Rosamond Lehmann is not a widely-read novelist any more, though in the middle of the 20th-century, she was both popular and notorious. Dusty Answer, her first novel and not her best acclaimed, is very typical of novels from its period, in that it’s about upper middle class people with fabulous houses and educations, but it’s far better than the average because of its splendid and deeply emotive writing, as well as its rather modern treatment of sex – in particular homosexuality.
Dusty Answer is the British equivalent to all those many and well-thumbed American novels of the Lost Generation. It is about the people who grew up during the First World War, who faced their adulthood with many close friends and family members dead or destroyed due to the carnage across the sea. The protagonist of this is Judith Earle, a young woman who grew up as an only child, was educated at home by her parents and whose sole contact with the wider world – before she started at Cambridge University – were the five grandchildren of her neighbour who would visit during some school holidays. The first part of the novel is a flashback to their idealised rural childhood, playing in fields, burying dead animals, swimming in rivers, going ice skating on frozen ponds. Et cetera. Though the neighbour’s grandchildren were an inconsistent part of Judith’s life, this very infrequency imbued them with more significance, and as she grows into an adult she seems unable to conceive of a world without them, even as the circumstances of their own tragic lives seem to naturally push them away from her.
Judith, fresh out of her flashback and very fresh-faced, arrives at Cambridge and immediately falls into an intense friendship/relationship with Jennifer, a young woman who definitively does turn out to be a lesbian by the novel’s end. Lehmann does not discuss the intimacies of this relationship, but the implication seems to be that Judith is not exactly on the same page as Jennifer, attracted but repressed, unwilling to explore her own carnality, which is why they drift apart once Jennifer finds a woman willing to undress her. As well as this problematic relationship, Judith also falls in love with one of the boys from next door and, after things have fallen apart with Jennifer, has al fresco sex with him, then later gets engaged to his cousin, then afterwards briefly becomes the mistress of the third male of them who makes it through the war.
Alongside this, Mariella, the only female of the cousins, married her own cousin (eurgh) and fell pregnant before he was sent off to the trenches, never to return. So there is also an unwanted child floating around in the background and a depressed, single mother.
There is a lot about death, a lot about love, a little about travel and a lot about growing up. Though sexuality is a key part of the text, and was strong enough to provoke ire, it was still tame enough to get published in the 1920s, so there’s nothing to scandalise or titillate here. Judith’s response to the loss of a relationship due to her lack of forward sexuality leads her to offer her body readily to her next crush, who immediately wanders out of her life, and it’s implied he fucks another woman within 24 hours.
This is writing about sex from an era where thinking and writing about sex was taboo, though obviously (Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published the year afterwards) this was changing. Lehmann doesn’t seem to chastise the several homosexual characters in the novel (a male poet, Jennifer, and the woman who Jennifer abandons university for), though she does resort to a little bit of stereotyping: for instance, Jennifer cuts all her hair off when she finally comes out (well, the 1920s equivalent of coming out). But the very fact that gay people appear in a novel from the 1920s as rounded people whose desires and relationships are every bit as valid as those of heterosexual people is significant. I don’t think Judith’s love for the man she fucks is meant to be seen as any more or less destructive than her slightly more confused desire for Jennifer. I don’t think Judith sees Jennifer abandoning her studies for a lover as any worse because that lover happens to have a vagina. The male poet is in love with the same man as Judith, and there is jealousy between them. In terms of possession, the man seems to win and be able to retain their friendship for life – whereas, after fucking in the bushes – Judith cannot. Is the error the sex itself, or is it her externalising the emotion caused by the sex and “pushing the man away”?
The problem with Dusty Answer is that it’s difficult to read in context, i.e. without a contemporary view of sexuality, whereby everyone rational thinks it isn’t morally corrupt to fuck a few people before getting married, that it isn’t shameful to feel homosexual desire. Lehmann wrote (pretty much) with this as an implicit viewpoint, but that was not the general consensus in her day. So this reads far more modern than it is – characters are able to – and do – engage with themselves as sexualised beings in a more liberal way, though do not quite manage to discuss desire with enough intellectual engagement to work out how to make themselves happier.
However, I suppose that is still the case today – it is by trial and error that most people’s sexualities are formed, rather than investigative introspection. Would Judith have been happier and more fulfilled if she’d spent her hours with Jennifer scissoring, or if she hadn’t had sex with that man?
This is a moot point, obviously, but what Lehmann managed to do 90 years ago was write an open-minded and discursive novel about something society as a whole wouldn’t grasp for years: that not everyone wants or is satisfied by a nuclear heterosexual union. Dusty Answer has lesbians, child-hating single mothers, men who become carers to their dead brother’s child – it has a healthy and non-destructive opinion of sexuality, and it was written in the 1920s.
It made me cry, several times. Grief and rejection and regret are written of by Lehmann with real emotional wisdom.
I loved it, to be honest. Yeah.