed up to Rosamond Lehmann and put aside the angst I had for her - after all, her meddling into Elizabeth Bowen's affair with Goronwy Rees ended that relationship and friends of mine will know where my loyalties lie. I'm willing to put that all aside now and read more of Lehmann's work and hunt down the biography written by Selina Hastings. That's me clearing space on a shelf for more books! If you are a fan of Jan Struther's Mrs Miniver and its charm then I can just about guarantee you will really enjoy this collection every bit as much.