I think Invitation to the Waltz was one of the first Virago Modern Classics I managed to find over here. Not that I claim to have a grand collection now (I may own approximately 15 titles at the moment), but I do remember finding this in a shop – relatively cheap – and simply feeling elated because these books come with a reputation of being wonderful. And so, in my head, they all are, and all immediately need to be bought.
Happily, I was not disappointed in this one, which is also my first book by Rosamond Lehmann.
The premise of the story told here is simple: For her seventeenth birthday Olivia Curtis receives a number of gifts, including a roll of flame-coloured silk for an evening dress. She is to wear this dress to her first dance. We follow her preparations, excitement, and nerves for this first dance, and watch the event unfold in all its splendour and uncertainty. How will shy and awkward Olivia do on this first grand social occasion?
The appeal of Invitation to the Waltz is to be found in its depiction of the thoughts and anxieties of a seventeen-year-old at her first social event and the atmosphere Lehmann manages to evoke. As such, it is perhaps the part depicting the dance that was of the most immediate interest, but there are still quiet and appealing moment in the narrative preceding that one. What touched me most was how I was able to relate to Olivia’s inner world. Sometimes for the most basic things, such as her thoughts on getting out of bed, pronto:
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 will-power.
But even more so for the novel’s portrayal of hope and anxiety, of blinding insecurities and telling yourself to pull through it, when it comes to social events. Olivia’s doubts about her dress, which she dreamt would be perfect, but seems a little awkward when she puts it on, must be recognisable for most who have felt insecure about their wardrobe at times. But most of all, Olivia’s inevitable social awkwardness at the ball; how many events have I not spent in this manner, albeit not grand social affairs like balls, but more likely high school parties:
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.
It is hard not to feel a deep sympathy for Olivia. And Lehmann has done a stellar job in making a somewhat awkward heroine into someone the reader is happy to identify with. There’s something very appealing about Olivia’s inner world, right alongside moments at the beginning of the story that make you want to step in and tell her to please not make the mistake she’s about to make..
Yet, there are less than perfect moments in Invitation to the Waltz, most notably the fact that sometimes, suddenly, the narrative will swing between Olivia and her older sister Kate. While Kate’s story might have been interesting, I was not always sure how I was meant to place it alongside Olivia’s. Moreover, sometimes the change in perspectives startled me, and I had to stop and think before I realised that this was not Olivia, but someone else entirely.
Overall though, I am more than satisfied with my first experience of Rosamond Lehmann’s fiction, and I am a little impatient to read more. First on my list? The Weather in the Streets, which is the story of Olivia ten years later (to be reviewed later this week). After that I have a few other titles of Lehmann waiting on my shelves..
I read this book for Miss Darcy’s Library’s Rosamond Lehmann Reading Week. It’s not too late to join in! Click on over to her blog for much more on the author and her fiction.