Rosamond Lehmann, The Echoing Grove. PMC 1981. First published 1953.
In two 1930s novels, Rosamond Lehmann depicted the rivalry between two sisters as they searched for love. Kate settled for suburban domesticity and complacent motherhood, losing her glamorous looks and zest for life in the process. Olivia was more restless and unconventional, and chose an affair with a selfish man with no intention of leaving his wife.
Twenty years later, after some stormy relationships of her own, elements of which seem to have inspired The Echoing Grove, Lehmann deals with similar themes and dynamics.
Rickie Masters (apt name), descendant of ‘landed gentry’, is married to Madeleine: sensible, beautiful, maternal and a little dull. He has a passionate affair with her bohemian, unconventional sister, Dinah. Later they all have affairs with other people. WWII intervenes, killing off some of them and their loved ones; others die of natural causes, probably resulting from the stresses of their complicated love lives.
That’s pretty much it in terms of plot. The novel consists almost entirely of these three characters, and later one or two more with whom they become romantically or erotically involved, engaging in interminable, convoluted conversations. About themselves, mostly.
It doesn’t sound very inviting, does it. But somehow it kept me engaged – though I flagged during one mammoth talking session set in the London Blitz, where Rickie manages to ramble on about his guilt and obsessions (mostly himself) for what seems like a hundred pages and years of war. It’s one night! The unfortunate woman who listens with admirable patience and forbearance just wants to have sex with this man with whom, for some unaccountable reason, she’s fallen in love. She’d seemed so sensible and clear-eyed.
The narrative is largely in an even edgier, more fragmentary free indirect style than the one Lehmann used to such good effect in those two earlier novels. There’s a complex chronology, with jumps forward and back in time, that often left me confused, and having to turn back to find the thread.
There are some acerbic (and ironic) statements about gender relations that are familiar from those earlier Lehmann novels. This example is from an early internal monologue of Madeleine’s; she’s thinking about Rickie’s poorly disguised guilt about getting entangled with her alluring sister again:
Poor Rickie. Must be kind, patient, wifely… Why could men never put a good face on? If they were tired they yawned in your face, if they were depressed they glowered: women were expected to lump it.
Pretty perceptive and hard-hitting, considering how pliant she’s being about her husband’s infidelity. Maybe she thinks he’s just a naughty boy, and will come back, tail between his legs, just a bit sulky (which he does, occasionally). He also shows some of the homoerotic impulses seen in The Weather in the Streets.
Later, when Madeleine has confronted her unfaithful husband about his affair with Dinah, she contemplates going to have it out with her sister. Rickie can’t handle all this female emotion, and doesn’t care for the role he’s being allotted. He says he’ll go to bed:
He dragged his heavy limbs upstairs, telling himself that women were formidable, really relentless; not a nerve in their bodies.
Not sensitive like him, that is. He dreams of resilience and elasticity. I’m not sure whose.
Why that title, The Echoing Grove? The phrase doesn’t appear in the text. The nearest to it is a quotation from a poem by Blake, aptly called ‘Broken Love’:
Root up the infernal grove
The sympathetic woman who’s listening to Rickie’s endless monologue supplies this supplement to two earlier lines from the poem that he’d remembered Dinah reading aloud to him:
And throughout all Eternity
I forgive you, you forgive me.
There are opportunities for forgiveness in the novel, some of them successfully negotiated. Rooting up this ‘infernal grove’ is a way for the man in the poem to ask his partner to ‘give up love’, as Rickie’s bed partner of the time puts it. Renunciation and selflessness aren’t what these characters have in abundance. They’d benefit from what medieval Provençal troubadours called ‘mezura’ (middle English ‘mesure’), meaning something like self-control, avoidance of excessive emotion or behaviour. Like a medicine taken to ward off a fever. But then there’d be no novels like this one, just poems about courtly love.