The Ballad and the Source

This 1945 novel by Rosamond Lehmann is odd, and not in a good way. I very nearly gave up on it once I realized how it was going to be structured, but I was just curious enough about the story underneath and enjoyed the writing just enough to want to continue. But the story didn’t end up offering much either in the end. I can see what Lehmann was going for, but I think it just doesn’t quite work.

The book’s narrator is a preteen girl named Rebecca who becomes fascinated with her elderly neighbor Sybil Jardine. Sybil has three grandchildren who come to visit after an apparent estrangement, and Rebecca becomes more and more invested in the relationships between these characters. Why was Sybil separated from the grandchildren? What happened to their mother? And why is Maisie, the granddaughter who becomes Rebecca’s friend, so embittered against her grandmother?

The answers are parceled out in a series of narratives in which various characters tell Rebecca their stories of their own dealings with Sybil Jardine. This means that the bulk of the narrative is a series of sometimes secondhand accounts of what happened to this family, as told to a preteen girl. So there are questions about how much the characters are getting right when telling their stories, how much they’re willing to share with Rebecca, and what pieces are missing. It’s an interesting idea for how to structure a novel! But, for me, the distance between storyteller and story was sometimes too great, and it became hard to follow what was going on.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the initial story is from someone outside the family, a servant from Rebecca’s family who was also acquainted with Sybil. Sybil, as it happens, was quite close to Rebecca’s grandmother at one time. And, because this was the “getting acquainted” period of the novel and because Tilly didn’t use names much, it was hard to keep straight which woman Tilly was talking about (Sibyl, Sibyl’s daughter, or Rebecca’s grandmother). It got easier to follow once Sibyl picks up the story about halfway through and then when Maisie takes over. Here, too, it becomes evident that Lehmann is trying to let readers to question what actually happened and what sort of person Sibyl Jardine actually is.

Sibyl, as it turns out, was a subject of some scandal for suddenly leaving her husband and daughter and then trying to get her daughter back with no success. The daughter, Ianthe, grew up under her father’s strict care and then fell apart, we’re told, when on her own. It’s clear that she has some serious mental illness, but whether it’s congenital or due to her mother’s abandonment or her father’s strictness is an open question. The story itself has some good bones, but it’s also not that unusual if you’ve read a decent amount of mid-century fiction by and about women.

Although I appreciate this idea of putting the story in the mouths of a series of potentially unreliable or self-deceiving narrators, having it all told to a 10-year-old girl just doesn’t work. Rebecca’s commentary and questions continually distract from the main story without adding much value. Some other device, like letters or diaries or even alternating narrators, could have served some of the same purpose of showing us Sibyl through multiple eyes without this additional barrier.

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1 Response to The Ballad and the Source

  1. “The distance between storyteller and story was sometimes too great” <- I know what you mean! I often find stories told at a remove like this harder to get immersed in.

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