Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Gipsy's Baby

The Gipsy's Baby / Rosamond Lehmann
London: Hesperus, c2006.
foreword by Niall Griffiths

I searched out this book because it was by Rosamond Lehmann, unaware that it was a collection of short fiction, that it was in fact the only short fiction she ever published. It is made up of five stories which she wrote in the 40's for her brother's journal, New Writing.

I read three of Lehmann's books over the past year or so, and I've really grown fond of her themes and her style. In this book, she approaches once again the lives of young girls and of mature women, all struggling to make sense of a world of disappointment and struggle, both socially and romantically. The first two stories are connected, detailing different moments in the life of a well-off middle class English family and their dealings with, in the first story, a rag-tag poverty stricken family living down the lane, and in the second, a group of four adult sisters and their parents at a seaside resort. This family feels very old fashionedly English; the setting is Edwardian with their children's nursery and governess, and with parents away for extended periods. Still, they are both examinations of the mysteriousness of adult life as perceived by children, and the innocent lack of comprehension of motives or outcomes of various events. In the long lead up to The Red-haired Miss Daintreys, Lehmann discusses what is essentially her theory of writing. I found it particularly fascinating, as we've all been recently discussing in a meme what we do with leisure time. Here is Rosamond Lehmann's take on leisure time, and what a writer's writerly duty is:

Much is said and written nowadays of the proper functions and uses of leisure. Some people, as we know, are all for the organisation of spare time. Some take exercise; some sleep; some wind up the gramophone; some lean against bars or mantelpieces. Others develop the resources of the intellect. I myself have been, all my life, a privileged person with considerable leisure. When asked how I spend it, I feel both dubious and embarrassed: for any answer implying some degree of activity would be misleading. Perhaps an approximation to the truth might be reached by stating that leisure employs me -- weak aimless unsystematic unresisting instrument -- as a kind of screen upon which are projected the images of persons -- known well, a little, not at all, seen once, or long ago, or every day; or as a kind of preserving jar in which float fragments of people and landscapes, snatches of sound... Perhaps this is a wordy, unscientific way of describing the origins and processes of creative writing; yet it seems to me that nowadays this essential storing-house is often discounted... Writers should stay more patiently at the centre and suffer themselves to be worked upon. Later on, when they finally emerge towards the circumference they may have written a good novel about love or war or the class struggle. Or they may not have written a good novel at all.

The next three stories in the collection are shorter, tales of a family made up of a mother (Mrs. Ritchie), one young son (John) and one young daughter (Jane). They live in a small village during the deprivations of WWII, and experience a flood, a removal of a hive of bees from inside a wall of their house, and a village fete in support of the war effort. The first two are brief, sketches really, and I think that the story in the centre of the book, When the waters came, is my favourite piece. It is very short, but carries a sense of menace at odds with the bucolic countryside and the expectations of English village stories. The last line turns the story brilliantly. I found I could really appreciate both this story and the next, A Dream of Winter, because of their succinct form; they were both well constructed impressions of intense moments in this family's life.

The last story, Wonderful Holidays, is once again a lengthy description of the inhabitants of the village (primarily women) as they put together a theatrical with their children during school holidays. It reveals some pretty beastly children; I'm glad I wasn't around when all this was going on! Still, it gives an idea of the rationing and making-do that was expected during the war, and of the effects the war had on varied families and village society in general. It also quite strongly exhibits the class prejudices still prevalent, and is a bit shocking in the callous remarks made by our saintly heroines after going to all the work of providing a theatrical:

"Nerves are getting frayed on the committee," said Mrs. Ritchie... "The village feel we ought to be running it all for them. They're alarmed, I suppose, at the responsibility. If we butt in they think we're patronising and if we retire they think we're snobbish. Both ways they're resentful."
"My dear, I know" said Mrs. Carmichael.

Once again, I found new elements to admire in Lehmann's writing. She adroitly portrays the fearful moments in children's lives, and the necessity in women's lives to carry on despite fear or unhappiness. These stories carry within themselves so many lives, such a variety of existence among the often neglected characters of single women, widows, spinsters, children, or even damaged men. It's well worth the time to read this collection.

I'll be searching out her novel The Echoing Grove next, as it was made into a film (with mixed reviews) which I'd like to see: but I must always read the book first!


  1. Interesting review. I discovered Lehmann last year (A Note in Music) and now have The Echoing Grove on my shelves -- I'm looking forward to it!


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