It was a different world in 1927 …

One of my favourite books is Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer.  Published in 1927, it was Lehmann’s first
novel and she got glowing reviews for it. 
The story in some ways prefigures Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited: both novels are coming-of-age sagas, with the
central protagonist falling under the spell of a fascinating family, with
life-long consequences. 

Judith Earle is
the heroine of Dusty Answer: an intelligent,
solitary child, she grows up in the shadow of her glamorous neighbours, the five
Fyfe cousins.  As they all grow up, their
childhood friendships transform into various complex romantic entanglements.  Tragedy hits when one of the Fyfe boys is
killed while he is on active service in the First World War.  Judith, now nineteen and studying at Cambridge
University, falls deeply in love with one of the surviving cousins, but this
love affair turns out to be a disaster. This emotional catastrophe, in addition to her intense relationship with
her friend Jennifer in Cambridge, will affect Judith profoundly, turning her dreams
to ashes, her youthful idealism and passion into disillusionment.  It’s up to the reader, however, to decide how
deeply damaged Judith is and how her losses will shape her for the rest of her
life.  I find the novel ambiguous and bittersweet
rather than hopeless and despairing.
The book caused some scandal on publication because of its frank
depiction of sexuality.  Frank, that is,
for 1927: there are no sex scenes in it.  The author strongly implies that Judith sleeps
with the young man she is so desperately in love with, but this is no more than
a dreamlike hint in the text.  There are also
subtle homoerotic undertones in other parts of the book but, again, nothing gratuitous
or explicit.  It was a different world in
1927, and what looks mild and inoffensive to us now would have been more controversial
then.
I love the book for its beautiful writing and melancholy,
memorable atmosphere. I also resonate strongly with Judith as a character.  There is a remarkable passage half way
through the book, the pivotal scene where Judith is dumped by her lover.  I find the passage remarkable for personal
reasons: this scene had a considerable impact on me when I first read it in 1983.  I could have been reading about myself, so
closely did this scene resemble an episode from my own life.  The painful scene that plays out between Judith
and her ex-boyfriend mirrored, to a quite uncanny degree, my own experience of rejection.  I’ve never read anything else in literature quite like it: the intensity of the
reactions from both characters, the realistic and painful dialogue, the terrible
silence and awkwardness … it’s brilliant writing, and it pretty much
punched me in the gut the first time I read it.
Yet this reading experience was also cathartic and
transformative.  It helped me, in a small
way, to start reclaiming my own life-experience. Stories and literature can give us a
voice.  They can also give us glimpses of healing. As
Christian writers, of all people we should be able to see the Big Picture.  Our life stories are part of a bigger whole.  
The troubles of neurotic, privileged young people in the
1920s may not be your particular literary cup of tea.  That’s OK. 
Whatever genre we write in – literary or popular fiction, devotional or
inspirational, or memoir – as Christians we can provide readers with a window
not just into their own lives, but a window onto ultimate healing and hope. And
to write as well as Rosamond Lehmann did in this passage? – that’s certainly a
goal.