Rosamond Lehmann’s brilliant novel, Invitation to the Waltz (1932), is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Both Lehmann and Woolf use modernist techniques like stream-of-consciousness, write exquisitely, and are masters of the compression of time. And both novels center on preparations for a party.
Invitation to the Waltz revolves around the excitement of 17-year-old Olivia Curtis over an invitation to Lord and Lady Spencer’s dance–her first dance. The action is compressed into two days, Oliva’s birthday, and, a few weeks later, the day of the dance. Divided into three parts, the novel opens on Olivia’s birthday, on which she receives the perfect gift, a roll of flame-colored silk to be made into a dress. The second part describes the preparations of Olivia and her older sister Kate for the dance. And the third part describes the dance itself.
Like so many of these things, the event is better after than before.
I must admit, I have never been to a dance, except the occasional school dance, and does that count?, and one dance at which radical feminists of the post-butch-and-femme 1970s wore men’s suits. At parties my gently hippieish friends and I sat on the floor and listened to records. Occasionally one of the men played an electric guitar along with the Grateful Dead or Frank Zappa. No one danced. We chatted. We drank beer. At a local rock concert, we sat at our campsite. At bars, we shuffled on the floor in groups.
Nonetheless, I understand the pressure young Olivia and Kate felt. The nervousness about conversation, about knowing how to flip your hair, being witty, etc. Once you get the hang of it, it didn’t matter.
This novel and its sequel, The Weather in the Streets, are very much about hopes for relationships with men. Olivia has her own identity, but her life will be better if she marries. She does not want to be single. Oh, if only she doesn’t have to be single.
Olivia takes her silk material to the hypochondriac 30-year-old dressmaker, Miss Robinson. Miss Robinson lives with her mother and sister. Mrs. Robinson tells Olivia, “She’s been laying down with the nooralgia. I don’t hardly think she’s fit to see you.”
But Miss Robinson enjoys chatting, and as she flips through the fashion books, she talks about men and explains why she isn’t married. Lehmann sketches her through pitch-perfect dialogue. Her words can be taken as a warning.
I dare say I’m fussy.” She looked with hauteur at her own reflection. “I always say, with a man you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s too late, and then where are you? Good husbands don’t igzackly grow like blackberries, do they? No. People don’t know when they’re lucky. I often think us single ones are spared a lot. Many a time Mother’s passed the remark how thankful we should be to be together.”
Olivia pities her. She knows that Miss Robinson will never marry. She cannot imagine herself a Miss Robinson.
Olivia has more compassion for people of the lower classes than her family does. She also likes a jolly neighbor, Major Skinner, who offers to teach her to play golf, but her parents won’t allow her to socialize with this retired man from India and his dicey twice-(or thrice?)-married wife. It is class.
Men are a problem in this post-World War I world. Who will be the partner of Olivia and her sister Kate at the dance? They know no men. Finally their mother invites her godson, Reggie, whom they have never met. Reggie is a curate-to-be and uninterested in either of the girls. At the dance he is thrilled by their lively beautiful friend Marigold, a debutante, and enjoys the company of the jokey Martin sisters. Olivia and Kate are too serious. for him
The dance has many painful moments. Beautiful Kate made her own beautiful dress, and soon is dancing with a man she very much likes. Olivia’s dress is a disaster and she doesn’t always have partners. She longs to dance with Archie, but he forgets their dance. She gets stuck dancing with an old man. She dances with men sent over to do their duty by the hostess. She spends time in the cloakroom. Finally she has a moment of peace with Marigold’s older brother, Rollo, who is in love with a gorgeous young woman–the only really gorgeous woman there.
In The Weather in the Streets, Olivia and Rollo come together again.
Invitation is a small masterpiece, and a simpler book than Weather. It is less wordy, and the structure is perfect.
Open Road Media has reissued Invitation, Weather, and five other of Lehmann’s books as e-books. Very convenient!
On a different note, I was very amused by the video of Lady Gaga‘s and the Dirty Pearls’ cover of Van Halen’s “Panama” at the Gramercy Theatre in New York on June 20. Sure, she is in her underwear, but she is in control of her own sexuality. I like her camaraderie with the guys, and her half-mocking dancing. She seems to be having fun, and has that powerful rocker woman thing going on. A waltz? Well…