- “We Don’t See the Wood for the Trees”: Gender and Class in Rosamond Lehmann’s The Echoing Grove
Rosamond Lehmann’s 1953 novel, The Echoing Grove, tells the story of two sisters in love with the same man. Madeleine and Dinah, the wife and the lover, have battled for Rickie’s love and attention throughout a four-year affair. However, when the novel opens in 1946, these battles—like those of the Second World War—are finished: Rickie is dead, and the affair has been over for fourteen years. Moving backward and forward in time, the narrative resurrects the past in order to reconcile the sisters in the present. The fusion of a conventional romance plot with a subjective, disjointed style earned the novel what one writer called “incomprehensible reviews.” 1 Yet, whether reviewers and critics think that The Echoing Grove was “a masterpiece” 2 or a sentimental “sea of toasted marshmallow,” 3 most of them have agreed that Lehmann’s “prime interest is in personal relationships.” 4 Following this line of thought, criticism of The Echoing Grove generally either celebrates Lehmann’s ability to create “an intensely personal and subjective world” 5 or censures her “narrow view of human life.” 6 [End Page 99]
This critical interest in the novel’s personal relationships is heightened by the similarities between Lehmann’s own wartime experiences and those of the sisters in The Echoing Grove. Divorced from her second husband at the beginning of the Second World War, Lehmann began a nine-year affair with the poet Cecil Day-Lewis in 1941, “after a chance reunion during one of the spring blitzes.” 7 Because Day-Lewis, like Rickie in The Echoing Grove, was married and unwilling to divorce, he lived a split life for years between his wife, Mary, in Devon and Lehmann in London. This “double marriage” took its toll; Day-Lewis began to experience severe “stomach trouble, a sure sign that his nervous system was being strained” as his relationship with Lehmann grew increasingly serious. 8 Similarly, in The Echoing Grove, Rickie suffers from an ulcer described as a “‘raw hole’” hidden inside himself because he is intensely anxious about loving both his wife and his sister-in-law. 9 However, unlike Rickie, who dies of the ulcer during the Second World War, Day-Lewis eventually tired of Lehmann and turned from her to yet another affair in 1950. As a newly discarded mistress, Lehmann tried to become “an ally” with Mary Day-Lewis in the effort to cure Cecil of his “temporary madness.” 10 Because of Lehmann’s sympathy for Mary, as well as her own experience in the affair, some critics have argued that both Madeleine and Dinah, the fictional wife and mistress of The Echoing Grove, are manifestations of Lehmann’s “confusion at being caught up in this process of upheaval” during and between the two world wars. 11
Certainly, when read in the context of Lehmann’s personal experience, The Echoing Grove appears to be essentially a psychological novel. However, I argue that the novel consistently embeds the individual psyches of its characters within a larger political unconscious, thus investing its narrative with a social significance beyond the psychological. When read in the context of archival material written by female civilians during and just after the Second World War, the political arguments of The Echoing Grove become visible. Wartime diaries, memoirs, letters, and survey responses, now housed at the Imperial War Museum in London and the Mass-Observation Archive in Sussex, emphasize and develop the connections between the personal lives of women and the political life of the nation. In exploring and elaborating upon these connections, The Echoing Grove refuses its identification as a conventional romance portraying “an intensely personal and subjective world.” 12 Instead, the novel’s representation of [End Page 100] female psychology constitutes a direct and forceful critique of social and political ideologies.
Specifically, The Echoing Grove debunks what Angus Calder has labeled “The Myth of the Blitz.” 13 The term “blitz,” of course, refers to the German blitzkrieg, the “lightning war” of mass bombing that destroyed over three and a half million British homes, killed forty...