Sunday, 8 August 2010

The Weather in the Streets - Book Review

What better way to spend a sunny afternoon than by sitting in the garden, picking at a fresh bowl of strawberries and reading Rosamund Lehmann's The Weather in the Streets. I promise I am attempting to read Jane Eyre (still the saga continues) but I needed a quick fix of early twentieth century literature before fully embarking upon the epic tome. Anyway, I digress.

The Weather in the Streets is a continuation of the story of Olivia Curtis who is the protagonist in Lehmann's Invitation to the Waltz. Here, Olivia has grown up, separated from her husband and is at a crossroads when a chance encounter with an old acquaintance leads to a heady love affair.

Olivia is a nervous and vulnerable person. She never feels that she can match her sensible sister Kate who has married, produced children and is living the textbook life of domestic serenity. Feeling a failure in every sense Olivia goes home to see her sick father. It is on the train journey home that she meets Rollo Spencer, the brother of her old friend Marigold. Olivia always had a soft spot for Rollo and the reader is quickly made aware of a sense of missed opportunity as each reveals that they are not happy.

Rollo is married to Nicola, and it quickly transpires that she is not physically forthcoming. Olivia has always admired Rollo and they start having an affair. What struck me was how passively Olivia accepts Rollo as a dangerous liaison. She loves him but she is aware of the inevitability of her getting hurt as she lets him rule the relationship. Olivia has no delusion that he will leave his wife but she struggles with the constant and overwhelming presence of Nicola in all that they do. Nicola controls Rollo and, ultimately, she is his priority. Filtering down from this, Olivia is beholden to Nicola's whims. If Nicola wants to go away, then Rollo will take her. If she stays, Rollo will look after her. Olivia has to snatch her time and be grateful for it.

Nicola is a silent presence, she is given no voice in the narrative. But, arguably, hers is the strongest. The protagonists are circling around her at all times and the reader is caught between sympathy for this unknown character and the desire that she would release Rollo from her grip. Interestingly, Olivia discovers that she is pregnant just as Rollo goes away with Nicola for a long holiday. Throughout the ordeal of Olivia concealing her morning sickness from her family and her booking a termination the reader is left on a precipice of hope. Surely, Rollo will come back for her? Surely, it will be alright? But Olivia calmly goes through with it as she knows that she is only second in Rollo's affections and that he will never leave his wife.

Painfully, Olivia tells Rollo when he returns and although he is distressed through shock, he barely manages to comfort her. Rather she comforts him. Nicola, of course, becomes pregnant and Olivia realises how fickle Rollo really is. Relations restored with his wife, his attentions towards Olivia become slack.

Lehmann's characterisation is so piercing that the reader feels dragged into the mind of each character as they become entangled in a web of messy relationships and journeys of self-discovery. Olivia is both perceptive and resigned. She is striving on the one hand for understanding, love and reassurance but on the other she knows the truth of the situation and she makes huge personal sacrifices as a result.

I wondered as I was reading, whether Olivia embarked upon the relationship out of a combination of both nostalgia and safety. Nostalgia because Rollo was her first girlhood crush, her friends glamorous older brother. And safety because, having left her husband, she wasn't really looking for one hundred percent commitment. I gained a sense that this bright girl was struggling with the realisation that she has not achieved all that she thought she might with the consequence that she drifted into a relationship to consume all her attentions rather than pursue her writing, her dreams and ultimately, rather than find herself.

Moments of strength would quickly fade as Rollo charmed Olivia back into the cycle of being his mistress. If this isn't a man who wants his bread buttered on both sides, I don't know what he is! I was exasperated as Olivia just couldn't make that final break. And my mind would stray to Nicola. We know she doesn't love Rollo but does that make it alright?

I was left with a mixed feeling of bewilderment as Lehmann leaves the reader reeling from Olivia's passive acceptance that she and Rollo will remain lovers. Is Lehmann pointing out that some women sacrifice too much for men? Obviously, I am not reading this book through the eyes of a young woman in 1936, rather I have the legacy of feminism sitting on my shoulder. Am I being too hard on Rollo and Olivia?

Reading books like this in the 21st century is fascinating as I sometimes realise that we haven't necessarily 'come that far'. There are plenty of books being published now in which a female 'heroine' compromises herself to keep 'her man'. But reading this article a few months ago I started to wonder if something was brewing. But I thought nothing more of it as life drifted on. Yesterday, I treated myself to a magazine - I bought ELLE, an old favourite. This month there is a feature on passivity within relationships and it cites Laura Munson (see article) as an example. Something is indeed brewing here. Is it new - or is it a resurrection of the age old hatred of the shrewish woman?

Either way, a thread is being spun in the women's lifestyle pages at the moment. Remaining passive in the face of relationship difficulties will apparently steer the relationship back on course. Erm, I am no expert but I have found that an equal amount of work from both parties will carry a relationship through the rocky times. And once through the rocky times, you are both reassured that the other is investing themselves fully in making the relationship work. A great sense of fulfilment, respect and love is borne through this knowledge. The women behind the two articles I have found on this topic seem to imply that the majority of women react hysterically to the prospect of a relationship breaking down. Do we? If so, yes, a certain amount of calm might be worth investing in. But passivity?

I think I would always wonder if the relationship was still breathing merely through his apathy bred as a result of the lack of response he had got from me. It is, after all, easier to stay in a rut than jump out. Do we really want to stay with men who announce that they don't want to be with us? And then stay, because we continued to feed them, clean for them and not make any demands of them?

The Oxford English Dictionary cites the word passive as being synonymous with submissiveness. An interesting thought for modern times. Lehmann, in 1936, made it clear that Olivia's passivity made her both unhappy and submissive. She didn't strive for a solid relationship instead she tiptoed around Rollo and ended up aborting their baby so as not to cause him the anguish of having an illegitimate child. I think Lehmann was trying to tell women something and, it appears, her message is as relevant today as it was seventy years ago.


  1. I love the cover on your edition. Tut tut for not cracking on with Jane Eyre though madam!

    I've skimmed your review I'm afraid because I haven't read this yet BUT WILL and I don't want to have the plot spoiled, but I loved your points about passivity. I too read that article and thought the woman was an idiot - personally I think it's less about passivity than codependency. So many women will do anything to stay with their partner because they are afraid of being on their own. Laura Munson came across as someone who was so scared of being left that she hung on to a man who quite clearly didn't want to be with her by being perfect and undemanding and all passive aggressive while he did whatever he wanted and couldn't care less whether she was there or not. I know relationships go through rocky patches but being passive and doing all the work while your partner makes their mind up whether they want to be with you or not is nothing short of desperate and demeaning. I think until it truly becomes an acceptable life choice for women to remain single and not be branded bitter dried up spinsters if they are without a male partner, there will be passive codependent women out there who will obliterate themselves in the desperate quest to keep a man, and by doing so, their status as part of a couple. It's sad that women in this day and age still feel the need to do this to themselves. It makes me so angry!

  2. Thanks for mentioning my story. It's actually not about passivity. It's about non-resistance. It's about not engaging in drama. It's about letting go and being responsible for one's own happiness, no matter what relationship you're in and no matter what the outcome may be. My book THIS IS NOT THE STORY YOU THINK IT IS, is about all this. I want it to help people. I'm not interested in passivity or being a door mat or even strategizing to hold on to your relationship. I'm interested in the freedom that ensues when we let go and become self-responsible. Hope this helps clarify. yrs. Laura

  3. Hi Laura
    thanks for commenting - I will pick up a copy of your book as it wasn't entirely fair of me to comment without having read it! However, the articles I talk about do spin it slightly differently - have you seen the article in the UK ELLE magazine? It talks about passivity as the answer.
    Freedom and self-responsibility weren't mentioned in ELLE - but then I doubt the journalist who wrote the piece had read your book either!
    It just goes to show - we should go back to the source.
    Thanks for clarifying,

  4. I can't beleive that I have never read any Rosamund Lehmann but it is true. I skimmed the review as I didn't want a spoiler but was fascinated by your mini- essay at the end. Whilst everything you say about the dangers of passivity is true and sociologically very interesting amd important, with my critical hat on I am particularly fascinated by the idea that feminism has changed the female reader (perhaps beyond recgonition) and that we're now so distant psychologically from our great-grandparents that understanding how they read what they read is now tantilisingly out of reach. the nearest I can get is to wonder what my Nan (1915-2004) would have said about a subject, but even she was not really the contemporary of those early twentieth century writers. Fascinating.

  5. I love Rosamund Lehmann and I'm glad you are featuring her on your blog (that's a lovely edition you have). The relationship in The Weather in the Streets baffled me too. Neither seemed to derive much pleasure from it. Invitation to the Waltz is a good read.

  6. When I read early 20th century women writers, I often feel that things have not really changed.
    I'm interested in our comments about Laura Munson. I think sometimes married people do need a kind of sabbatical. I don't think Laura Munson (I haven't read the book either...) was being passive, instead she was just accepting that everybody's life has difficult stages and sometimes people don't want to be the person they are anymore. They can think that the only way to change is to escape the person you are 'tied' to.
    A break from that role may be all your need and doesn't necessarily have to be a big drama.
    On the other hand I'm not sure there are many men who would accept their wife going walkabout while they stayed home and supported the kids.

  7. How interesting that your edition spells her name Rosamund - it was actually spelled Rosamond and appears that way on the original editions of her books. I wonder how that transposition has been made.

  8. I have just written an essay on this book for Birkbeck College. I think it is a truly wonderful book. Lyrical, sad, moving. It is written and set in 1930's London and I can imagine so much of the scenery. Not (underlined) that I can remember 1930's London, just my imagination and looking at old photos. I have tried to find out more about RL, but I have not been able to discover very much. Just tantalizing bits. Is is a lovely book and I recommend it.

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