‘Half-amused, Half-mocking’: Laughing at the Margins
Dr Sophie Blanch
University of Surrey
In her autobiographical work The Swan in the Evening (1967), Rosamond Lehmann jokingly comments on the fortuitousness of having been born on the very day of Queen Victoria’s funeral, 3rd February 1901. She writes that, ‘it seemed to give an unexpectedly distinguished cachet: almost the reflection of a royal nimbus’ (9). However, as Lehmann’s biographer, Selina Hastings, has noted, ‘Rosamond was [in fact] born in the midst of a thunderstorm at one o’clock on the snowy morning of 3rd February 1901, the day after [my italics] the old Queen’s funeral’ (17). Despite the mistaken claim to a privileged synchronicity contained in this biographical oversight, its significance for the later thematic and critical preoccupations surrounding Lehmann’s writing is peculiarly apposite. As her ambiguous birth date would seem to suggest, Rosamond Lehmann is both the beneficiary of a decidedly Victorian legacy, and the product of a new century. Similarly, Lehmann’s literary production has consistently been located at the margins of modernity; that while her writing quietly resists the backwards pull into an idealised and romanticised past, it is just as reluctant to embrace the modernist plunge into the fast-moving tide of the twentieth century. As part of her groundbreaking study of literature, femininity and conservatism between the wars, Forever England, Alison Light articulates the transitional – and perhaps even contradictory – position held by the middle-class, ‘middlebrow’ woman writer of the inter-war period, whose work demonstrates a ‘revolt against Victorianism’ in the same moment that it ‘reminds that so many of her generation, however much they hated the past, had been reluctantly and forcibly propelled into new ways of living after the war, and that it is this traumatised relation to modernity which produced new kinds of conservative as well as radical response’ (Light, 11).
However, rather than reading this sense of historical disjuncture as a mark of class-driven resistance to social progress, I would argue that the unique vantage point occupied by Lehmann and her contemporaries functions as a kind of historical ‘double-sightedness’. From here the ‘middlebrow’ woman writer finds herself in possession of an elegant circumspection, whereby she is able to pose a subtle questioning of inter-war development in the light of an enduring awareness of the past. I would also argue that where this strategy, or mode of seeing, proves especially effective is in the writerly exploration of the uncertain identity of the ‘modern woman’. As has been indicated by a number of recent commentators of her work, this is the overwhelming concern of much of Lehmann’s writing, but it is rendered with particular authenticity in her first novel. Published in 1927, Dusty Answer skilfully manipulates a series of recognisable narrative styles to trace the social and sexual enlightenment of Judith Earle, from her memories of an idyllic country childhood to her seemingly liberated emergence from Cambridge. Through existing tropes, Lehmann is able to articulate an overwhelmingly eroticised mode of feminine development within a framework of culturally familiar, non-threatening fictional markers. It is this carefully encoded strategy of remaining on the margins of both sexual and textual reinvention that Judy Simons describes in her assessment of Lehmann’s inter-war fiction:
Understood in these terms, Lehmann’s increasing prominence as a central figure of the feminine ‘middlebrow’ is necessarily linked to her fated position on the margins of her age. As an acute commentator of transition, her writing re-imagines the suffocating narrative spaces available to the Victorian heroine, just as it defends the ‘middlebrow’ reader against the elitism and implicit masculinity of high modernism.
The case for historicizing Lehmann’s contributions to an inter-war cultural consciousness remains a compelling one. However, through the course of this article, I want to explore an alternative mode of reading the social and sexual politics of transition in Dusty Answer, through the novel’s quietly obsessive reliance on laughter. As may already have become clear, Lehmann’s novel cannot easily be described as funny or comic in any immediate sense. A very limited critical response has signalled the potential for an overarching authorial humour within the scope of the narrative voice; Ruth Siegel, in her book Rosamond Lehmann: A Thirties Writer, detects a note of retrospective irony and a sense of ‘rueful self-mockery’ directed towards her irrepressibly serious heroine (Siegel, 63). Moreover, Selina Hastings has identified the ‘kind of optical illusion’ that allows the young Judith’s over-earnestness to be observed with detached amusement by her more knowing adult self, creating an effect which Hastings suggests is ‘often very funny’ (Hastings, 94). The primary focus of Wendy Pollard’s contextual analysis, Rosamond Lehmann and Her Critics, is largely to foreground the considerable diversity of form and content contained in Lehmann’s work, which necessarily resists any overvaluation of a single tone or literary mode, comic or otherwise. Pollard does, however, indicate that initial critical recognition of Lehmann’s writing positioned it alongside contemporary figures including Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green and Elizabeth Bowen; all writers celebrated for their acute social and satirical commentary. Pollard goes on to chart the gradual critical ‘segregation’ of Lehmann and other women novelists of the period, which effectively disallowed the potential playfulness or association with humour employed in their writing. As Pollard argues, ‘it has been a further short step to categorize the works of women variously described as “literary”, “serious”, [my italics] but also frequently ‘middlebrow’ novelists under the blanket term “the woman’s novel”’ (Pollard, 21). The implication here, of course, is that as the literary ‘middlebrow’ has increasingly been annexed into a series of gendered, and specifically feminine, formations, the increased critical light shone on previously undervalued women writers has also worked to overshadow the associated ‘pleasure’ of the ‘woman’s novel’, dare it be seen to trivialize its new-found significance. In terms of a more representative approach, therefore, Lehmann’s text has more commonly been read as nostalgic reverie, anti-romantic romance plot, female bildungsroman, and as a largely obedient gynaeceum novel with some tendencies towards deviancy. These are the more familiar readings offered in studies including Diana LeStourgeon’s Rosamond Lehmann, and Gillian Tindall’s Rosamond Lehmann: An Appreciation. While the text clearly speaks to each of these traditions, I would also argue that Lehmann’s first novel is consumed with the politics and poetics of laughter.
As the novel traces the romantic and sexual education of Judith Earle, the narrative becomes ever more entangled with the lives of the extended family that moves next to her childhood home. The beguiling family of cousins, with whom Judith maintains a collective love-affair, are introduced to the reader in ways that define their roles within the private joke that structures their shared identity: Mariella’s lips ‘smiled their limited smile’ (Lehmann, Dusty Answer 10);  there was ‘stupid funny serious Martin’ (11); Julian, who ‘could not laugh at himself, only at others’ (18); and, Roddy, who had ‘a queer smile that you watched for because it was not like anyone else’s’ (20). By contrast Judith is repeatedly mocked in their company for being ‘so incredibly serious’ (77), ‘so incredibly solemn’ (91). Laughter is encoded within the narrative as an alternative, private lexicon, able to describe the subtle and shifting power dynamics within each encounter. But despite its power as a mark of non-verbal intimacy within the particular bounds of Lehmann’s writing, a preoccupation with the deployment and reception of humour can perhaps be just as usefully understood as a necessary disturbance to the internal politics of the ‘middlebrow’ novel itself.
Laughter and mockery, polite or otherwise, ruptures the seemingly placid narrative surface of the ‘middlebrow’ novel in this period. Among many other examples, there is comic potential to be found in Rose Macaulay’s caustic social satires, in the genre-bending parody of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, and in the domestic comedy of manners that structures EM Delafield’s series of Provincial Lady novels. As such, humour remains a critical, and critically under-examined, mode of discharging gender anxiety and fragile constructions of class superiority in the inter-war years. Regardless of its desire to provoke laughter in its reader, the ‘middlebrow’ – or culturally marginal novel – can often be described as ‘ludic’ in its use of game-playing, or joke-telling, as a central motif or structuring device. This emerges as a particularly disarming narrative technique in texts that are not outwardly ‘funny’ or comic in tone. In his wide-ranging study The Alchemy of Laughter, Glen Cavaliero identifies this kind of writing as ‘intellectual comedy’. He goes on to argue that for novels so clearly invested in the ritualised practices of social and domestic reality, a certain kind of humour emerges from an otherwise tight-lipped earnestness as an effect of the way that the writing mimics the ‘rules of the game’. Cavaliero writes that the authors of these texts ‘deal in fundamental assumptions as to social structures and priorities, and with human communities in which, because there are rules, it is possible to play a game’ (171). Certainly Lehmann’s Dusty Answer provides an incisive portrait of the social structures and institutions contained within its pages, from the closed authority of the parental home, to the filial mystique of the neighbouring family, and the seductive camaraderie of the Cambridge women’s college. While these acutely drawn episodes contribute to the novel’s undisputedly wry self-knowledge, the ever-present markers of laughter suggest a far less insular perspective. Rather, as laughter continues to undermine the sobriety of the narrative, it gestures towards a series of timely theoretical interventions.
In her recent essay on ‘risibility’ in the fiction of another ‘middlebrow’ woman writer, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Sara Crangle argues that ‘humour underscores the present moment’, that ‘if there is something forward-looking in otherwise retro-focused novels, it may well be discernible in representations of laughter’ (100). For Crangle these humorous ruptures ‘could be considered fundamental to modernism’s mantra, “make it new”’, and therefore challenge the all too easy identification of ‘middlebrow’ humour with the seductive pull of the past (100). As well as functioning as a form of proto-modernist interruption, I want to suggest here that Lehmann’s strategic use of laughter is indicative of its modernity in a more determined sense, by subtly re-encoding prevailing modernist (and anti-modernist) theories of laughter and social meaning. I am interested here in tracing Lehmann’s use of laughter as a form of social exclusion and exclusivity; this is a preoccupation of the novel that draws her into dialogue with two key theorists of laughter and its social significance, George Meredith and Henri Bergson. Despite being positioned on either side of the modernist century, their respective theoretical studies, ‘An Essay on Comedy’ (1877) and ‘Laughter’ (1900), provide composite explorations of the social significance of laughter, and its ability to both police and punish those on the margins of a rapidly evolving social world.
Like Lehmann herself, Meredith and Bergson have also been figured as ‘transitional’ in respect of their interventions into the field of laughter. As a novelist, Meredith has increasingly been regarded as being peculiarly ‘out of time’; that in a career that ranged from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries, his writing is considered both too Victorian in tone for modernism and too experimental in form to fit comfortably into the ‘Great Tradition’ of nineteenth century fiction. Meredith’s highly influential work on comedy has, to some extent, overtaken the critical attention afforded to his fiction in recent years, but it too continues to be defined by its transitional status. First presented to the London Institution as a paper entitled ‘The Idea of Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit’ in 1877, ‘An Essay on Comedy’ charts the transformation of the comic from Chaucer to the late-Victorian present, through a history of European drama and literature. In the preface of his study of Victorian comic theory, The Triumph of Wit, Robert Bernard Martin brings his analysis to a close at the year 1877, indicating that Meredith’s essay marks the border-crossing between two distinct periods of theoretical production. Martin writes:
For the purposes of this argument, I am concerned less with Meredith’s historical trajectory of comedy than with his closer analysis of the social implications of laughter on the brink of the modern age. For Meredith, the ‘slim feasting smile’ of the Comic Spirit, casts an ‘oblique light’, followed by ‘volleys of silvery laughter’ onto the present moment and the behaviour of humankind, whenever ‘they wax out of proportion, overblown, affected, pretentious, bombastical, hypocritical, pedantic, fantastically delicate’ (Sypher, 47-8). Where this social theory of laughter emerges as a useful analogue for the ‘middlebrow’ novel is in its appeal to the middle classes to become custodians of the Comic Spirit. Meredith writes that, ‘the middle class presents the public, which fighting the world, and with a good footing in the fight, knows the world best […] Cultivated men and women who do not skim the cream of life, and are attached to the duties, yet escape the harsher blows, make acute and balanced observers’ (Sypher, 13). In his introduction to the essay, Wylie Sypher draws further connections between Meredith’s sphere of comic interest and the familiar surroundings of the literary ‘middlebrow’ when he writes that, for Meredith, ‘comedy is a game; yet even if it is played in the narrow field of the drawing room, it is art’ (Sypher, xiii).
The middle classes are identified as the ideal supporters of Meredith’s Comic Spirit not only as a result of their social detachment, but because they are accustomed to laugh the proportionate amount. Figured in Rabelaisian terms as neither Puritan (the ‘non-laughers’) – nor Bacchanalian (the ‘excessive laughers’), the cultivated middle class understands the game that is being played, and responds appropriately. What is perhaps most interesting in the context of Lehmann’s novel is that laughter is never given its full, unqualified expression. Rather like Meredith’s class conscious typology of laughter, Dusty Answer is full of compromised or disproportionate expressions of amusement. So, just as Judith is cast as the unlaughing girl, her sobriety is juxtaposed at various moments with other partial, transitory and marginal responses. Without the natural exuberance of his cousins, Julian’s theatrical and ‘humourless’ jesting appears ‘so affected that it crushed the spirit’ (64). And similarly, long after his death on the battlefield, Judith is reminded of Charlie ‘as a small boy, difficult, petulant, imperious, and yet all the time half laughing at himself in a way that disarmed rebuke’ (202). It is Roddy’s ‘silent laughter’ that is most persistent throughout the text, however, and which ensures that at each stage of the narrative, for Judith as much as for the reader, the occasion for genuine laughter lies far beyond the surface of the narrative: ‘He threw back his head to laugh at his ease, silently, as always, as if his joke were too deep down and individual for audible laughter’ (77). Even where laughter is full and unambiguous it retains the quality of an over-sized threat; invited into the home of the cousins for the first time, Judith finds herself disoriented by the aggressive force that greets her:
Rather than mediating the laughter that surrounds her, as Meredith indicates someone of her middling status is ideally positioned to do, Judith Earle finds herself always on the edge of these encounters; either cast adrift by uncertain sentiment, or seeking refuge from the violence of full-bodied hilarity.
Published in 1900, and thus helping to bring to birth cultural responses to the new century, Henri Bergson’s essay on laughter famously constructs its significance as a social gesture aimed at punishing the unsocial and the inflexible: ‘rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective’ (Sypher, 74). Sypher notes that Meredith and Bergson are bound together by their attempts to construct a theoretical equivalent of the social comedy of manners. But while Meredith’s Comic Spirit remains smilingly sympathetic to the human failings it observes, Bergson equates laughter with a decisive ‘absence of feeling’ (Sypher, 63). He writes that: ‘It seems as though the comic could not produce its disturbing effect unless it fell, so to say, on the surface of a soul that is thoroughly calm and unruffled. Indifference is its natural environment, for laughter has no greater foe than emotion’ (Sypher, 63). It is this aspect of Bergson’s essay that resonates most closely with the role of laughter in Lehmann’s Dusty Answer, as in both instances the act of laughing ‘demands something like a momentary anaesthesia of the heart’ (Sypher, 64).
The formulation at play in Bergson’s ultimate comedy of manners, then, is one in which laughter unites social groups against the unlaughing outsider:
In this context, laughter polices the margins between the social and the anti-social world; between the inside and what, or who, is being kept out. Meredith also comments on the ability of laughter to travel in closed circles, but argues that its lack of humanity distinguishes it absolutely from an accommodating comic sensibility: ‘The laughter heard in circles not pervaded by the Comic Spirit will sound harsh and soulless, like versified prose, if you step into them with a sense of the distinction’ (Sypher, 51). In a Bergsonian analysis, this is the very occasion for laughter, however, as its central usefulness is in correcting men’s manners: ‘it makes us at once endeavour to appear what we ought to be, what some day we shall perhaps end in being’ (Sypher, 71). For Lehmann’s Judith Earle, these ‘other laughers’ (Sypher, 64) are both real and imaginary; at once the occupiers of her present moment and the figments of an idealised past. While the cousins are suspended in a youthful haze above the mundane and the mirthless in Judith’s memory, she experiences her own unlaughing nature as further evidence of her insular and unsatisfactory feminine education:
Unlike Freud’s positioning of the similarly unlaughing woman in his gendered construction of humour, Lehmann is not concerned with identifying her female protagonist as the object of other people’s derision. Judith Earle is not the butt of the joke. Neither is her inability to see the funny side merely symptomatic of a Bergsonian rigidity; particularly as the narrative is tasked largely with tracing an evolving sense of Judith’s own self-consciousness from girlhood to graduation, metaphorical and otherwise. More crucially than that, Judith’s displacement from the site of laughter is indicative of her increasingly peripheral status within the social world of the narrative, despite her apparent centrality to the novel’s traditional plot structures. Rather than standing as the object of ridicule to be pointed to and openly laughed at, Judith stands at a sober distance, allowing the laughter to echo within its closely defined borders. Judy Simons has described Lehmann’s self-conscious protagonist as a ‘distinctive type of heroine’ who is ‘characteristically private, impressionable, and supremely sensitive to the emotional nuances of daily life’ (Simons, ‘The Torment’ 142). She goes on to suggest that beyond the expected terms of the female bildungsroman, Lehmann is interested in tracing Judith’s ambivalent movement away from the safety of solitude toward an uncertain membership of a privileged social group: ‘And as Judith moves from terror of others to an enjoyment of her growing self-confidence, so she learns the secret of social power’ (Simons, 144). What I want to suggest through my reading of the text, however, is that the secret of social power at the centre of the novel is being variously disclosed and withheld through the politics of laughter. Judith’s success in navigating the world that is slowly opening up for her is therefore governed by the way in which she positions herself in relation to other people’s laughter. Thus, as Meredith philosophises, ‘sensitiveness to the comic laugh is a step in civilisation. To shrink from being an object of it is a step in cultivation’ (Sypher, 50).
Much of the negotiation of secrecy that structures Judith’s development to adulthood focuses on the private realms that she is unable to access. Understood in Judy Simons' analysis as the novel’s ‘precious coteries’ (Simons, 143), these over-determined spaces are also figured by Ruth Siegel as the ‘excluding circles’ that function as Lehmann’s ‘dominant psychological motif’ (Siegel, 69). But as Nicola Humble has made clear, like many of its sister texts of the feminine middlebrow, Lehmann’s novel is immersed in a particularly intimate and unknowable coterie - the other worldly space of the ‘eccentric family’. In her highly influential study, she writes that ‘the families in these novels are depicted as other than the society outside their front doors – they are eccentric, self-conscious units, establishing a familial identity through private games and invented languages’ (Humble, 100). Certainly the family at the heart of Dusty Answer operates along these lines, and by depicting cousins rather than siblings, Lehmann is able to sustain its exclusivity quite legitimately as marital and sexual bonds are explored within the same enclosed world. But it is the figure of Judith who finds herself twice removed from the centre of the text; first from the realm of the family and their language of private laughter, and then, as she emerges into a wider social and sexual landscape, from her romanticised place within it.
In the later stages of the narrative it is the orthodoxy of the heterosexual plot that is radically undermined by the marginalisation of its female subject. But earlier, even as Lehmann flirts with the possibility of a nascent romance plot for her heroine, the relationship between Judith and Roddy is itself constructed as a cryptic joke that only he finds funny:
As Judith’s confidence in their shared dynamic gradually increases, the silent joke that initially structures their intimacy together is translated in more overtly physical terms into an invitation to dance. But, just as Judith’s solemnity excludes her from the bonds of friendship with the cousins at the start of the novel, her reluctance to dance with Roddy transports her back to that same position of the sullen outsider on the margins of experience: ‘“Shall we?” he said at last. She was not going to be able to do it; the rhythm had gone out of her limbs. He was going to be too good for her and she would stumble and he would get disgusted and not dance with her any more…’ (71). With Roddy’s coaching, however, Judith allows herself to be overtaken by the exhilaration and momentum of the dance, and having crossed the threshold into this new realm, she finally allows herself to laugh openly:
Clare Hanson, in her book Hysterical Fictions, reads this pivotal dance sequence as the straightforwardly traditional romantic set-piece. In this account Judith conforms to type as the giddy heroine, ‘embodying feminine grace and desirability’ to the delight of her admiring suitor (Hanson, 28). Somewhat differently, Judy Simons interprets the related scenes of dancing, swimming and skating in the novel as markers of Judith’s ‘delight in her own physical prowess and the particular route for self-expression this liberates’ (Simons, Rosamond 45). Simons detects a newly discovered jouissance, and even an erotic energy in the pleasure that Judith takes from her newly embodied self-confidence. Viewed in terms of the novel’s economy of laughter however, this scene takes on a less joyous significance. Despite Judith’s largely uninhibited enjoyment, she is not in any real sense united with Roddy in a moment of shared delight. Even as she finally gives in to her desire to laugh, Roddy does not join her. Instead, while she whirls about him, he stands still; and, as she laughs, he regards her with a quiet amusement. As such, it is Roddy who maintains control in this encounter, as though he is participating in an entirely different joke.
In this overtly homosocial context, laughter functions as a highly successful intimidation technique. Perhaps taking her cue from the gender-specific solidarity on display to her in this closed scene, Judith comes finally to abandon her attachment to Roddy in favour of the same-sex bonds of student life at Cambridge. However, her initiation into the familiar scene of gynaeceum narrative convention is again frustrated by her self-conscious removal from the exuberant collective spirit: ‘Crowds of dresses of all colours, shapes and sizes, all running about briskly, knowing where to go; a sea of faces bobbing and turning, chattering, bright-eyed, nodding and laughing to other faces, sure of themselves […] “I am lost, lost, abandoned, alone, lost,” thought Judith wildly’ (107-8).
As Lehmann’s deft manipulation of form translates female friendship into proto-lesbian erotics in the central phase of the novel, the panic that strikes Judith at this moment can be seen to effectively foreshadow her later betrayal by the enigmatic Jennifer and the predatory Geraldine Manners: ‘Judith returning from her bath, heard voices and laughter behind Jennifer’s door. Should she stop? […] She alone had excluded herself, sitting with a pile of books in her room, pretending to have important work. It was her own fault’ (158). Eventually summoned to meet Geraldine – the rival for Jennifer’s affection – Judith is also forced to confront all that she has been excluded from. In a single moment, the residual laughter that Judith was not invited to share finally demands expression, as though in response to her own intensely private joke: ‘Judith broke into a sort of laugh; and then checked herself with a vast effort: for the suppressed hysteria of weeks was climbing upwards within her and if it broke loose, it might never, never cease’ (165). Despite, or perhaps as a result of, her own painful existence on the margins of the collective laughter of others, Judith visits her own exclusion on another unlaughing outsider. Mabel, as another ‘distinctive type’ within the novel is the self-same figure Judith would have cut at Cambridge if she had not relinquished some of her Bergsonian rigidity to the demands of adolescent experience. By remaining fixedly on the margins of collegiate life she binds Judith and her friends into an ever more ‘precious coterie’:
Judith, Jennifer and their circle express their rejection of Mabel’s clumsy attempts to ingratiate herself through wails of derisive laughter. In doing so, they are simply enacting their Bergsonian duty, as ‘society holds over each individual member, if not the threat of correction, at all events the prospect of a snubbing, which although it is slight, is none the less dreaded. Such must be the function of laughter […] In laughter we always find an unavowed intention to humiliate, and consequently correct our neighbour’ (Sypher 1956: 148). And, of course, being ‘dreary and unadaptable’ and functioning in terms of ‘another order of being’, poor Mabel perfectly encapsulates Bergson’s image of the rigid, anti-social, mechanical figure of the modern age, whose only purpose at Cambridge is to work tirelessly and productively at her studies. It is into this role that Mabel necessarily returns once it becomes clear that her attempts at integration have failed:
By constructing Mabel as the archetypal outsider, or marginalised ‘comic type’ in this way, and by ensuring her unfeeling treatment at the hands of her fellow students, Lehmann constructs a social comedy of manners very much in the manner of Bergson’s rendering. Gendered male in his analysis, ‘the man who withdraws into himself is liable to ridicule, because the comic is largely made up of this very withdrawal. This accounts for the comic being so frequently dependent on the manners or ideas, or, to put it bluntly, on the prejudices, of a society’ (Sypher, 150). In this relentlessly unsentimental comedy of manners it is after all ‘the business of laughter to repress any separatist tendency; its function is to convert rigidity into plasticity, to readapt the individual to the whole’ (Sypher, 174).
In a novel at least partly defined by a reluctance to decisively embrace the future, it is perhaps to be expected that its heroine should return to the site of previous disappointments for her first sexual encounter. Once again, the largely unspoken hopes, frustrations and eventual abandonments associated with this seminal moment of the narrative are communicated almost exclusively through the shifting politics of laughter. During a university vacation, Judith finds herself back at the scene of her earlier romance, and gravitates back into her uneasy embrace with Roddy:
Lehmann’s subtle manipulation of the romance trope, and its careful transformation into a narrative of feminine development succeeds largely as a result of this sense of ambivalence that is figured through laughter. While it remains veiled by euphemistic scene-setting, ‘beneath the unstirring willow trees’ (223), the unseen sexual union between Judith and Roddy is again prefaced by laughter, and by Judith’s again submitting to her status as the focus of his amusement, ‘“I don’t mind you laughing at me.” They were going to laugh gaily at each other, with each other, for ever’ (222). Despite Judith’s optimistic hopes, the anti-romantic strain of the narrative demands an alternative outcome, and Roddy fails to respond to the love letter sent to him the morning after. Instead, an uncomfortable meeting takes place some time later, in which slight, nervous laughter masks an excruciating awkwardness: ‘She gave a little laugh and said: “I really am very sorry to make this fuss. It’s too laughable that I should – I! ... I suppose I never dreamed I – wasn’t used to this sort of thing – from men?”’ (228). Roddy responds in kind through the sexual/textual code that sustains the narrative, by insisting upon the playful and the meaningless in their relationship:
Although this defeat does not mark the end of Judith’s affair with the Fyfe cousins, it does signal her final attempt to enter into the private language of their joke-telling. Whether it is acceptance of her place on the margins, or a more hopeful desire for independence, Lehmann’s protagonist finds resolution in the forfeiting of long hoped-for acceptance: ‘She was rid at last of the weakness, the futile obsession of dependence on other people. She had nobody now except herself, and that was best […] She was a person whose whole past made one great circle, completed now and ready to be discarded’ (303).
Lehmann’s relentless appeal to laughter as a highly charged form of social and sexual currency captures the solemn frustrations of her protagonist always on the cusp of experience. I would argue that the same effect also speaks to the transitional and still marginalised status of the feminine ‘middlebrow’ itself, held outside the grand narratives of Victorian realism and the bold departures of modernist innovation. This 'transitional' quality is not simply a question of the difficult or uncertain historical positioning of ‘middlebrow’ literary production; more particularly, in response to Lehmann’s writing, it relates to the often anxious inter-play between an acute awareness of the shifting inter-war social landscape – particularly its impact on women's expectations and what was expected of them – and a 'reticence' at the heart of her narratives to move decisively forward (or backward).
By instructing her reader in the subtle workings of laughter as a potent marker of social power, Lehmann necessarily engages the terms of the two most influential theories of social comedy operative in this period. As such, the often unforgiving comedy of manners that emerges in the works of Bergson and Meredith continues to play at the margins of this transitional novel, echoing both the ringing of a remembered past and the imposing sound of present laughter. While this essay has worked to place laughter at the very centre of things, encoding an alternative narrative lexicon, it remains clear to the reader that Dusty Answer is in no sense a comedy of manners in its own right. Rather, the unlaughing demeanour of its female protagonist overtakes much of the mood of the novel itself, ensuring that laughter and a keen sense of the comic remain firmly in the possession of the novel’s privileged ‘others’. Lehmann allows her thoughtful, unlaughing heroine to articulate this sense of occupying the space ‘in-between’ as she imagines what it might mean to be on the other side of that ‘excluding circle’ from where she could ‘look outward and laugh, accepting life as an easy exciting thing; and yet was checked by a voice that said doubtfully that there were dark ideas behind it all, tangling the web’ (137). It is this same lingering sense of doubt that brings the novel to a close, as, despite her claims to self-sufficiency, Judith remains hesitant – not yet able to laughingly embrace the future – and, in her reluctance, Lehmann seems to capture the mood of this transitional moment, ‘Soon she must begin to think: What next? But not quite yet’ (303).
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