‘Anxiety brushed her, the faintest breath, there and gone again…He’s not young…So certain, so undiffident … Expert.’
-Rosamond Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets, p.123.
Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets explores both the language of marriage and the language of desire alongside one another and in doing so it renders marriage as unfulfilling. Olivia, the protagonist, initially idealises a marriage with Rollo; she thinks, ‘Of course I had dreams of being Rollo’s wife’ (1). However, there are subtleties within the language which deconstruct Olivia’s hope. Her married sister, Kate, is the scolding and authoritative voice that asks ‘‘Still smoking like a chimney?’ […] through pins, beginning to cut.’ (p.31) It is no coincidence that Kate is undertaking a traditionally domestic task whilst ‘Olivia [had just] flung herself down in the basket chair and lit a gasper’ (p.30). They are the antithesis of one another. Kate’s questioning, made more aggressive with the placing of pins in her mouth, shows her to be cutting across Olivia’s new mode of femininity whilst simultaneously cutting through the fabric. Olivia later describes ‘Kate with her conventional, her sheltered successful life, tied to her husband by children and habit and affection and respect’ (p. 37). Olivia’s repetition of adjectives and verbs associated with restriction and routine reveals how she sees Kate’s married life as mundane. Similarly, when Olivia refuses to have some soup, Kate says ‘‘Look at me,’ […] ‘I’m drinking mine up’’ (p.51) to which Mrs Curtis, their mother, replies, ‘Yes’ with ‘[a]pproval and exasperation […] ‘‘[y]ou’re a sensible girl, thank goodness’’ (p.51). Mrs Curtis approves of Kate’s sensibility which in turn groups them together and makes Olivia an ‘other’ figure. The anonymous third person narrator who crops up in between Olivia’s narrative goes on in free indirect discourse, mocking Mrs Curtis: ‘Kate, bless her, had slipped with no trouble into a suitable marriage within easy motoring distance […] a mother of four fine healthy children she had established herself beyond question in all eyes.’ (p. 52). It reveals, through the excessive use of ellipses and punctuation, how Mrs Curtis cannot articulate the lives of Olivia and her brother James because they exist outside of marriage: ‘now that Olivia…now that James…phases we hope; phases, we hope; phases, of course […] Hush…Pass on.’ (p.52). Marriage is Mrs Curtis’ ideal, but the adjectives used, ‘suitable’ and ‘healthy’, resemble those in Olivia’s perception of Kate’s marriage in that they show an absence of passion and desire. The text therefore uses both Olivia’s narrative and the third person narrator to suggest marriage to be emotionally unfulfilling and uneventful.
This view is further explored in the way that Olivia’s desirous language towards Rollo contrasts with the language of marriage. After their second meeting in the novel, the third person narrator observes how Rollo ‘pulled her towards him and began to kiss her […] [h]e went on kissing her, whispering to her, floating her away.’ (p.123) The multiple clauses along with the poetic image of ‘[n]ames, faces, times and places slipped off into the reel of darkness’ (p.123) reveal a quickening of pace and suggest how desire leads to a loss of certainty and an inability to focus on anything other than the present moment. This ambivalence contrasts with the language of marriage which is weighted down by familiar and conventional ways to describe it. The narrative continues: ‘Anxiety brushed her, the faintest breath, there and gone again…He’s not young…So certain, so undiffident … Expert.’ (p.123) Whilst Judy Simons argues that ‘[t]he textual ellipses highlights the fissures between imagination and reality as well as pointing up the connective emptiness of the experience’, I suggest that the repetition of ellipses here, shows how Olivia cannot articulate this desire because it exists outside of marriage. (2) There is no set vocabulary to describe the situation she finds herself in and this reveals an inadequacy of language to describe desire because unlike marriage, it is abstract. This novel resonates with the argument Stella Browne put forward at the British Society for Sex Psychology in 1915: that ‘the realities of a woman’s sexual life have been greatly obscured by the lack of any sexual vocabulary’. 3 This lack of language explains why later in the novel, Olivia uses cinematic techniques to describe the couple’s closeness on holiday. Olivia narrates their trip: ‘rivers rolling their turbulent, thick, grey snow-waters through Innsbruck, Salzburg; spacious white peasant houses with their painted fronts and shutters and rich wooden balconies covered with vines and geraniums’ (p.210). Olivia’s narrative is a series of images which resemble cinematic sequences and again suggest the inability of language to express desire. This comparison between the way in which desire is articulated, and the recycled language of marriage again suggests the text’s critique of the domestic situation; it renders marriage mundane and deconstructs it as a goal.
Featured Image: Front Cover of Virago Press’s 2006 edition of Rosamond Lehmann The Weather in the Streets. See Rosamond Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets (London: Virago Press, 2006).
1. Rosamond Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets (London: Virago Press, 2006), p.157. All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically.
2. Judy Simons, Rosamond Lehmann (Horndon, Northcote House Publishers, 2011), p. 50.
3. Stella Brown, as quoted in Judy Simons, Rosamond Lehmann (Horndon, Northcote House Publishers, 2011), p.47.
Written by Estelle Luck.
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