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Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann reminded me of nothing so much as Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle: narrated by a young girl with a beautiful elder sister and a precocious younger brother, all parental figures distant enough to only have a few lines, set in the countryside where neighbours and their guests provide romantic interest…However, Olivia, the narrator, is no where near as winsome Cassandra Mortmain and, on the whole, the book reads as a nice vignette rather than a novel.

The book is composed of three parts: Olivia’s birthday a week before her ‘coming out’, the day leading up to the evening ball, and then the ball itself.  As one would expect, it’s the ball itself that is the most interesting.  The anticipation and anxiety of the first two parts is very sweet but the ball, which is at once overwhelming and disappointing, is the most compelling.  Olivia’s panicked thoughts, just as she and her sister Kate are leaving, are strikingly familiar:

She experienced a sudden distress of spirit, thinking in a half-conscious way that she hadn’t – hadn’t yet found herself…couldn’t- could not put herself together, all of a piece.  During a period of insanity she had accepted, with alacrity, with excitement, an invitation to a dance.  Now, this moment having recovered her wits, she saw what she was in for.

Why go?  It was unthinkable.  Why suffer so much?  Wrenched from one’s foundations; neglected, ignored, curiously stared at; partnerless, watching Kate move serenely from partner to partner, pretending not to watch; pretending not to see one’s hostess wondering; must she do something about one again? – (but really one couldn’t go on and on introducing these people); pretending not to care; slipping off to the ladies’ cloakroom, fiddling with unnecessary pins and powder, ears strained for the music to stop; wandering forth again to stand by oneself against the wall, hope struggling with despair beneath a mask of smiling indifference…Back to the cloakroom, the pins, the cold scrutiny or (worse) the pitying small talk of the attendant maid. (p. 127)

The narrative can be jarring at times, switching from third- to first- person unexpectedly.  This technique made it difficult to become fully invested in the story; every time ‘I’ popped up, it brought me to a full stop.

What this book does best is create atmosphere.  Lehmann makes it easy to imagine you’re wandering the house alongside Olivia, surveying the guests, watching the dancers, putting yourself within sight of the men who you desperately wish would ask you to dance.  Everything is simply drawn around a plotline that is really nothing more than a setting, but it’s a nice form of escapism.  Every so often, we leave Olivia and the focus shifts to her sister Kate who spends the evening falling in love with a handsome neighbour.  Rather sweet, but rather boring and Olivia’s less romantic encounters are much more interesting.

There are some quite intriguing characters that you merely glimpse but, being the level-headed, sensible girl that I am, I was most drawn to the Spencer’s, the family hosting the ball.  Lady Spencer is a figure of idolatry and reverence for Olivia and Kate, described in rather majestic terms, and her husband and son, who Olivia spends the most enjoyable portion of her evening with, sound lovely (idealised, perhaps, but lovely):

Rollo and his father: They were so kind.  This was what real people were like after all, just as she had always imagined; not sinister, inexplicable, but friendly and simple, accepting one pleasantly, with humour but without malice, without condescension, criticism or caresses.  How extraordinary to be here with them; from being outcast, flung beyond the furthest rim, to have penetrated suddenly to the innermost core of the house, to be in their home.  The dancing, the people beyond were nothing, a froth on the surface, soon to be blown away.  This, that she felt as she stood between them, was the reality about the house; kindness, tolerance, courtesy, family pride and affection. (p. 280)

I was particularly delighted by a discussion of reading material: how not to like someone who talks of books at balls?  Olivia likes “poetry specially.  The Brontës and Dickens are my favourite novelists, but I like Thackeray too, specially Vanity Fair – and George Eliot and Jane Austen.  I don’t like Scott” (p.277) while the gentleman she is speaking with confesses to enjoying only two books: Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy.  I’m always fascinated to learn different characters’ reading habits, even when I don’t share them.

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