“I’m afraid of nothing except being bored.” (Greta Garbo as Camille, 1936)

Way back in the mists of time, 12-18 April to be exact, Kaggsy and Simon ran the 1936 Club. Although my reading has recovered somewhat, my blogging is still non-existent. So although I’d read two novels from the year, I failed miserably to write on them at all. This is my much belated attempt to recover lost ground…

I picked the two novels simply because they were the right year and in the TBR pile, but as it turned out they were thematically linked, both dealing with extramarital affairs. Spoiler alert: don’t do it kids, it causes misery. Yet although both novels show the pain caused by the affairs, they are not moralising or didactic. Rather, they are well-observed character studies of people looking for happiness in the wrong places.

The Weather in the Streets is Rosamond Lehmann’s sequel to Invitation to the Waltz (1932), which in an entirely unhelpful way I hope to blog on in a few weeks. I read the novels in order, but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy the second.

The Weather in the Streets continues the story of Olivia Curtis, now in her late twenties and divorced, living an impoverished bohemian existence with her cousin Etty in London. When her father is taken ill, she catches the train back to the family home and finds herself sitting opposite Rollo Spencer, who was kind to her at the titular dance in the first novel.

“He burst out laughing; and she was struck afresh by what she remembered about him years ago: the physical ease and richness flowing out through voice and gestures, a bountifulness of nature that drew one, irrespective of what he had to offer.”

I thought that was so clever, the capturing of a realisation of physical attraction alongside a foreshadowing of what will follow: “irrespective of what he had to offer”. What Rollo can offer is very little at all, given that he’s married and has entire life away from Olivia, separated by class and circumstance, that she can never be part of.

“She looked away. A bubble of tension seemed to develop and explode between them.”

This tension is acted on and the two begin to see each other. I was particularly struck by the passage describing Olivia’s feelings after they first sleep together. Throughout the novel Lehmann switches between first and third person and here we are entirely with Olivia:

‘Then it was afterwards. He said, whispering:

‘I’m your lover…’

I thought about it. I had a lover. But nothing seemed changed. It wasn’t disappointing exactly…The word is: unmomentous…Not wonderful – yet…I couldn’t quite look at him, but it was friendly and smiling. His cheek looked coarse-grained in the light of the lamp. I saw the hairs in his nostrils…I was afraid I’d been disappointing for him….Thinking: Aren’t I in love with him after all then? …We hadn’t said love once, either of us…Thinking: It’s happened too quickly, this’ll be the end…”

Depicting the ordinariness of it all is a brave move but I thought it was the strength of this novel. It’s not romantic, it’s not two people being swept away, it’s also not sordid or bitter. Its individuals who feel a connection trying to build happiness within their unsatisfactory lives, in a deeply misguided way.

The Weather in the Streets is also excellent in its depiction of the loneliness of an affair. The title is from a scene where Olivia is sat inside Rollo’s car, looking out from behind the window. This separation exists in all her relationships to an extent: she lives in a society where emotions occur out of sight and you certainly don’t impose your feelings on others by daring to discuss them or letting social mores slip for a minute. For example, when your husband might be dying:

“The lurking threats of change, of disaster, retreated before Mother’s impregnable normality. Rather pale, rather drawn and dark about the eyes, but neat, but fresh, erect, composed as ever, preoccupied with the supervision – in retrospect – of the arrival, checking up on detail with nearly all her customary minuteness and relish…Mother was being wonderful.”

The affair exacerbates the loneliness it is attempting to relieve. This is in especially sharp relief when Olivia has to experience an (illegal) abortion entirely on her own – finding the money, visiting the doctor, dealing with the aftermath.

Apparently some contemporary critics thought Rollo was a total bounder. I didn’t read it that way; I thought he was a weak man who has always done entirely what is expected of him and then wonders one day why on earth he isn’t happy. Rather than reflect on his life and try and work out who he is, he carries on doing entirely what would be expected by having an affair.

“He said more than once, ‘Darling, don’t care too much about me, will you?’

‘Don’t you want me to love you then?’ I said.

‘Yes, yes I do terribly. Only you mustn’t sort of think too much of me, will you? I’m not much good, and mind you remember it. Don’t expect a lot of me will you? I’ve never been any use to anyone…’”

It is desperately sad but Lehmann never suggests the story is a tragic one. People endure, but unfortunately so do their unmet needs for intimacy, acceptance and love.

“’Don’t be frightened.’ I did love him, then. It was what one had always longed for, never expected to have – someone appearing quietly at need, saying that – someone for oneself…”

I had less tolerance for the protagonists of Christina Stead’s The Beauties and Furies. They were vacuous and self-obsessed and I was pleased to leave them behind. It was Stead’s excellent writing that both made them so believably unbearable and kept me going to the end of the novel.

The novel opens with Elvira Western on a train to Paris, having left her husband Paul for her young student lover Oliver (the lover’s names are similar and I did wonder if for two such vain people the attraction was how they saw themselves reflected in one another…)

She sits with a lace buyer called Marpurgo, little knowing that he will manipulate how her affair plays out.  He will exploit the very obvious faultlines in the relationship, but it never feels like much of a loss, as from the start Stead casts an ironic eye over the romance:

“ ‘You won’t have any more trouble – in your life! Think of that: here’s someone who loves you dearer than all the world. Put your head on my shoulder…’

It gave her a crick in the neck.”

Oliver sees himself as a Marxist intellectual, although nothing he does really demonstrates either of these aspirations. Elvira’s indolence is repeatedly emphasised and she cannot join Oliver in his pursuit of ideas if she is not warm, rested and fed, such as when he takes her to see Faust:

“she had not liked it although they had a box to themselves, because she was hungry.”

Neither seem particularly invested in the affair, more the idea of the affair. Oliver sleeps with lace-maker Coromandel and actress Blanche, both a contrast to Elvira as they display a degree of self-determinism, not that he’s interested. Elvira meanwhile, seems to just potter about. It’s mentioned that she gave up a promising education, but she seems disinclined to do anything, as Elvira’s husband observes:

“he works in the archives and reads her the political news, and she does nothing at all. She sits in cafes.”

When Elvira becomes pregnant, they both know they are not able to care for a baby, but they also vacillate between keeping it or taking the same decision as Olivia in The Weather in the Streets:

“This second marriage would be even worse than the first, because she had to cope with a brilliant young man’s impatience and disappointment. She said to herself babyishly:

‘I want a baby and a comfortable home: I don’t want to be part of the intelligentsia.’”

Meanwhile Oliver ponders:

“I am sending my seed from generation unto generation, a man full of humility.”

Spare me.

In many ways The Beauties and Furies is a novel of ideas. The sitting around in cafes arguing about politics, psychology and society gives plenty of scope for Stead to explore issues through her characters and it really captures some of the early twentieth century concerns.

“ ‘The real thought of the middle-class woman,’ complained Elvira, ‘is the problem of economic freedom and sexual freedom: they can’t be attained at the same time. We are not free. The slave of the kitchen and bedroom.’”

What stops it being overly weighty is the high degree of scepticism shown towards Elvira and Oliver, and ultimately I read The Beauties and Furies as a satire on bohemian pretentiousness and self-delusion. I’m not sure that’s correct but certainly Stead turns a sharp eye on conceit and hubris. She can be absolutely scathing towards her characters, such as this instance of Elvira becoming distressed:

“her prolific ego, masked in pathos, had them in its tendrils.”

Ouch! Although I couldn’t love The Beauties and Furies I still found much to enjoy. The incisive, well-observed writing did whet my appetite for more Stead – I have Cotter’s England in the TBR and I’m hoping for slightly less intellectual exposition and a bit more character-driven story.

Next I’m hoping to take part in Ali’s Daphne du Maurier reading week, which is running 10-16 May. Will I manage a post for it before the end of July? Watch this space… 😀

To end, I adore Greta Garbo, which is why I picked a quote from Camille to head the post, and why I’ll end the same way:

32 thoughts on ““I’m afraid of nothing except being bored.” (Greta Garbo as Camille, 1936)

  1. Good reviews. Weather in the Streets sounds interesting. I especially like this comment: “Depicting the ordinariness of it all is a brave move but I thought it was the strength of this novel. It’s not romantic, it’s not two people being swept away, it’s also not sordid or bitter.” Well said.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It feels like very bad manners to post so late! I’m definitely going to try and get back on track so I’m posting during the actual weeks…fingers crossed…

      This was the first Stead I’ve read and I had no idea she took such an ironic view, but it was very entertaining.

      Liked by 1 person

      • No, not bad manners at all, I think it’s a nice way to keep the theme going. Plus I was a bit overloaded with work in the actual week so am still catching up with reading the reviews!
        I don’t think I had heard of Stead before your review, but am off to track this one down now. It sounds very much like something I’d enjoy. So as I said on twitter – better late than never ❤️

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely to see a post from you pop up in my reader! 😀 The first book sounds interesting – the second one sounds totally dreadful! I hate all the characters already and hope they came to a truly miserable end. If you could promise me they both get run over by a truck, I’d consider reading the last chapter… 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks FF! They’re both excellent but yes, the characters in TB&F are totally appalling. I think I could have predicted you’d have no truck with them (ha – apologies!), except the juggernaut kind which I have to break it to you. makes no appearance in the novel. Sorry about that…

      Like

  3. Pingback: The Beauties and Furies, by Christina Stead | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  4. Hello again!
    I’ve added your review as a link from mine. I hosted Christina Stead Week in 2016, and I’m always on the lookout for reviews of her work. I love her spikiness. (Is that a word? It applies to a lot of satirical women writers IMO).

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I have been meaning to re-read Weather in the Streets for ages, I really loved it the first time around and have read Invitation to the Waltz twice. I think Lehmann portrays the relationship between Olivia and Rollo perfectly. I haven’t read anything by Christina Stead, well I got a few pages into one a couple of years ago and quickly abandoned it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Weather in the Streets is such a subtle portrayal of a relationship. I’m sure it would stand up to re-reading. I’d like to re-read Invitation to the Waltz too, knowing what I know from the sequel.

      Christina Stead is spiky, as Lisa said. I think she’s one of those authors you have to be in the right mood for!

      Like

  6. Lovely to spot your blog in my reader! I’ve not read the Stead and read The Weather in the Streets far too long ago to remember the detail but I do still have an impression of perceptive writing. A brave book, as you say, particulary in portraying abortion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Susan! Yes its very frank in dealing with its subject matter, I was surprised given how long ago it was written. I suppose nowadays you’d get more detail, but it’s really not needed. The portrayal of the sexual relationship and the abortion was clear-sighted and very honest.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great reviews and a reminder of the risks of taking the train 😳 I always intend to read more of Lehmann but it hasn’t happened yet. Weather on the Streets will be high on the list when I finally get there. I tried Letty Fox from Stead years ago and abandoned it very quickly. Couldn’t get on with her style at all. Nice to see you posting Mme B 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re so right Sandra, train journeys can certainly add some colour to life 😀

      I hope you enjoy TWOTS when you get to it – its so well written. I’m becoming a real fan of Lehmann.

      I do want to try more Stead but I’ll remember what you say about Letty Fox!

      It’s really nice to be posting, thanks Sandra 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Really lovely to see a blog post from you today, Madame Bibi, and such an interesting one too. I recall being struck by the progressiveness of The Weather in the Streets, not just in terms of subject matter but the style as well. It felt quite modernist, almost Woolfian at times – and the way it captured the desolation of a doomed love affair was quite brilliant.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Jacqui!

      Yes, its very progressive, I was so surprised. The shifting viewpoints and first/third person narrative is very modernist and is so smoothly done, it never feels laboured.

      It is a brilliant novel, so subtle and as you say, capturing real desolation between two people.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This is such an interesting post, I’ve been meaning to read Lehmann for ages and although I’ve never heard of Christina Stead, the writing being so good that it kept you reading about such odious people is high praise! The Garbo is such an added bonus!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lehmann is so great, I hope you enjoy her when you get to her Jane. Stead I think is a bit more of a mixed experience, if comments on this post are anything to go by!

      I love Garbo, glad you’re a fan too. Finding that clip has made me want to watch the whole film 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Lovely choices Madame B, and so glad you could take part! Lehmann is, of course, excellent! As for Stead, I’ve read Letty Fox and really struggled. I don’t know whether it’s the characters or the writing, but in the end I just lost the will to live – I covered it for Shiny New books and was probably kinder than the book deserved. I was too long and I couldn’t relate, and I must admit I haven’t felt the need to read her since. But I see I am not alone… ;D

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kaggsy, I’m sorry I was so ridiculously late with my post! But I love the Club events so I really wanted to take part 🙂

      Lehmann is so wonderful, I’m becoming a confirmed fan. You’re definitely not alone with Stead 😀 I will try her again as I found plenty to like, but I’m going in with managed expectations!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Better late than never! “Never” would be me… I didn’t make it for the 1936 Club. I seem to be missing every second one, so hopefully I’ll hit the next one!
    What fun that the themes in your books turned out to match!
    I loved your line about posting the May event by July! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I read that Stead novel last year for a month in Paris and loved the descriptions of it, which soon proved to be ironic, given how their relationship spools outward. Afterward, I watched an interview on Kanopy (a streaming service which offers an unusual amount of international material, available here via our public libraries in Toronto) with her, which is apparently one of the very few of its kind (she eschewed that kind of public activity) which added a lot to my thinking about her way of writing and telling stories. I’ve got a little bit here, at the end of the post, and a link to the show. if you’re curious: http://www.buriedinprint.com/return-trips-here-and-elsewhere/
    Good luck with DDM week. I’ve only just pulled my book from the shelf this morning! Yikes.

    Like

    • Oh how interesting – thanks! I’ll definitely take a look. She did evoke Paris so well.

      At the moment I’m tentatively optimistic that I’ll manage DDM week on time…fingers crossed. Hope you do too – happy reading!

      Like

  13. Weather in the Streets was on my enormous list of possibles, and it sounds so interesting and good. I don’t remember a lot about Invitation to the Waltz, but I’m sure the necessary details would come back to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Pingback: “One should always act from one’s inner sense of rhythm.” (Rosamond Lehmann) | madame bibi lophile recommends

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