Finally taking the bait as I felt a bit 'meh' about Rosamond Lehmann, I paid my $2 at the reuse centre and brought home this 1953 hardcover (dust jacket intact, no less). It was reading her short stories in The Gipsy's Baby with its World War II content that won me around. The stories in that book are charming, they made me smile, a bit warm and fuzzy even. The Echoing Grove is nothing like that. It is brutal, unsettling, abrasive, raw, exhausting, claustrophobic - and absolutely brilliant. Written in the period after her nine year affair with Cecil Day-Lewis had come to an end there is no stone left unturned when it comes to relationships.
The book begins at the end with a middle-aged Dinah visiting her sister Madeleine. A fifteen year estrangement has been brought to an end by the death of their mother. The women are both widows; Madeleine's husband due to a perforated ulcer, Dinah's husband killed during the Spanish Civil War. One of the first situations the women find themselves in takes place during a walk in a nearby cemetery. Dinah's dog sets upon a rat but when it is only partially maimed it is the usually reserved Madeleine who delivers the coup de grace. The reader knows that Lehmann is saying so much more.
I had barely recovered from the shock of some rather horrifically descriptive writing when the sisters meander through the past fifteen years of their separation. Winding along oh so gently it's only a matter of time before we get to the meat of the matter. Madeleine's husband had been having a lengthy affair with Dinah and the time was nigh for a forensic on the matter. Lehmann keeps the reader on their toes as the next act goes back in time and opens the curtain on Dinah calling Rickie to help her clear out the last of her things from their love nest.
Much to my frustration, Madeleine allows her husband room to think things through and to mourn the end of his affair. She is so accommodating that they conceive their daughter, Clarissa, while Rickie is being coddled. Now usually this sort of behaviour would have me groaning and wanting to throw the book over my shoulder...but the writing is so riveting. I am completely invested in what will happen to this trinity of characters. The feelings wrapped up in the parallel situation of a man unwilling to leave his wife for his mistress, as it was in Lehmann's case with Day-Lewis, was irresistible to explore. The fact the two women are sisters makes the reading tense and claustrophobic.
This novel largely takes place during World War II but I wouldn't say it is overly present. There is nary a scurry to the Anderson shelter or much talk of rationing although one of Madeleine's sons is killed in North Africa. The atmosphere is most definitely one that is heavily influenced by the era it was written in and Lehmann's relationship with the Bloomsbury set. Dinah's character in her artist's overalls is bohemian in attitude with an aura of sexual freedom; Madeleine is all reserve with the restraint of nipped in waists, etiquette and a half-veil...
'...taking courage from the flawless mask that gleamed back at her from behind a finely-spotted black veil. Very becoming, these veils; a disguise she had come to rely on for self-confidence.'
The Echoing Grove is a challenging and complex story and most definitely one to read twice to savour the nuances. Rachel mentioned that it had a Bowen-esque feel to it and she is spot on. High praise indeed. If you're interested in the story but want to skip the novel you can always try the film. It's under a different title, goodness knows why, but it looks quite good. I'll be giving it a try!