The front cover of my Virago edition of Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets prominently displays Carmen Callil’s comment that “The Weather in the Streets was our Bridget Jones’s Diary.” This is one of the most disingenuous marketing moves I have seen: anyone led by this to expect some frothy fun along the lines of Helen Fielding’s clever, witty, insubstantial comedy will be startled (as I was) by Lehmann’s dark, drifting narrative of erotic infatuation, disappointment, and psychic pain.
In the context of her introduction, Callil’s line makes a bit more sense: “Clubbing may have replaced the wild parties of 1930s bohemia that constitute Olivia’s world, but the pangs of the heart are the same.” Still, what is emphatically not the same is Lehmann’s refusal to let either us or her characters enjoy the fantasy of true, if forbidden, love. Bridget lusts after a cad but learns better and is rewarded by happiness with her Darcy. Olivia lusts after a cad (though Rollo isn’t quite the shallow playboy Daniel Cleaver is) but all along has a hovering awareness that their relationship is self-limiting: he makes no promises, expresses no intention–not even any desire–to leave his wilting wife. Their relationship isolates Olivia literally as well as emotionally, due to the necessity of keeping it secret; much of the novel expresses the psychological strain this puts on Olivia, especially as she’s astute enough to have no dreams of a future with Rollo to sustain her. Their idyll has already begun to wear and fade when she realizes she is pregnant. Unable to reach Rollo, and unsure anyway about whether she wants him to know and be involved, Olivia broods and suffers and finally resolves to end the pregnancy. She becomes very ill from the abortifacients she tries but they don’t ultimately work, so she asks her flighty roommate if she knows a doctor who could help out ‘a friend.’ Their conversation has no place in Bridget Jones’s world:
Etty was silent.
‘He won’t take any one unless he knows who’s sent them,’ she said at last. ‘You see, it’s fearfully dangerous for him. If you’re caught it means prison . . . in spite of his being, of course, a public benefactor really. I suppose he’s saved regiments of unfortunate erring women from ruin . . . ‘
‘You mean,’ said Olivia, ‘ he might refuse to do it – if she just went out of the blue?’
‘You could give my name, I suppose . . . ‘ Etty stirred. Her slightly protruding eyes between curly doll’s lashes became fixed with a certain wild blankness on her cousin. ‘Only it was so long ago . . .’
‘Did you go to him, Ett?’
‘My dear, once. Wasn’t it shattering?’ The colour came up in her fragile egg-face, painfully, from neck to brow. She laughed, rather shakily. ‘The wages of sin, darling.’
Amazing. A shock, definitely. That narrow miniature body, that, too, trapped, subjected to the common risks and consequences of female humanity. It only showed, for the hundredth time, how little one knew about anybody, particularly one’s nearest . . . Seeing only Etty’s marionette surface, allowing one’s intuition and mere circumstantial evidence to decide that never – however much she might dally with preliminaries – would she have brought herself to face ultimate physical issues.
‘Did you go alone?’ Olivia asks a bit later. ‘Well, no,’ Etty replies; ‘Mona was just a saint – she simply arranged everything. You see, she’d been to him just before, poor darling.’ ‘Mona too!’ reflects Olivia. ‘She began to feel fatally cosy and consoled, the seals of arduous secrecy, of solitary endurance melting, melting . . .’ and she is tempted to confession (‘Enter into the feminine conspiracy, be received with tact, sympathy, pills and hot-water bottles, we’re all in the same boat’) but she’s too anxious about revealing her affair and so this consolation, like Rollo, remains out of reach and Olivia endures her appointment alone. Lehmann’s account is quietly harrowing, not just because of Olivia’s physical trauma, but because, to her own surprise, though she recovers physically she is haunted by her decision: ‘I’ve never stopped minding – and longing for it. I suppose it’s Dame Nature’s revenge; one’s body cheated . . .’
In the end there’s no baby, there’s no Rollo, there’s no consolation prize in the form of another, more deserving, lover. In fact, throughout the novel Olivia cherishes an idealized love for another man, Simon, also already married, and far from emerging to provide her with a happily-ever-after (no matter the cost to others), he dies of typhoid just as she is finally breaking up with Rollo. Yes, Olivia goes to some wild bohemian parties, but under the circumstances they aren’t much fun, especially the last one where everyone we know who’s there is mostly worried about how Simon’s widow is doing. Bridget Jones’s Diary is the quintessential ‘chick lit’ novel, with its cheerfully facile problems and solutions and its mantra of loving Bridget “just the way she is” (now that’s a fantasy that puts Bridget’s erotic ones in the shade, isn’t it?). The Weather in the Streets has a vaguely similar protagonist and plot structure, but its account of “the pangs of the heart” is entirely more cruel and disillusioning. There’s love, but it brings no guarantees: ‘It was only that the word love was capable of so many different interpretations.’
For me, that was the first surprise about The Weather in the Streets, then: that it so ruthlessly reduces its romantic story to such stark elements. The second surprise was Lehmann’s style. Most of the parts fluidly and a bit unnervingly combine third-person narration with Olivia’s own perspective, not through Austen-like free indirect discourse, but by drifting into first person and then out again with no signals:
She glanced at him. ‘I think that was the last time I saw you too . . . ‘
‘Do you? We didn’t speak.’
‘No, we didn’t.’
She looked away. A bubble of tension seemed to develop and explode between them. He watched me from the other side of the room. I thought once or twice we looked at each other, but he was too busy, caught up in his own world, to come near: sleek, handsome-looking in his wedding clothes, being an usher . . . I was still in the chrysalis; engaged unimpressively, without a Times announcement, to Ivor, and my clothes were wrong: a subsidiary guest, doing crowd work on the outskirts, feeling inferior, up from the country.
‘I followed her career in the Tatler,’ she said. She smiled . . .
One section is completely in first-person, which I think confirms the purposefulness of Lehmann’s approach here, though I admit I haven’t figured out quite what the purpose could be when first-person seems best suited to the book’s preoccupation with Olivia’s perspective and emotions. Is this as unusual a strategy as it seems to me? Of course I’m aware of novels that intersperse different forms of narration (like the alternation between Esther and the third-person prophetic narrator in Bleak House), but I can’t remember another one that drifts in this way between the two.
One thing that Lehmann can do in the third-person sections that wouldn’t really work in first-person is long passages of descriptive prose. Many of these are highly evocative, and also, bound up as they are in our vicarious experience of Olivia’s feelings, freighted with emotional resonance in a way that reminded me (in effect, not in particulars of style) of Bowen’s The Heat of the Day:
London in the scorched irritable airless end of day was an extension of the mind’s loathing and oppression. Petrol fumes were nausea; the traffic a fatuous, reluctant, laborious progress towards a pointless destination; the picture-houses, with mock-oriental fronts proclaiming within a blend of cool darkness and hot passions, were tawdriness, satiety, cynical sham and cheapness. The main thoroughfares looked empty and discouraged. Only in the by-streets, where mews and slum just touch, just unaggressively nudge the more classy residential quarters, groups of children, submerged in the fuller season, had come up and overflown upon the pavements: London’s strident August undergrowth, existing like cactuses in waterless stone; shouting, running, taking communal licks at ice-cream cornets; deprecated by the charitable passer-by, wish-transferred with spade and bucket to the seaside, where it would be better for it them to be . . .
In many ways, the places in the novel were more vivid to me than the characters, despite the pervasiveness of Olivia’s consciousness — Olivia herself, really, remained the most elusive, and this is where Lehmann lost me a bit. Olivia is completely preoccupied with herself and with Rollo, and in both cases in an entirely ruminating, sensual way. She has no other commitments: her job is of little interest, she is politically unengaged, she doesn’t read books except when she’s sickest, when she turns to “her old Oxford copies of Victorian novelists” (I can’t imagine finding Villette comforting when in her situation, but Vanity Fair seems apt enough, if, again, hardly comforting). I didn’t care much what happened to her and Rollo, because their whole affair is based on the shallowest kind of infatuation. “You’re so young,” he whispers to her as they kiss for the first time; “You’re like a young, young girl.” And she accepts the terms he sets: secrecy, furtive outings, expensive gifts, no promises. Olivia’s emotions are, indeed, described and even recreated with great immediacy and poignancy, but I’m impatient with making so much of feelings, as if erotic love and its presence or absence is what matters most. Probably this feeling that Olivia should get up and do something useful with herself is the result of reading so much Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby–even though Sarah Burton is struck by Cupid’s arrow as well, her love is more complex and her life is dedicated to much more than moping about it.