She was sad to the verge of tears, and yet the sorrow was rich—a suffocating joy

Dear Rosamond,

Between the pages of a book, in a notebook, in the drawer: the heart of what we once were remains guarded, untouched, covered with oblivion. If we dare suddenly to move it from where it stands, our guarded heart throws a cloud over our eyes, heavy with dust. It is within this dense haze of melancholy that the plot of your debut novel, Dusty Answer (1927), slowly unfolds.

In this coming-of-age novel, we are confronted with the sentimental education of Judith Earle, an only child, whose father is an academic and the mother a socialite.

As a shy, lonely and introspective girl, Judith becomes a captive prey to the fickle affection of the group of cousins who visit her grandmother, an old lady who lives in the house next door. They are the youngsters of the Fyfe family: Roddy, an attractive playboy and eccentric artist, with possible homosexual tendencies; Martin, a simple, friendly kid, somewhat silly and homely; Julian, a tormented and intellectual boy; and Mariella, a beautiful, glamorous, irresponsible girl. These characters snatch Judith’s childhood for one or two summers and continue to enter into and then leave the girl’s life in her adolescence and adulthood, as if they were characters in a recurring nightmare. Above it all, the ghost of Charlie, a young man killed in World War I, hangs over them.

In this account of a childhood made captive of affection – a childhood that continues to cast its cloud of dust over adulthood -, we are guided by Judith’s hazy look. We know her since she was a child, through flashbacks of fragmented memories, moving according to forces of attraction and repulsion toward the mysterious circle of the Fyfe. Then we follow Judith in her college time in Cambridge, when she has a rather troubled friendship with her colleague Jennifer, who quits her studies to live with an older woman. Finally, we are led to the moment when, upon her graduation, Judith finds herself compelled to return home and deal with the shadows – pale, aged, blurred shadows – of her former friends.

Yours is, fundamentally, a novel about loss, guilt and regret. More than a portrait of wealthy youth during the interwar period, the book’s strength lies in your writing style: the concise use of metaphors and the subtle change of narrative perspectives.

In the first part of the book you slowly undress the memories of Judith, who finds herself in constant displacement, moving between time and memory, between what happened and what is remembered. Through this device, the narrator “returns in the Time”, to anticipate the outcome of the event he is narrating, in a constant flashforward movement. This produces, in the reader, the feeling of nostalgia experienced by a character, when reminiscing the past. Later, the novel is marked, from the second part onwards, by sudden changes of perspective from the third to the second person singular, in the moments in which Judith directs questions and accusations to herself.

Your writing, my dear, is a delicate hand that covers the paper, covers our eyes, and invites us to enter without ever really opening the door. The novel is a timid exploration of the various forms of affection. Its characters, though young, are filled with loneliness, and carry their burden of fear and incommunicability. Love, between the lines, is full of faults, guilt, and silence. This love flows – sometimes silent, sometimes shouted – among the characters: like sand between hands, or dust that covers everything.

Yours truly,

J.


Carl Vilhelm Holsøe – Interior with a Girl Reading, 1903

“There was sadness in everything—in the room, in the ringing bird-calls from the garden, in the lit, golden lawn beyond the window, with its single miraculous cherry-tree breaking in immaculate blossom and tossing long foamy sprays against the sky. She was sad to the verge of tears, and yet the sorrow was rich—a suffocating joy.”
― Rosamond Lehmann, Dusty Answer

“Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul/ When hot for certainties in this our life!” – George Meredith


About the book

  • Virago Modern Classics, 2006, 320 p. Goodreads
  • First published in 1927
  • My rating: 3,5 stars
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