Rosamund Lehmann’s A Note in Music fascinated me; not much happened in it, and yet so much happened — Lehmann is excellent at capturing inner worlds, the way moods shift and feelings come and go, and the way other people impinge upon our consciousness, often making us unhappy as they do.
The novel tells the story of Grace Fairfax, a 34-year-old woman living in a town in the north of England; she is married to kind but bungling Tom, who loves her but is also mystified by her. Grace figured out early on in their 10-year marriage that she made a mistake when she married Tom, but she has tried to make the best of it and they have muddled along, not happy, although not perfectly miserable either. Their life together feels indifferent, as though it means little or even nothing. In fact, Grace’s life is full of nothingness, which Lehmann makes clear from the very beginning; when Grace’s friend Norah tries to persuade her to see a fortune-teller, she refuses, fearing she will see only nothingness in her future:
For the truth was that she was afraid of the fortune-teller. She had a vision of the woman, scrutinizing her palm and saying finally:
‘This is a most curious case. There is nothing here: nothing in your past, nothing in your future. As for character — lazy, greedy, secretive — without will or purpose.’
The novel also tells Norah’s story; she too is unhappily married, in her case, to Gerald, an emotionally distant professor who retreats to his books to avoid any complicated human interaction.
Into this stew of discontent comes Hugh and his sister Clare; Hugh is a young, attractive man who is being groomed to inherit the company where Tom works as a clerk, and Clare is an old friend of Norah’s. Both of them bring life and energy into Grace and Norah’s small world, and Hugh quickly becomes an object of desire for both of them, with his handsome blonde hair and his charming, casual manners.
One of the most painful parts to read — in a book that is full of painful and yet at the same time pleasurable descriptions of emotional turmoil, pleasurable because of the accuracy with which they are detailed — occurs when we realize just how oblivious Hugh is to the impact he has on Grace and Norah both. For the women, encountering Hugh is a life-changing event that will give them food for thought for years and decades to come. For Hugh, his time with them is a brief interlude between much more exciting events in his life, a way of passing the time until the next episode begins. When Grace and Hugh develop a friendship that surprises them both, Grace feels that … well, that she is living up to her name, that Hugh’s presence and the love she feels for him have descended upon her as though they were gifts from heaven. Grace knows that these gifts are fleeting things, and that soon she will return to her quiet life with Tom, but they have changed her.
Lehmann uses a shifting perspective that gives us glimpses into the minds of all of the major characters at one point or another, including Tom and Gerald, so that we see just how the various characters are making sense of what occurs. This technique increases the emotional impact of the novel, as, for example, Tom’s earnest love for Grace is contrasted with Grace’s barely civil tolerance of Tom, or Norah’s good-natured attempts to please Gerald are contrasted with Gerald’s irritation at her fumbling and bumbling about. All the characters seem at odds with one another, which makes moments of emotional connection that much more meaningful.
I love this sort of book, although I can imagine people reading my description and thinking the book sounds claustrophobic and boring — but, in my opinion at least, it’s not; it’s a book that describes the type of life that many people lead, one where not much happens, and yet so much is happening, at every moment.