Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Sea Grape Tree by Rosamond Lehmann 1976. Her Last Novel

1901 to 1990. England

Dusty Answers 1927

A Note in Music 1930

Invitation to the Waltz  1932

The Weather in the Streets  1936

The Ballad and the Source 1944

The Gypsey's Baby and other Stories 1946

The Echoing Grove  1953

The Swan in the Evening 1967

A Sea Grape Tree 1976

Rosamond Lehmann knew that A Sea Grape Tree would be her final novel.  Selina Hastings tells us that the critics were not overall kind to this novel.  The setting is a resort on a Caribbean Island.  The clients are upper class English men and women.  One of the weakness of Lehmann as a writer is her seeming inability to see anyone outside the narrow social range in which she is comfortable as fully developed. I found the opening paragraph of the novel in which she depicts a local woman, twenty with three children and no husband as a black Modanna almost laughably atrocious 

"Every evening, before the hour of sunset, Princess, the young maidservant, starts to light the lamps in the hotel: oil lamps, long glass funnels enclosed in brass containers with handles. Taking one in either hand, swinging them to the rhythm of her languid barefoot gait, she goes down, down the steep spiralling rock path to Captain Cunningham’s bungalow. As darkness falls she is enfolded in soft light, she becomes a lustrous image, a black Madonna with a golden aura, borne through waist-high hibiscus bushes by invisible bearers to the sea. Her black eyes catch a gleam; and moths and fireflies drift to the lamps and hover round her. Sometimes she has set some object or other nonchalantly upon her shapely astrakhan-capped head: a jug or a bowl for instance, or a roll of toilet paper, or the Cunninghams’ clean laundry"

The black Madonna is assumed to have the lowest of sexual morals.  Tell me you did laugh at the image of her walking along with a roll of toilet paper on her head.

The drama in the story is in the interactions of the guests with each other and their reaction to being on the tropical island.  By this point in her life Lehmann was very much into Spiritualusm, the communication with the dead in various ways.  In fact the sinister Mrs Jardin is buried on the island but she communicates nevertheless.  There are scenes of "spirit writings" that let us see how the communication took place.   A man paralyzed from the waist down in the war has a passionate affair with a younger female guest, times have advanced since her first novel and there is a gay English couple.  

The Sea Grape Tree is only half as long as most of her other novels.  It does have some good parts and I am sensitive to what I perceive as the racism and classism of this work.  The return of Mrs Jardin, who we met in The Ballad and the Source is interesting, bordering on weird.  

Only those really into Lehmann will read this novel and that is as it should be.  

I will shortly post on her memoirs The Swan in the Evening and then on five of her short stories.  

Drawing on Selina Hastings' great biography, i learned that  in 1933 Lehmann spent six weeks on the island of Tobago with a wealthy gay man, Paul Cross.  His family owned a house there.  

                                        Rosamond Lehmann and Paul Cross, 1933, on the beach, Tabago         

Mel u

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