Do you know that Thurber cartoon: a stout woman is reading a book in a relaxed manner, legs hanging over the arm of her chair? Her middle-aged husband sits foursquare and has the paper open and looks startled. She tells him: ‘It’s our own story exactly! He’s a bold as a hawk, she’s soft as the dawn.’
When I first read this book, in the early ‘80s perhaps when Virago republished it, I felt that – it was my story. And rereading it recently that feeling has not changed. I knew what she was writing about. Perhaps more to the point, Rosamond Lehmann knew what she was writing about.
The Weather in the Streets
The story is a kind of sequel to Invitation to the Waltz, in which Olivia Curtis was poised on the brink of adulthood, socially awkward at a ball, and rescued by Rollo Spencer. Ten years later she is now married but has separated from Ivor. This novel is the story of her affair with Rollo.
At the start of the story she is going home to see her father who may be dying. He isn’t but he remains an invalid. On the train she meets Rollo. They have not met since Marigold’s coming out party. They are attracted to each other, and after Rollo has ensured she gets invited to his family’s country house for a party the die is cast. The affair is carried on for nearly a year, when after months of clandestine meetings and a holiday together in Austria Olivia finds that she is pregnant. Rollo has disappeared with his family for the rest of the summer. She endures the pregnancy until visited by Rollo’s mother.
The affair ends because Olivia comes to see that she has always been in second place to Nicola, Rollo’s wife, always just a distraction for him. They had no future. They did have love and a good time. She returns to her artistic friends and moves on painfully.
Rosamond Lehman writes about the inner torments of isolated young women with great effect. This was the strength of Dusty Answer as well as Invitation to the Waltz. In this novel, Olivia is not yet self-assured, not yet happy in any social group. Being separated from her husband she is not welcome in most social circles, and out of tune with her family’s social connections. Rollo pays her attention, as he did at the party when she was 16, and she warms to him. They get on well and at first everything is ecstatic. But once established as his mistress she finds herself always waiting.
He’d manage to come for dinner once a week. I cooked it in the tiny cupboard of a kitchen, and he laid the table, awfully pleased with himself. I shall never like cooking, I’m not talented enough, but it was nice cooking for him, he appreciated it so. I bought a stylish new cookery book and dished up all sorts of mixtures. Sometimes when he couldn’t have dinner with me, he’d ring the bell late, about one o’clock. I never stayed out anywhere after midnight in case he did. It was rather wearing, the waiting, often after one had struck, I’d listen for the half-hour, then two, then the half-hour again, still keyed-up for the doorbell, the telephone, hearing in my brain his car come down the street and stop, sitting frozen in my chair – a listening machine. … I asked him how he explained when he came late. ‘I go to look up old George,’ he said. I knew that George was a habitué of the house – Nicola’s friend – it didn’t seem safe, but he and George had standing orders for the last ten years to provide an unhesitating alibi on all occasions with an element of doubt in them. George could be trusted. He was a very useful chap, never been known to ask a question. (191)
The dynamics of love
She’s an expert at describing falling in love, the invisible currents between two people, how each takes it a little further until it’s a settled thing. She illuminates the way love can put you into a bubble, when nothing exists except in relation to this wonderful thing that’s happening. And those little jolts, the sparks when one of the pair is offended, but the other hasn’t noticed. In the passage above I notice how smoothly Rollo uses his alibi, set up ten years ago. Has he needed it before, will he need it again? Is this a man of honour? And I notice how Olivia sacrifices her own freedoms, her own life to wait for him.
An accomplished writer
When she published this novel Rosamond Lehmann was well established. She had gained a reputation of being a little racy with Dusty Answer. Like a number of women writers of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor are two examples, she was able to convey so much in one sentence, one movement, one piece of dialogue and had the skill to convey the reactions people had to each other through their words. Here is the moment when Olivia and Rollo hesitate just before committing themselves to an illicit relationship.
Getting up from my stool to take another cigarette, nervouser and nervouser … He struck a match, saying very softly, in a funny, diffident, plaintive voice: ‘I’ve thought about this evening such a lot.’
‘So’ve I.’ Looking at the cigarette, puffing furiously.
He put his head down suddenly to give me a light quick kiss on the cheek. No good. What can break this down? How to melt, how to start? … Because here he is, he’s come for what I promised, it’s got to be made to be …standing side by side in Etty’s crammed room …
‘Darling, are you glad to see me?’ Coaxing …
‘Don’t be frightened,’ he said.
It was all over before now, it could still be nothing, never happen … I don’t know how, there wasn’t one moment, but he made it all come right as he always did, saying: ‘She won’t be coming in, will she?’ (144-5)
In this extract there are no less than six ellipses indicating tentative moves, hesitancy which is put to an end by his practical (practised?) inquiry about her flat mate’s return.
The scene between Olivia and Rollo’s mother, as another example, expresses so much, not least through what is not said. It proves decisive.
Our own story exactly!
To wait, to be waiting always between the moments of aliveness, to give way with grace, to always look over your shoulder, to exercise discretion when you want to shout about it. This is what I recognised in this novel so long ago and what I recognised again. Rosamond Lehmann keeps our attention on Olivia and our sympathies with her conflicting emotions as the affair progresses. The impossibility of making a life around a doomed love affair, the million and one slights, offences, disappointments, as well as the ecstasy and belief that no-body else had loved as we did.
The novel is not short. The central section is written in the first person, but we move away again into the third person when things get difficult for Olivia and Rollo. We can see that none of the marriages in this novel are perfect. Compromises and sacrifices have been made. Some have endured. In her family circle her mother is now devoting herself to an invalid husband; her sister has married a doctor and had four children after a bitter experience of love; her brother James is wandering Europe, a bit of a loner, possibly gay.
The gender imbalance is obvious, but not emphasised. Rollo can do what he wants. He’s a nice enough chap. Doesn’t want to hurt anyone. But he can’t sustain the relationship with Olivia. She ultimately needs more than he is prepared to give.
I wanted more for Olivia as well. I wanted her to be able to embrace marriage. But it seems that marriage does not suit some people. As I didn’t quite say, ‘My story exactly.’
The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann, first published in 1936 and then by Virago in 1981. It has been reprinted 19 times since then. 372pp
Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann
Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann
In an enthusiastic review of Weather in the Streets posted in July this year, JacquieWine’s Journal says this novel ‘expertly captures the cruelty, frustration and devastation of a doomed love affair in the most glittering prose’.