You shall go to the ball …

Republished into its original timeline from my lost posts archive

Invitation To The Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

Rosamund Lehmann is another of those authors from the middle decades of the twentieth century that I’ve been meaning to read for ages.

Invitation to the Waltz, her third novel, was published in 1932.  Set in the 1920s, it is the story of Olivia Curtis’s first dance. Written in three parts: the lead up to the dance and getting her dress, the day of the dance and getting ready, then the dance itself.

It all starts on Olivia Curtis’s seventeenth birthday.  Her older sister Kate has come to wake her up, and Olivia is reluctant to get out of bed …

Another five minutes, thought Olivia, and shut her eyes. Not to fall asleep again; but to go back as it were and do the thing gradually – detach oneself softly, float up serenely from the clinging delectable fringes. Oh, heavenly sleep! Why must one cast it from one, all unprepared, unwilling? Caught out again by Kate in the very act! You’re not trying, you could wake up if you wanted to: that was their attitude. And regularly one began the day convicted of inferiority, of a sluggish voluptuous nature, seriously lacking in willpower. After I’m married I shall stay in bed as long as I want to. Girls often marry at my age. Seventeen today.

The novel is full of Olivia’s internal monologues. She discusses everything withself, analysing, trying to understand her observations, but she’s also a romantic and wants to believe the best of everyone and everything.  Today, she’d much rather stay in bed, than do breakfast with the family and be the centre of attention.

To go to one’s first dance, one needs a dress.  Luckily one’s mother gave one a bolt of flame-coloured silk for one’s birthday. Mother would have preferred a paler colour, but Kate persuaded her. So Olivia takes the cloth to the young Miss Robinson to have it made up.  Poor Miss Robinson has been left on the shelf – her family is too respectable for her to marry a farmer, and after the war, there is no-one else, so she makes dresses.

All week, anticipation builds towards the dance.  Some relief comes when mother’s godson Reginald is able join them to partner the girls. He turns out to be a bit of an odd fish, planning to take holy orders.  Neither girl thinks he will be the man for them.

Time to get ready: bathing, primping, hair-styling, and finally – the dress …

‘It simply doesn’t fit anywhere…’ The words burst from her chokingly. ‘It’s the most ghastly – It’s no good. I won’t go looking like a freak. I must simply rip it off and burn it and not go to the dance, that’s all.’ She clutched wildly at the bodice, as if to wrench it from her.
Kate cried suddenly:
‘You’ve got it on back to front!’
Olivia’s hands dropped.
‘Have I?’ she said meekly.
‘You would.’ With the asperity of relief Kate seized and reversed her hurriedly, plunged her once more through the armholes. ‘Now let’s see you. Hm. It drops at the back now, of course.’
Olivia turned away from the glass while Kate hooked, tweaked, patted her into shape.It was a comfort to look into space for a little while before having to face once more the now irrevocable and perhaps scarcely improved image.

Diaster averted, it’s off to the dance, in the longest part of the novel.

Arriving at the Spencer’s mansion, Kate is soon away dancing – her card filling up. Olivia is content to observe, but can’t be a wallflower all evening, being introduced to a wide assortment of partners and conversations – from an old gentleman with lovely hair, to a young man blinded in the war, a poet up from Oxford who refuses to dance, but also a boy she remembered from a childhood party. Olivia watches everything with a sort of wide-eyed innocence, and is unfailingly polite to all her partners and interlocutors, wishing she had some of the poise and confidence that the Spencer children and others in the hunting set have.

Such an evening is bound to have its highs and lows – the same must still be true for today’s teenagers going to their first dance or proper party.  I well remember my first visit to a dance hall – the famous Mecca Blue Orchid Ballroom in Purley – I can’t say it was a big success!

Lehmann captures the workings of Olivia’s teenage brain so well, contrasting with the more knowing Kate. The class divides between the various tiers are equally well drawn – from the aristocratic Spencers to the middle class Curtises down to Miss Robinson and beyond.  I did hope that as the Bingleys are to the Bennetts in Austen’s P&P, that there may be hope for Olivia and Kate …

We’ll find out the answers to that in the 1936 sequel Lehmann wrote, The Weather in the Streets, which continues Olivia’s story ten years later. I’m now very keen to read that, as Invitation to the Waltz was a totally charming book, I loved it. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy.  VMC paperback, 256 pages. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate links):
Invitation To The Waltz and The Weather In The Streets by Rosamond Lehmann

12 thoughts on “You shall go to the ball …

  1. LizF says:

    I read this more than 20 years ago and loved it and its sequel. Your lovely review makes me want to retrieve both books and read them both again before passing them on to my daughters who, funnily enough, are Olivia and Cait (although in my case it is Olivia who is the worldly wise elder sister and Cait (short for Caitlin) who is 18)
    Thanks for the reminder !

    • gaskella says:

      I don’t read enough books from the first half of the 20thC and loved it Liz. I’ll certainly be getting the sequel. Although we don’t have coming out balls in the same way these days, Olivia’s emotions remain fresh though – so it was a delight.

  2. Teresa says:

    When I read this, I was so impressed by Lehmann’s description of the dance. She did such a marvelous job of depicting all the moment-by-moment dramas of a night like that.

    • gaskella says:

      You’re right Teresa, Lehmann made you feel as if you were there living the evening with Olivia. She also captured all the moments of ennui, when small talk falters as well as the thrills of tripping around the ballroom in the arms of a suitable man!

  3. drharrietd says:

    I’ve read all RL’s novels twice! But this made me want to have a third go. So happy you loved it and do please read the sequel — plus anything else you can lay your hands on. Great review — thanks.

  4. sshaver says:

    The thirties are also the period of my writing, and I’ve always believed that there’s a strange melancholy (and a strange beauty) that belongs exclusively to that era.

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