The Echoing Grove

echoing groveWhen I finished Rosamond Lehmann’s The Echoing Grove, I set it aside with an “ugh, glad that’s over.” It was seriously hard going for a while. “An infinite boredom seemed to be invading him,” the narrator noted late in the book. My note? “Not just him.”

But now, having been away from the book for a bit, I can appreciate what it does well while also knowing that it is just not a book for me.

This 1953 novel focuses on two sisters, Madeleine and Dinah, and the man they both loved, Rickie. It begins near the end of their story, years after Rickie’s death, as the wife (Madeleine) and mistress (Dinah) are meeting each other again for the first time in a long time. Dinah wonders if now they can put the past behind them:

Let it alone, it’s dead and everybody’s dead except Madeleine and myself. It’s a patch of scorched earth, black, scattered with incinerated bones. Whatever she’s digging for will not turn up: there’s nothing buried alive. What does she fear? … He fathered her breathing children in lawful wedlock; and in the lawless dark another: mine; spilt seed, self-disinherited prodigal; non-proven proof, stopped breath, rejecting our and the whole world’s complicity.

The novel moves back in time, sometimes narrated by Dinah, sometimes by Madeleine, once by their mother, and sometimes in the third person. At times, it’s difficult to keep up, but once the novel plants itself with a person and time, it generally stays for a while. And I think the structure, with overlapping timelines and narrations, gets at how we’re all living in our own and each other’s pasts even as we experience our own presents. These characters in particular are lost in each other’s lives, partly because they’ve lost so much of each other’s lives.

Lehmann shows how painful and unpredictable love can be. But the barrier between me and the book was that I couldn’t sympathize at all with Rickie. The main characters all love him and keep talking of his pain. He’s a good man under Dinah’s bad influence, but I saw no signs of his goodness. He’s saddled with a unsuitable wife, who shows no signs of being so terrible. I’m not sure if I was supposed to like Rickie or if Lehmann was trying to show how men so often become the center of women’s worlds, whether they’re deserving or not. Are we supposed to see Rickie as the problem, with the women being so blinded by love that they cannot see it?

My distrust of Rickie proved to be a serious problem when, near the end of the book, the narration turns to Rickie and his new lover, a close friend of Madeleine’s (!). This section is an interminable examination of Rickie’s feelings for his wife, his old lover, his new lover. I don’t know if this section is meant to help us sympathize with him by letting us see he felt bad, but it had the opposite effect on me. I now not only disliked him for his affairs, I disliked him for boring me.

In that final section, Dinah observes that Rickie “had something in him that didn’t need human beings.” Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t care about him—he didn’t really care about anyone else. At least, that’s if Dinah is right about him. One of the questions of the book is whether, with all their thinking and talking about each other (and themselves), these people really understand each other (or themselves). So maybe he’s too needy. I don’t know, and I don’t really care.

This is apparently considered one of Lehmann’s best books, but I much preferred her earlier novel Invitation to the Waltz. And that novel was bumpy at times. It may be that her style is just not a great match for me, but when she dazzles, she really dazzles, so I’m willing to try more. I have The Ballad and the Source and The Weather in the Streets, so I’ll give those a try at least before I write her off.

I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration through Netgalley.

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10 Responses to The Echoing Grove

  1. Anokatony says:

    The Echoing Grove was Rosamond Lehmann’s last major novel, and for some reason critics considered it her best. However my own experience has been that all of her other novels are better, especially the two you mention ‘The Ballad and the Source’ and ‘The Weather in the Streets’. So don’t give up on Rosamond just yet.
    For some reason I must have a special affinity for her writing as she continues to be one of my favorite writers.

  2. Rebecca H. says:

    I really loved A Note in Music, which was my first Lehmann, as well as Invitation to the Waltz. I struggled with The Echoing Grove as well.

  3. rohanmaitzen says:

    What an interesting post! Funny how sometimes the most difficult reading experiences provoke the most questions. I’ve only read The Weather in the Streets, which I found compelling but strange. For me, a lot of books of this vintage frustrate me because I feel as if I don’t know how to read them: as if the forms and frameworks I’m used to aren’t theirs.

    • Teresa says:

      I think when it’s a work that gets a lot of praise, I want to figure out what makes it good. When I really love a book, I’m less motivated to ask the questions and just want to bask in my enjoyment.

      And I’m glad to see you say that books of this period are sometimes a challenge for you. I think I often don’t know what I’m meant to accept as fact and what I’m supposed to mistrust. With this book, I had absolutely no sense of what the book’s position on Rickie was (if indeed it had a position). I’m used to being able to work that stuff out, but I was at a loss here.

  4. You’re always such a generous reader, even when the book wasn’t a winner for you.

    You mention “Dinah’s bad influence” — does the book set up a dichotomy between the sisters where Dinah’s the bad one? (snore) Or is it more nuanced than that?

    • Teresa says:

      Thank you, I think! Sometimes I wish I had more conviction in my dislike of something, but when a book gets a lot of praise, I tend to think there must be something of value in it, and trying to ferret that out is an interesting exercise in itself.

      And it is more nuanced than bad sister/good sister. Some of the characters see them that way, but I think the book pushes readers to see beyond those categories. That’s one of things it does well.

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