In 1926, when British publishers Chatto & Windus accepted Rosamond Lehmann’s first novel, Dusty Answer, they had modest hopes of its success. Young authors and tales of youthful experience dominated the market at the time, a craze sparked by Alec Waugh’s autobiographical best seller The Loom of Youth, published in 1917, when he was nineteen. And twenty-six-year-old Lehmann had written a book “of decided quality,” thought Chatto director Harold Raymond, who nevertheless told her that they didn’t expect to make any money. The novel received a few reviews following its publication at the end of April 1927. “This is, indeed, one of the most charming and convincing studies of young womanhood that we have read for some time,” said The Spectator. “But the story is too sad for popular taste.” Such an assessment was, it seemed, borne out by the less-than-brisk sales. Then a week later, the Sunday Times ran a review by the poet and critic Alfred Noyes, who was an old friend of Lehmann’s father’s, and whose praise was the stuff of debut novelists’ dreams:
It is not often that one can say with confidence of a first novel by a young writer that it reveals new possibilities for literature. But there are qualities in this book that mark it out as quite the most striking first novel of this generation … The modern young woman, with all her frankness and perplexities in the semi-pagan world of today, has never been depicted with more honesty, or with more exquisite art.
The world took notice, and an overnight literary phenomenon was born. During the summer of 1927, a whirlwind of publicity enveloped Lehmann, to her amazement and mild chagrin. “It’s rather terrifying somehow,” she confided to Raymond, “when a thing you have made yourself, very privately, becomes so very public.” In September, Henry Holt & Company published the novel in the United States, where it was a Book of the Month Club choice. Not all critics, however, were as rhapsodic as Noyes. Leonard Woolf’s Nation and Athenaeum review chastised the author for her “clumsiness and lack of economy,” which “so often accompanies freshness and exuberance in the work of inexperienced novelists.” Yet neither these alleged shortcomings nor the story’s melancholy deterred readers. On both sides of the Atlantic, Dusty Answer—written, according to Lehmann, “rapidly, with extreme diligence, with scarcely an erasure”—was a runaway best seller that became a classic of women’s literature.
On its ninetieth anniversary, Dusty Answer has lost none of its power to enrapture. The novel’s epigraph, a couplet from George Meredith’s sonnet sequence Modern Love—“Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul / When hot for certainties in this our life!”—sets up the sustained and beguiling register of wistfulness that singularizes Lehmann’s portrayal, light on dramatic incident, of a privileged young woman’s sentimental education.
Dreamy and academically gifted, Judith Earle spends her lonely childhood and adolescence fixating on the Fyfe cousins—four boys and a girl—who intermittently stay at their grandmother’s house “over the peach-tree wall” in an idyllic stretch of the Thames Valley. The Fyfes are aristocratic, confident, and burnished with a kind of otherworldly charisma, and to Judith they represent nothing less than the ever-elusive possibility of happiness. Her “immoderate” ambition is that one day “they would all like her better than anyone else … Their lives, instead of being always remote and mysterious, would revolve intimately around her.” But the reader already knows this cannot happen: we’re told on the first page that golden-haired Charlie, the object of Judith’s most ardent childhood fantasies, is killed as a nineteen-year-old soldier. And while all three surviving boys are destined to love her, each relationship is, in its own way, abortive.
When Judith goes up to Cambridge, the Fyfes’ spell is temporarily weakened by her infatuation with a classmate, the “glorious Pagan” Jennifer Baird. The girls’ intense friendship, erotically charged if not actually physical, sends Judith into reveries of delight. “It was impossible to drink up enough of her,” she thinks, “and a day without her was a day with the light gone.” In the marriage plot–subverting narrative scheme, a platonic romance carries the same emotional weight as one that might lead to a wedding, and is the source of equal disillusionment. After the second year of college, Jennifer takes up with an older woman named Geraldine Manners, a stereotypical lesbian with short hair and a “heavy and masculine” jaw and who “smokes like a man.” Judith is left devastated, and vulnerable once again to the solicitations of the Fyfes, in particular Roddy: offhand, cryptic, and himself tacitly involved in a gay affair. She loses her virginity to him and declares her love and commitment, only to be rebuffed in the most painful fashion. “Didn’t I say,” he tells her, “that I was never to be taken seriously?”
Not surprisingly, Lehmann’s honest depiction of same-sex attraction and dead-end heterosexual liaisons scandalized large sections of the public. “Before consigning your book to flames,” advised one letter among hundreds, “would wish to inform you of my disgust that anyone should pen such filth, especially a MISS.” Other responses were both more positive and more alarming, such as the 200,000-word sequel to Dusty Answer that Lehmann received from a “young Frenchman,” along with “photographs and letters designed to prepare me for our joint future, when he would teach me love.” In the Evening Standard, meanwhile, an article headlined “The Perils of Youth” charged Dusty Answer and The Loom of Youth with corrupting young people, who were urged to employ the remedy of “silence and self control.”
Lehmann hadn’t set out to offend or titillate or make a political statement. Yet she found herself alternately applauded as a feminist rebel—in her words, “a stripper of the veils of reticence”—and censured for indecency. “It seems comical in retrospect,” she later wrote, “that this impassioned but idealistic piece of work should have shocked a great many readers: but it did. It was discussed, and even reviewed, in certain quarters as the outpourings of a sex-maniac.”
Despite the outcry, Dusty Answer escaped any legal stricture, which was by no means a foregone conclusion given the attitudes of the era. It was only twelve years earlier that D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow was banned, with the novel’s brief lesbian scene given special condemnation in court. And in 1928, all copies of Radclyffe Hall’s “invert novel,” The Well of Loneliness, were ordered destroyed by a judge. Hall herself pointed out that Dusty Answer features a lesbian “episode,” and, after the Well of Loneliness trial, the earlier novel was talked about as a forerunner to Hall’s. Nowadays often classified as a lesbian novel, Dusty Answer was number four on the Guardian’s list last year of the top ten landmarks in gay and lesbian literature, as compiled by the poet and gay-studies scholar Gregory Wood. “With no axe to grind,” he declared, “it barely distinguishes between hetero and homo.” It’s an appraisal Lehmann probably would have appreciated, even though in her opinion too much emphasis was put on the sapphic undertones of the Cambridge chapters. As far as she was concerned, Jennifer and Judith’s attachment was simply a portrait of her own close but innocent college friendships.
Judith is, indeed, a lightly fictionalized version of the author, or at least of the author as she was as a young woman. In her 1985 Paris Review Art of Fiction interview, Lehmann said that when writing the book, “I lived in a sort of trance and identified with Judith, the heroine, who is a lonely, romantic girl living in a dream. Now I find Judith far too sappy and overly romanticized. I can’t bear her.” In an earlier essay she decried the character, “one of my sub-selves,” as “embarrassingly vulnerable, self-absorbed, glamorised.” For one’s gauche young self to be so vividly immortalized must be excruciating; Lehmann’s disavowal is understandable. Yet as a work of literature, Dusty Answer is far from embarrassing. Judith’s hopeful romanticism—and the unabashed romanticism of the lush, lyrical prose—is countervailed by an all too clear-eyed message: that love means pain, and that from our inescapable aloneness comes strength. As Judith thinks at her story’s end: “She was rid at last of the weakness, the futile obsession of dependence on other people. She had nobody but herself now, and that was best.”
Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, Longreads, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Awl, Words Without Borders, and other publications.