Rosamond Lehmann, Author of Dusty Answer

Rosamond Lehmann

Rosamond Lehmann (February 3, 1901 – March 12, 1990) was an English novelist known for her sensitive portrayal of the emotional fabric of women’s lives and was part of the famous Bloomsbury Group in 1920s London.

Her first novel, Dusty Answer, caused a scandal for its subtle portrayal of lesbian characters, and is still her best-known work. Her novels as well as some of her non-fiction have been reissued by Virago and are now back in print.


Early Life

Rosamond Nina Lehmann was born in Bourne End, Buckinghamshire, the second of four children. Her father, Rudolph, was the editor of Punch magazine and became a Liberal MP in 1906. Her mother, Alice Davis, was originally from Boston, MA.

Rosamond had three siblings, John, Helen, and Beatrix. John would later become a writer and editor himself, working with Leonard Woolf at the Hogarth Press. Beatrix would become a well-known writer and actress.

Her childhood was spent in an idyllic setting, in a large Edwardian-style house on the banks of the Thames. She and her siblings were largely raised by nannies and governesses, only “coming down after tea” to see their parents.

Later, Rosamond would say that she always had the sense that she wanted to write. Remembering her first poem, written while sitting in a walnut tree and eating toffee she said, “I wrote all about fairies, and moonbeams, and nature, and it all poured out in rhymes.”

Her mother, who Rosamond remembered as “very puritanical and upright” (and who she once drew swiping at the air with a tennis racquet shouting in a speech bubble, “I HATE everybody”) was not encouraging of her efforts, saying to a friend that “Rosie writes doggerel.” Her father, however, was much more encouraging.


First (Hasty) Marriage

In 1919 Rosamond achieved a place at Girton College, Cambridge, to read English, and graduated with an honors degree.

She met her first husband Leslie Runciman, later Lord Runciman, the Methodist head of a ship-owning family in 1924. They married the same year, but the relationship was not a success. Rosamond was obliged to move to Newcastle to be with her husband, which she hated. She would later call this her “bleak period of exile in the detested North of England.”

Leslie was determined not to have children and pressured Rosamond into an illegal abortion in London. She later wrote about this experience in her 1936 novel The Weather in the Streets. The two separated and divorced in 1927.

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Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann

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Dusty Answer: Scandal and Success

During this disastrous marriage, however, Rosamond wrote her first novel Dusty Answer about a young girl’s first experiences of love. The book explored what would become classic Lehmann themes of betrayal and romantic disappointment.

The novel had a slow start until it was hailed as “quite the most striking first novel of this generation” by the writer Alfred Noyes, and it became a bestseller.

Rosamond said that the subsequent reviews and publicity “made me feel as if I’d exposed myself nude on the platform of Albert Hall.”

Not all the attention was positive. Leonard Woolf’s National and Athenaeum accused Lehmann of the “clumsiness and lack of economy…[which] so often accompanies freshness and exuberance in the work of inexperienced novelists.” In addition, the coding of some characters as gay and lesbian was not subtle enough for some readers. One mother wrote, “Before consigning your book to the flames, [I] would wish to inform you of my disgust that anyone should pen such filth…”

As in all her later novels, Rosamond demonstrated an uncanny empathy for women’s experiences, so much so that she often received letters from women and teenage girls saying, “How did you know? This is my story.”

This empathy, however, would not always be well-received or understood by male critics. The Manchester Guardian’s reviewer complained of Rosamond’s 1953 novel The Echoing Grove that “so prolonged a voyage in an exclusively emotional and sexual sea afflicts a male reader at least with a sense of surfeit.”

 The New Yorker’s reviewer went one step further, claiming that The Echoing Grove was fundamentally flawed because it attempted to blame women’s troubles on men, when the problem was actually “destiny.” The reviewer wrote, “Women, especially women writers have no use for destiny; they wouldn’t compose a Hamlet if they could.”


Second Marriage

In 1928 Rosamond married again, to Wogan Philipps, later Lord Milford, an aspiring artist and baron’s son. They had two children: a son, Hugo and a daughter, Sally.

With the success of Dusty Answer, Rosamond, and by extension Wogan too, found themselves at the heart of glamorous 1920s London. “Ros and Wog,” as the couple were known, mingled with Bloomsbury stalwarts such as Lytton Strachey, Vanessa and Clive Bell, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf. The couple lived an apparently charmed life at Ipsden House in Oxfordshire.

Virginia Woolf praised Rosamond’s work, and her “clear hard mind beating up now & again to poetry,” although Rosamond was never entirely sure how to respond to Virginia’s blend of teasing and flattery.

As Rosamond’s work became ever more successful, Wogan began a string of affairs, and later disappeared to the Spanish Civil War. Rosamond, meanwhile, began an affair with Goronwy Rees, whom she met at a visit to Elizabeth Bowen’s house in 1936, and only ended it when she read of his engagement in the newspaper. She divorced Wogan in 1944.


Professional Success and Personal Tumult

During the 1930s Rosamond wrote prolifically. Her second novel A Note in Music (1930), about two women trapped in loveless marriages in a northern town, was less warmly received than Dusty Answer but still sold well.

She then wrote Invitation to the Waltz (1932) and The Weather in the Streets (1936), both of which were bestsellers and featured the same main character, Olivia Curtis. The Ballad and The Source followed in 1945.

She also contributed a number of short stories to the magazine New Writing, edited and run by her brother John.

During World War II she lived in the country with her two children, and in 1941 began an intense relationship with the married poet Cecil Day-Lewis — so intense that he called it his “double marriage.”  Although he never left his wife for her, he eventually left them both for the actress Jill Balcon in 1950.

Rosamond’s heartbreak and bitterness was echoed in her 1953 novel The Echoing Grove, about the reunion of two sisters after the death of a man who was husband to one and lover to the other. The drama of the split also spilled over to her friends and social acquaintances, all of whom were exhorted to take sides, intervene with Day Lewis on her behalf, or simply to sit and listen to her anger and upset.


Tragedy and Spiritualism

In 1958 Rosamond’s daughter Sally died at the age of twenty-four. Grief-stricken, Rosamond doubted whether she would ever write again.

She became interested  —  some said to the point of obsession — in spiritualism, believing that Sally was still alive and helping St. Francis of Assisi to teach unborn birds to sing. Her beliefs were derided by her friends. Laurie Lee called them “self deception on such a moving scale,” and many people blamed spiritualism for Rosamond’s retreat from social and public life and from fiction writing.

In 1967 The Swan in the Evening was published, a fragmented autobiography and spiritual insights, focused psychic experiences after Sally’s death. This was followed by A Sea-Grape Tree in 1977, in which she further explored psychic phenomena.

Rosamond later became vice-president of the Kensington College of Psychic Studies and the editor of their magazine Light.


Last Years and Legacy

For most of her later life Rosamond lived alone in a house in Kensington, London.She was known as a difficult and demanding woman who played “destructive emotional games,” but also as a courageous writer who was committed to her work at PEN International, which she joined in 1942. She was also made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1982.

Her books, which had fallen out of print, were republished by Penguin and Virago in the early 1980s. The BBC produced television dramatizations of Invitation to the Waltz and The Weather in the Streets, and a radio version of The Echoing Grove.

Rosamond was pleased with the renewed attention, calling it her “reincarnation.” However, she had problems with her eyesight and general health, and when she died at home on March 12, 1990, she was almost blind from cataracts.

Many of her books remain in print, and in 2002 The Echoing Grove was made into a film called Heart of Me, starring Helena Bonham Carter, Paul Bettany and Olivia Williams.

Dusty Answer, Invitation to the Waltz, The Ballad and the Source, The Weather in the Streets, The Echoing Grove, The Swan in the Evening, A Note in Music are all back in print, published by Virago.

Contributed by Elodie Barnes. Elodie is a writer and editor with a serious case of wanderlust. Her short fiction has been widely published online and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, and when not writing can usually be found planning the next trip abroad, or daydreaming her way back to 1920s Paris. Find her online at  Elodie Rose Barnes

More about Rosamond Lehmann

Major Works

  • Dusty Answer (1927)
  • A Note in Music (1930)
  • Invitation to the Waltz (1932)
  • The Weather in the Streets (1936)
  • No More Music (1939)
  • The Ballad and the Source (1944)
  • The Gypsy’s Baby & Other Stories (1946)
  • The Echoing Grove (1953)
  • The Swan in the Evening: Fragments of an Inner Life (1967; nonfiction)
  • A Sea-Grape Tree (1976)
  • Moments of Truth (1986; nonficition anthology)


  • Rosamond Lehmann by Diana E Lestourgeon (1965)
  • Rosamond Lehmann by Judy Simons (1992)
  • Rosamond Lehmann: A Life by Selina Hastings (2002)
  • Rosamond Lehmann and Her Critics by Wendy Pollard (2004)
  • Rosamond Lehmann: a Thirties Writer by Ruth Siegel (1990)

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