Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Rosamond Lehmann

Does the impulse to create alternative worlds take characteristically different forms in fiction by men and women? We might provisionally call these ‘utopian’ and ‘allotopian’ (from Greek allos + topos, other place.) A very rough distinction, if it be admitted at all, as there are, undoubtedly, ‘utopian’ fictions by women (e.g. Charlotte Perkins Gilman) and, perhaps, ‘allotopian’ fictions by men.

Utopian fiction by men (from Thomas More to H.G. Wells) typically presents an ‘engineered’ world, an elaborated construct of town planning, legal systems, technological innovation, eugenics. In women’s writing a more subjective tradition prevails, born of frustration with the obligation upon women until very recent times that they adapt themselves to their environment without expecting to influence it or shape it. This ‘allotopian’ tradition was always dismissed by male historians and critics. Thus Frank Manuel, noted historian of utopianism, reading the Duchess of Newcastle’s Description of a New World (1666), found in it a utopia ‘so exclusively personal’ as to border on the ‘schizophrenic’, a ‘solipsistic manifestation’ which could never be a ‘shared dream’ and thus join the ‘mainstream of utopian feeling’.

I detect the ‘allotopian’ impulse in Rosamond Lehmann’s work – thinking especially of her first and last books. In Dusty Answer (1927), Judith Earle, ‘hot for certainties’, believes finally that she has rid herself of the ‘futile obsession of dependence on other people. She had nobody now except herself, and that was best.’ Not a ‘solipsistic’ conclusion, but probably a misplaced hope, for, in Lehmann’s novels, her heroines’ striving for autonomy is always thwarted by the enfeebling effect of external realities. By the end of her life Lehmann had discovered ‘worlds within worlds’, astral planes of alternate reality, inaccessible to ordinary senses, where the dead, her young daughter among them, come to life (The Swan in the Evening, 1967). Conscious that ‘human kind / Cannot bear very much reality’, she is consoled by a visionary world. From the vigorous responses of her (predominantly female) readership one might conclude that she was tapping a ‘mainstream of utopian feeling’, not by the proposed re-engineering of given reality but by depicting, through fiction, a ‘voyage in’ to self-knowledge and by intuiting, through autobiography, an alternate reality between the interstices of everyday life.

Above: photo of Rosamond Lehmann (1901-1990) in the 1920s from the Frances Partridge archive

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