Invitation to the Waltz is ostensibly a miniature. It starts on the morning of Olivia Curtis’ seventeenth birthday, takes us through the following week, which culminates with her very first dance – and stops on the morning after. Primarily concerned with dresses and dances, gifts and gossip, a book as short as this one, and with such dreamily light subject matter, should surely be something trivial, something forgettable. And yet every time I have returned to Invitation to the Waltz since first reading it in my own teens, I have been surprised to find how keenly it finds its mark. Its humour is always brighter, its observations are always sharper than I remember. On each re-reading I find myself thinking yes, this is the book, not the more romantic Dusty Answer or the more ambitious The Weather in the Streets, that shows Rosamond Lehmann’s bittersweet talent at its height.
Olivia herself is a type instantly recognisable to readers of any of Lehmann’s other books, which is to say that she is very near to Rosamond herself – dark and thoughtful, attractive and naïve, gauche in company, but eager to find a soulmate.
The dance itself, where all of Olivia’s hopes and dreams are focused, is carried off with deliciously precise observation both of her pleasures and her more abiding, more nuanced disappointments. A key moment, when she speaks with something like intimacy to the confident son of the aristocratic household, quickly turns to dust as he is called back to his girlfriend’s side. Like Katherine Mansfield or Dodie Smith, Rosamond Lehmann stands just close enough to her heroine’s illusions to depict them with sympathy and just far enough away to see their fragility. When Rosamond Lehmann beckons us back into Olivia’s world, in The Weather in the Streets, we find an altogether sadder and more sarcastic Olivia. But I’m not sure that we find her any wiser; indeed, even at seventeen Olivia seems to know well that life will never quite measure up to one’s finest ideals – and yet nothing will stop her chasing those ideals to the end.
The 2011 Mslexia Writer's Diary contains a series of monthly inspirations from current Virago authors who each discuss a Virago Modern Classic.
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