The English writer Rosamond Lehmann seems to fall somewhere in the intersection between Elizabeth Taylor and Virginia Woolf, her modernist style and piercing insight into character marking her out as a writer of great skill and distinction. The Weather in the Streets (1936) is a sequel to Lehmann’s earlier novel, Invitation to the Waltz, in which seventeen-year-old Olivia Curtis is captivated at her first society ball by the dashing Rollo Spencer. Nothing much comes of their meeting on the terrace at the time. Rollo belongs to a higher social class than Olivia and remains somewhat out of her reach, and yet she is mesmerised by him all the same.
In Weather – which is set ten years later – a chance encounter brings Olivia into contact with Rollo once again, and an illicit relationship soon follows, forming the focus of the narrative. While Invitation is a very good novel – encapsulating the blend of excitement and apprehension we feel when we’re young – Weather is on an entirely different level altogether. It’s a remarkable book, one that expertly captures the cruelty, frustration and devastation of a doomed love affair in the most glittering prose.
As the novel opens, Olivia is working as a photographer’s assistant in London, where she lives with her cousin, Etty. Having separated from her husband, Ivor, two years earlier, Olivia now has a dull, unfulfilling marriage behind her; the couple, however, are not legally divorced.
While travelling home to see her father who is seriously ill with pneumonia, Olivia has the misfortune of being seated opposite Rollo on the train – a chance encounter that rekindles longstanding emotions within Olivia as she recalls their previous meeting at the ball. Rollo is wealthy, privileged and attractive. He is also married, but the marriage is not a particularly happy one – his wife, Nicola, is delicate, fragile and highly strung, an earlier miscarriage having precipitated something of an emotional withdrawal on her part.
Lehmann excels at conveying the rush of conflicting emotions Olivia experiences on seeing Rollo again, the desire to open up vs the tendency towards self-protection. The author holds the reader close to Olivia, giving us near-direct access to her thoughts alongside the couple’s conversation.
[Rollo] “…You going home, too?”
[Olivia] “Yes…Yes, I’m going home. Just for a few days.”
“D’you often come down?”
“No–-not very often really. No, I don’t.” She stopped, feeling stubborn, choked by the usual struggle of conflicting impulses: to explain, to say nothing; to trust, to be suspicious; lightly to satisfy natural curiosity; to defy it with furious scorn and silence; to let nobody come too near me… (p. 18)
When Rollo contacts Olivia again, the inevitable affair swiftly follows. While there are a few halcyon days in the country, the liaison is largely a frustrating one. It’s a clandestine relationship played out in fragments of time snatched here and there; of secret meetings in dark, secluded restaurants and stuffy, sordid hotel rooms. Once again, Lehmann’s portrayal of this world is brilliant, the dampness of the London winter providing the perfect backdrop to the dispiriting, claustrophobic tone of the affair.
Beyond the glass casing I was in, was the weather, were the winter streets in rain, wind, fog, in the fine frosty days and nights, the mild, damp grey ones. Pictures of London winter the other side of the glass–-not reaching the body; no wet ankles, muddy stockings, blown hair, cold-aching cheeks, fog-smarting eyes, throat, nose…not my usual bus-taking London winter. It was always indoors or in taxis or in his warm car; it was mostly in the safe dark, or in half-light in the deepest corner of the restaurant, as out of sight as possible. Drawn curtains, shaded lamp, or only the fire… (p. 145)
On the surface, Rollo seems to be attracted to Olivia, calling her ‘darling’ and buying her expensive jewellery now and again; and yet for the reader, the warning signs are plain to see. Alongside his admiration for other women, Rollo clearly dislikes any unseemly displays of emotion on Olivia’s part. Moreover, when Olivia finally expresses her frustration with a relationship in which she comes second to Nicola every time, Rollo is shocked and surprised. In short, he seems blind to the idea that Olivia might not be happy with the existing arrangements, their occasional meetings by secrecy and stealth.
We were silent. What was plain was what hadn’t been said. Never once, not even in the joyful, grateful, amazing beginning days, had he…no, not once…put her second–-broken a plan made for, by, with her to stay with me…Not once. Nothing explicit ever said. Nothing crude or marital to hurt my feelings, but–-well, there it is…I should have thought of it all before, I should have gone on being content with a half-share. I shouldn’t have gone to that house… (p. 194)
While Olivia lives a relatively independent, bohemian life, spending her days with artists and photographers, she is at heart a very vulnerable, sensitive woman – someone who craves reassurance and approval from others. Her love for Rollo is absolute and unshakable, blinding her to the damaging consequences of this ill-fated affair.
As the affair plays out, Lehmann perfectly captures the agony Olivia experiences as she waits for Rollo to contact her; the desperation of being caught in limbo, awaiting a letter or phone call, is keenly felt.
Third time of ringing up Rollo’s house: third time unlucky. These voices speaking for him made him mythical, removed him far out of reach, guarding him like a public personage in an artificially important world. This time it was a different voice again: the muted voice, benevolent, of an old retainer…Familiar somehow, surely…Who could it be?
There was nothing to do but wait for a letter. Surely he must write. Why hasn’t he?…He’ll write the moment he gets my letter, or, anyway, my wire…Who forwarded that? Uncomfortable thought…signed Liv.
It doesn’t matter. (p. 262)
The story of an extramarital affair may seem like a numbingly familiar one, but what sets this novel apart from others in the genre is Lehmann’s understanding of character, her ability to convey the rush of conflicting emotions on the page. In Lehmann’s hands, this becomes a devastating portrait of a woman who loves someone desperately but is unable to express her feelings openly due to the constraints of society. There is a terrific appreciation of the cruel nuances of the class structure here, particularly in the exchanges between Olivia and Lady Spencer, Rollo’s openly warm but inherently class-conscious mother. Nothing must be seen to taint the respectability of Rollo and Nicola’s marriage; reputation and social standing are everything in this world, not unlike the kind of society Edith Wharton portrays in her New York novels, The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth.
This a story that will resonate with anyone who has found themselves being swept up by the passions and disappointments of an illicit affair. The modernity of Lehmann’s prose, with its passages of stream-of-consciousness and fluid style, makes the novel feel fresh and alive, certainly well ahead of its time for the mid-1930s. And yet, Lehmann doesn’t shy away from tackling the harsh realities and unpleasant consequences of a liaison in this era. There are scenes here that would have seemed shocking in 1936, elements that Lehmann insisted should remain in the book despite the impassioned concerns of her transatlantic publishers.
In short, this is a beautiful, devastating, deeply affecting novel that captures the cruelty and desolation of Olivia’s situation to perfection. One of the very best novels I’ve read so far this year.
The Weather in the Streets is published by Virago Press; personal copy
Great review Jacqui, I really want to read this one. Does the book stand on its own or is it essential to read Invitation to the Waltz first?
Thanks. Yes, I think you could read it as a standalone. If my memory serves me correctly, it’s only at the end of Invitation that Olivia and Rollo have their significant moment together; so I don’t think you’d be at too much of a disadvantage if you started with Weather in the Streets.
I just checked my two posts on this: I was troubled by Olivia’s compliance with her lover’s offhandedly treatment of her, but also admired the subtle, complex picture RL produces. I gave some suggestions for Olivia’s choices… Enjoyed your post, Jacqui.
Yes, it’s a very subtle novel. These emotions are complex and tricky to disentangle, although I’m not sure I buy the suggestion that Olivia is entering into this liaison with Rollo as a way of escaping the constraints of a conventional marriage. It’s actually quite hard for any of us to apply rational thinking or reasoning to a situation like this when so much of Olivia’s behaviour is being driven by feelings and emotions – as these drivers are so personal, I think they’re quite difficult for us to second guess…
Another one I have on my TBR but still to read.
I wonder where the picture of Rollo’s wife comes from. Is it from him or from Lehman (i.e. do we meet her in the novel)? Her character seems a very male excuse for an affair (or maybe it’s Olivia’s excuse). I’m intrigued by the title – what is it meant to represent?
We never actually meet Nicola in person, so everything we hear about her is filtered through others – mostly Rollo and his mother. So, you’re right – the portrayal of Nicola as fragile and highly strung is very much geared to her being a significant factor in Rollo’s motives for seeking an affair. (There’s a suggestion that Nicola’s earlier miscarriage pretty much put an end to any sexual relations between the couple, at least at the beginning.)
As for the title, I think it’s linked to the second passage I quoted above, the dull, rain-soaked streets acting as a touchstone for Olivia’s mood. You might find Lehmann quite interesting from a stylistic point of view, especially given the overlaps with Taylor and Woolf!
Revisiting old characters a decade or so later can open up all sorts of interesting dramatic possibilities. It is also often curious to obsessive some of these early steam of consciousness efforts and compare them to later attempts.
Really great review as always.
Yes, I wonder if Lehmann had this in mind when she introduced Rollo towards the end of Waltz. The germ of another story just waiting to be developed…
Since Rosamond Lehmann is one of those writers I’ve been meaning to get to for ages, I’m particularly grateful for your review! I loved your description of Lehmann’s style, not to mention the lovely quotes; both were very helpful in giving me some idea of where Lehmann “fits” into that bevy of early to mid 20th century writers. I tend to gravitate to novels with a strong character element, so Lehmann sounds right up my alley. I’m only afriad, however, I’ll feel too, too sorry for poor Olivia!
Oh, that’s great! Her style is very interesting, I think. Closer to Woolf than Taylor in that respect; and yet her themes are quite reminiscent of the latter. Unfulfilling marriages, unsuitable attachments, doomed affairs etc. – all supplemented by some interesting secondary characters and themes. I’ve skipped over it in my review, but there are some lovely scenes of Olivia’s life with her bohemian friends. They’re secondary to the main focus of the book, but very nicely sketched nonetheless.
Wonderful review Jacqui and high praise indeed! Despite owning all Lehmann’s books, I somehow have never got any further than Dusty Answer – which is a wonderful book, but somehow didn’t make me love her or read further. But it does sound as if I should move onto her later works as the quotes here are excellent.
I really need to go back and read Dusty Answer at some point. One for my wishlist, I think, as it seems to be a favourite…
Excellent review. You’ve given me so many good books for my tbr!
Thanks. Good to hear you’ve found something of interest. :)
I liked your review which reminded me of the passion Olivia felt for Rollo in the novel. I don’t think you mentioned the termination which was pretty ahead of its time and really jarred me when I read the book.
Thanks. Yes, that must have been incredibly shocking in its day. (It’s the bit the American publishers wanted to cut from the US edition, but Lehmann — to her credit — stood firm.)
Lovely review. It is quite some time since I read this, I loved it. At the time more than Invitation to the Waltz, but then read Invitation again, and liked it so much more. I am very tempted to read Weather in the Streets again soon. Lehmann is so good at portraying character and unpicking all those complex emotions.
Thanks, Ali. I think the two central characters are so brilliantly drawn here. We really get a sense of how devastating the relationship must have been for Olivia, especially towards the end. It all felt incredibly realistic to me… Where would you suggest I go next with Lehmann? Dusty Answer or one of her others? (The Echoing Grove has come up a few times on Twitter.)
The Echoing Grove is excellent, another exploration of very complex relationships. The characters, like those in Dusty Answer aren’t always likeable.
Oh, great. That sounds excellent. I was just saying to Catherine Taylor, over on Twitter, how lovely it would be to see a proper revival of Lehmann’s work. Stylish editions, new intros etc. Some of the current covers don’t do this author any favours whatsoever…
I love RL, she writes so well about relationships, which sounds so basic and banal. She takes emotions seriously, but is also matter-of-fact about them. I don’t feel I’m doing a good job of explaining what I like about her! My two favourites are The Echoing Grove and The Ballad and the Source (which is rarely mentioned!). B and S is very funny, which is not tbh something you would say about her other books. (it is also very long and involved with a strange structure). I think she is the only writer that I absolutely love who ISN’T very funny…
No, not at all! I think it’s hard to capture the subtlety of her work in just a few words. She seems to perfectly capture that feeling of being swept up in affair, a sense of slipping out of time, somewhat disconnected from the surrounding world. And I love the way she moves so seamlessly between a first-person narrative and third person here, that sense of interiority alongside the observations. The Echoing Grove keeps coming up in the recommendations, so I’ll definitely check it out. The Ballad and the Source sounds interesting too. Many thanks for the tips!
Beautiful review that captures the powerlessness of one who loves too much. Is Olivia in any subsequent books of RL?
Thanks! I think she catches that feeling so well – and she does it with the lightest of touches. As far as I know, these are the only two books to feature Olivia Curtis: Invitation to the Waltz and Weather in the Streets. Unless another commenter knows otherwise…
I’m so glad you liked this so much as I have both novels on my piles. I have read her before and liked her very much. The comparison Taylor/Woolf is apt. Maybe there’s a little bit of Elizabeth Jane Howard there too.
Yes, definitely! Funnily enough, I’ve just been listening to the Backlisted podcast on this book, and Elizabeth Day (their guest for this episode) mentioned EJH as a point of comparison. (They also both had affairs with Cecil Day-Lewis, just to complicate things further…)
Ha. They ha a few things in common then.
Yes! I think these experiences have seeped through into their writing…
I have got a lot of catching up to do – Lehmann, Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Taylor the list just keeps getting longer, all brilliant sounding and I can’t believe I haven’t read any of them!
Oh, you have so much to look forward to, just across those three writers alone! Edith Wharton is remarkably good. When it comes to exposing the hypocrisies of the upper echelons of society, she’s second to none.
Invitation was one of the first VMCs that I read, if I’m remembering correctly. Either way, this pair made me decide that Lehmann was going to be one of my MustReadEverything authors but, since then, I think I’ve only read two others. They are all sitting here, so patiently, but I really must get to them and, by now, I think I’d be happy to reread the instigators. You’ve quoted so many lovely bits from the two of them. The only aspect of this story that I remember was that sense of frustrated longing, her inability to connect with her love, that agonizing WAIT, which you’ve quoted above. It’s so well sketched for us.
I can well believe that! There is so much pain in this novel – the internal conflict Olivia feels between desperately wanting to call Rollo vs trying to hold off from doing so (partly because of the risk involved). I also really wanted to quote something from the meeting between Olivia and Rollo’s mother (the one towards the close of the novel) but in the end it felt like too much of a spoiler to do so. (Ditto the section that caused all the controversy at the time of publication.) As I’ve said to others over the past couple of days, it’s definitely a book that would stand up to a second reading…
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