Rosamond Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets, Pt 2
Last time I considered why Olivia persists with a lover (I’ll call him X to avoid spoilers) who always places his wife first. She seems passively, unreflectingly to accept this ambivalent position, because she’s in love with him. ‘The Other Woman doesn’t make too many demands’, she thinks at one point.
Later in the novel she’s warned off X by a close relative of his, who’s found out they’re having an affair: ‘Don’t waste yourself’, she’s told…
It’s hard to sympathise with Olivia’s wilful submissiveness. People who commented on the novel after my first post yesterday tended to be put off by this.
Early in the relationship her interior monologue reveals of her view of X that ‘he’s a bit weak and in a muddle…’
Olivia appears able to articulate in her thoughts the harsh reality of this affair: he’s unworthy of her, and she’ll never supplant his beautiful wife. Then she dismisses such thoughts.
When they’ve first consummated the affair, the lover says approvingly:
“You’re the only woman who doesn’t go on about things. You leave people alone. It’s so refreshing.”
That’s how he talks.
This is how she thinks about what he’s said:
I’ve got everything…He’s my lover…It was enough. Enough belongs to me…Perhaps not possessive like some women, I’d think, smug. Congratulating myself, saying: “I don’t think I’ve ever been very jealous. I suppose it’s not my line.”
That smug complacency passes and she suffers pangs of jealousy about his wife. So why does this apparently intelligent, no longer young and innocent woman put up with a man who seems so transparently to be using her, taking advantage of her compliance?
When he gives her an expensive ring for her birthday, she’s able to see that
It said nothing about us, just brilliant, unimpeachable, a public ring, saying only with what degree of luxury he could afford to stamp a woman.
Ouch. Her acceptance of the situation – of his patronising swagger – is bewildering. Then he gives her a less expensive ring, and she’s charmed, he’s redeemed. He always is. He’s charming. And very rich. Used to getting what he wants. He even utters the ultimate cheat’s excuse, when Olivia challenges him about deceiving his wife: ‘What people don’t know about can’t hurt them, can it? I’m not hurting her as long as she doesn’t find out, am I?’
Olivia says she’d feel worried in his position (or does she mean the wife’s?)
‘I do see how difficult it is for you,’ I said, awfully understanding.
That sounds like self-criticism. She is aware of her illogical acceptance of things. Then his reply:
‘Women are dreadful creatures. They will want to have their cake and eat it too. It’s what they call being honest. If my wife had a lover I hope to God she wouldn’t see fit to tell me so. I call this confession and all-above-board business indecent.’
He talks in clichés, his selfishness is breathtaking. So too, surely, is Olivia’s complicity here? Olivia replies:
‘That’s because you’d feel it was such rotten luck for the other chap to be given away’, I said. ‘You’d mind that almost as much as the unfaithfulness. It wouldn’t be cricket…You don’t like women really, do you?’
‘There’s one or two things I quite like about them,’ he said in that beginning voice, kissing my ear. [My emphasis]
So. Homosexuality ripples through this narrative, as it did Invitation, which I wrote about recently HERE. Could it be that these lovers aren’t quite as heterosexual as they appear?
Shortly before this, soon after that first consummation, Olivia had doubts about whether this was love. She thinks of her closest friends, Anna and Simon:
I love Simon; but that’s different again, never to sleep together, that’s certain…All the same, just then I thought: I love Simon, not [X] – thinking I’d done something against Simon somehow…it was mad of course…
So Simon is gay? At least, unattainable. The lovers spend a weekend in Simon’s country cottage with friends:
Colin and [X] hit it off from the word go…
Olivia’s friend Colin is usually melancholy, but with X ‘His face was alight’ as he frolics in the river, diving from X’s shoulders.
Afterwards, dressing, they stood in the sun by a thorn bush, towels around their waists, lighting cigarettes for each other, slipping their shirts vaguely over their roughened heads, their clear, hard, square-breasted chests – deep in talk, not hurrying, forgetting the rest of us.
This looks very like homoerotic flirtation.
Later, X complacently dismisses the news that Colin is a psychoanalyst (analysis is ‘just an excuse for gutlessness’ in his view). He has ‘too much in the brain-pan, I expect, to settle down’. So it’s not Colin’s intellect he’s attracted to. Olivia’s thoughts on this idiocy:
For the first time I realised it’s no use telling him really what people are like. He doesn’t care to inquire…If I weren’t in love with him, would this matter rather? Might I get irritated? Bored?…[Ellipses Lehmann’s]
Then speaking aloud she feigns happiness with him.
So: she isn’t entirely oblivious of the defects in her anti-intellectual, feckless lover. He may or may not be a philanderer, and a little dim. He may not be entirely keen on women. Why does Olivia stick with him? Is she attracted to men who are unable to reciprocate her feelings? Is this her way of escaping commitment to a banal, conventional partnership with a man?
Another possibility: Olivia is an aspiring writer herself. During the course of the novel, especially when the errant lover goes missing with his wife (or slaughtering wildlife in Scotland with equally boorish gentry), Olivia tries to write again. And fails. She can’t finish anything.
Is the lover then a convenient excuse for Olivia not to try to produce any art herself? She lives in a semi-bohemian world in London, with friends who are photographers, artists, writers and left-wing intellectuals. She likes their company. Appears to aspire to an artist’s creativity.
Perhaps she finds safety in this doomed obsession with X, for whom she neglects her writing. He’s therefore a convenient excuse for inactivity. By committing to him, she’s taking the easier, less risky option. OK, she won’t have domestic bliss, children, a constant partner. But neither will she have to confront the baleful truth if she doesn’t really have the talent to be a writer.
Passivity then as the lesser of two evils. X, the risky, self-centred, dim-witted lover, as a kind of emotional/artistic tranquilliser? A substitute for taking the real risk.
Once again I’d commend blogger Heavenali’s take on this and many more of Lehmann’s works HERE