Invitation to the Waltz (1932) makes use of the stream of consciousness technique and takes place, mostly, during the preparation for a party. However, our protagonist Olivia is no Mrs. Dalloway, and the small town where she lives is definitely no London.
When the novel opens, Olivia is waking up to her seventeenth birthday, a few days before her coming out in the first ball in her life, which will be held by Lord and Lady Spencer. As a present, she is given a diary, some money, and a roll of an extravagant scarlet silk, which she intends to use to make a dress for the coming party. Olivia lives with her parents, her Uncle Oswald, her seven-year-old brother James, and her older sister Kate, who will accompany her to the ball.
Her days are filled with the preparations for her coming out, as she takes her flame-coloured fabric to the local seamstress, the spinster Miss Robinson, and waits for the arrival of Reggie, the partner her mother invited to accompany Olivia to the ball.
While the days leading to the party seem to slow down in time, the dance itself passes very quickly. The dress ends up being a disaster, and Olivia feels far from comfortable in it. Her partner, Reggie, is much more interested in the livelier party host, Marigold Spencer; and Olivia, coming from a middle-class family, feels somewhat out of place in the glamorous, aristocratic world of the Spencers. Feeling as if thrown into the background, Olivia wanders the house, spends time in the cloakroom, dances with a creepy old man, and meets some interesting people: a pretentious poet, a blind man, and Marigold’s older brother, Rollo.
The highlight of the book, for me, was the building up of an atmosphere of anxiety and anticipation in the days leading up to the ball, like a huge wave coming in a crescendo -only to finish with a blow and a feeling of disappointment, when the party itself does not meet Olivia’s (somewhat unrealistic) expectations.
It reads just as if this curve from hope to disappointment were an emblem for her years to come, a condensed sample of adulthood: “These walls enclose a world. Here is continuity spinning a web from room to room (…)” We are given a snapshot of our Olivia as she feels out of place, caught between childhood and womanhood, wandering from room to room, desperately in need of some form of escape.
“Advice to Young Journal Keepers. Be lenient with yourself. Conceal your worst faults, leave out your most shameful thoughts, actions, and temptations. Give yourself all the good and interesting qualities you want and haven’t got. If you should die young, what comfort would it be to your relatives to read the truth and have to say: It is not a pearl we have lost, but a swine?” ―
“Still, now and then they seemed to be holding behind them the surprising, the magic vistas of childhood – the sudden snow at night, whirling and furring without sound against the window; the full moon and all its shadows on the lawn; the Christmas sleigh and reindeer in the sky.” ―
She experienced a sudden distress of spirit, thinking in a half-conscious way that she hadn’t – hadn’t yet found herself…couldn’t- could not put herself together, all of a piece. During a period of insanity, she had accepted, with alacrity, with excitement, an invitation to a dance. Now, this moment having recovered her wits, she saw what she was in for. ―
He held her close to him, and he was far away from her, far from the music, buried and indifferent. She danced with his youth and his death. ―
Everything is going to begin. A hare sitting up in the grass took fright, darting ahead of her into the ploughed land. The rooks flew up in a swirl from the furrows. All the landscape as far as the horizon seemed to begin to move. Wind was chasing cloud, and sun flew behind them. A winged gigantic runner with a torch was running from a great distance to meet her, swooping over the low hills, skimming from them veil after veil of shadow, touching them to instant ethereal shapes of light. On it came, over ploughed field and fallow. The rooks flashed sharply, the hare and his shadow swerved in sudden sunlight. In a moment it would be everywhere. Here it was. She ran into it. ―
About the book
- Virago Modern Classics, 1981, 302 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 4 stars
- The novel has a sequel: The Weather in the Streets (1936)
- I read this book for April’s Virago Monthly Reads over at LibraryThing