28 February 2019

The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann

The Printed Word is a small but well-curated second-hand bookshop in Dundas so I always make a bee-line for it whenever we're out that way.  During a visit last year, I bought this book, a first edition published in 1944, for its charming first paragraph....

'One day my mother told me that Mrs. Jardine had asked us to pick primroses on her hill, and then, when we had picked as many as we wanted, to come in and have tea with her.'

It was just the sort of read I was in the mood for so I pulled it from my shelves a couple of weeks ago.  There was no blurb on the back, or leaf on the front cover.  A simple warning to fasten your seat belt would have gone a long way to prepare someone they're in store for much more than gardens and tea parties.

Mrs. Jardine has returned from France to stay at The Priory, a country house inherited through her husband's family.  She would love to meet Rebecca, Jess and little Sylvia, her dear friend Laura's grandchildren.  After their mother's careful reflection, the two older girls are sent with their governess across the field and through a sigh-inducing blue garden door.  The era is Edwardian and the Great War looms.  We meet Mrs. Jardine....

'There was something about her lips and about her whole face - something dramatic, a sensuality so noble and generous it made her look austere, almost saint-like.  Experience had signed her face with a secret, a promise whose meaning people would still watch, still desire to explore and to possess.'

After shaking some rose geranium essence into a sink of water for the girls to wash their hands, Mrs. Jardine leads the way to her spacious bedroom.  She immediately directs their gaze to the large portrait of her daughter, Ianthe.  The girls ask questions and are shocked to learn that Ianthe has three children (Malcolm, Maisie and Charity), none of whom has ever met Mrs. Jardine.  It's been years since she's seen Ianthe.

After thoroughly charming Rebecca during a few visits, Mrs. Jardine sits on a bench in the garden and pours out the story of her family's troubled past.  The subject matter is not at all appropriate for the ears of an 11 year-old, the first sign that Mrs. Jardine is either 'troubled' or a narcissist.  In the way of prepubescent children, Rebecca is keen to be enveloped into an adult world while considering the order in which she'll eat the scones, sponge and biscuits.

To the delight of Mrs. Jardine, her grandchildren arrive at The Priory.  Their father is terminally ill and with Ianthe off goodness knows where, there is little choice.  Maisie and Rebecca form a friendship but Rebecca is thrown when Maisie shares something her father said about Mrs. Jardine which explains why there's been an estrangement...

'He told me she's a liar.  And she made my mother a liar.  He said if ever he caught any of us lying he'd whip us to within an inch of our lives.'

Rosamond Lehmann has woven a story of high drama involving mental illness, abandonment, death, a secret pregnancy, marital and familial discord, suicide, revenge, and more psychological tactics than I can put a name to.  Also, part of the story is set during the Great War and considering that Lehmann was born in 1901, this passage may very well have been from memory....

'My father had set out without complaint upon his slow heart-rending journey into the shadows.  Here, there, on every hand, inchmeal, the view beyond the windows of our home contracted, clouded.  Our friend's brothers, the big boys who had partnered us in the polka, Sire Roger, the Lancers at pre-war Christmas parties, were being killed in Flanders, at Gallipoli; were being torpedoed and drowned at sea.  An unrelenting diet of maize and lentils brought us out in spots, chilblains caused us to limp, the bath water stopped being hot at night.' 

The Ballad and the Source begins with a secret garden and then slides into the gothic with a woman driven by madness to smash windows with her bare hands.  It's an incredible piece of writing, both beautiful and unsettling.  One teensy niggle is the story is told from the viewpoint of three characters, Mrs. Jardine, a maid called Tilly, and Rebecca which made for a slight excess of 'he' and 'she' at times.  But once you've nailed down the characters it's fine.  Highly recommended!

Lily Elsie by James Jebusa Shannon 
1916

4 comments:

  1. Ahead of its time, would you say?

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    1. Most definitely, Toffeeapple, both in her writing and theme. I enjoyed reading Mrs Jardine's thoughts on protecting yourself in a man's world, and the cruelty of men in keeping women away from their children as a warped form of punishment for leaving an unhappy marriage.

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  2. You make this sound irresistable, Darlene. Luckily I have a Virago edition at home.

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    1. Oh good, Jane! And somehow I'm not surprised you have a copy on the shelf. I hope you enjoy it!

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