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The Ballad & the Source by Rosamond Lehmann

Collins, 1978, 316 p. First published 1944.

Narrator Rebecca Landon’s grandmother – long since deceased – was friendly in her youth with the Mrs Jardine who has come to live with her second husband, Harry, in the nearby big house. Mrs Jardine extends an invitation to eleven-year old Rebecca and her sisters to visit her at the house. Later Mrs Jardine’s grandchildren, Malcolm, Maise and Cherry, hitherto estranged from her come to the house to stay since their father is ill. Their mother, Ianthe, had been kept till adulthood from Mrs Jardine after she had left her first husband for another man. This would have been in Victorian times as within the novel’s time span the Great War breaks out and has its doleful effect on some of the characters. Ianthe also is estranged from her husband.

The plot’s motor is Rebecca’s interest in Ianthe and the life she led but the novel’s structure is odd. Most of Ianthe’s life story is told through the medium of three extended conversations Rebecca has. One is with Tilly, an old retainer, but known to both families involved, another with Mrs Jardine herself, and the last, much later in time, with Maisie.

Presumably the source of the title is what Mrs Jardine tells Rebecca is “the fount of life, the quick spring that rises in illimitable depths of darkness and flows through every living thing from generation to generation.” Mrs Jardine also asks her, “‘Do you know what goes to make a tragedy? The pitting of one individual againt the forces of society. Society is cruel and powerful. The one stands no chance against its combined hostilities.’” She also has barbs towards her countrymen, “‘Englishmen dislike women, that is the blunt truth of it..….. Do you not know that in England it is considered immoral to teach a girl the needs of her heart and body?’” adding that women themselves were complicit in this, with mothers feeling, “‘Let her go through what I did .….. She will get used to it. I had to: why should she not,’” then asking, “‘How long I wonder will ignorance spell purity and knowledge shame?’”

One of the characters was brought up among Zulus and, “‘He thinks what white people have done to them is awful: taken away their land and shoved them in the mines and made them lose their human pride … made them sad.’”

The crucial tale-telling conversations are very well rendered by Lehmann but the text surrounding them tends to be overwritten and not at all like the words of an eleven year old (even if she goes on to very early adulthood.) The text also employs some heavy-handed phonetic renderings of the accents of a Scot and of a Cockney.

Note to the sensitive; some usages reflect the book’s time. At one point the word niggers is used but as condemnatory of people who say it. Yet a subsequent sentence is still patronising to “coloured” people and calls them “negroes.”

Pedant’s corner:- a missing quotation mark at the start of a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “A crotcheted crossover” (crocheted,) a missing embedded quotation mark at the end of a piece of direct speech quoting direct speech, “the opaqueness of her flesh” (what’s wrong with opacity?) “lowland Scottish” (Lowland,) unworrdly (unworrldly,) “didn’t use to” (didn’t used to,) jasminc (jasmine.)

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