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.