Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In the 1980’s, interest in Rosamond Lehmann’s work increased considerably because feminist critics found in her a pioneering spirit whose work is vitally concerned with the status of women. Judith Earle in Dusty Answer ruminated on the attitudes women encountered at Cambridge, saying that the atmosphere there was one of dislike and distrust. In The Weather in the Streets, Lehmann casts Olivia, who is trying to be an independent woman, in contrast to a society in which men dominate. The men in the novel are either ill (both Olivia and Rollo’s fathers), weak and somewhat deceptive (Rollo), homosexual (Adrian), or dying (Simon). On the other hand, the women in the book are strong and stable, particularly as they mature.

The notable women writers who were Rosamond Lehmann’s contemporaries in Britain were, like Lehmann, much affected by the works of Henry James and in particular by his depiction of women in such novels as Daisy Miller (1879), Washington Square (1881), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), and What Maisie Knew (1897). Virginia Woolf wrote of women who often were much more restrained than Lehmann’s protagonists, but she also wrote the feminist tract A Room of One’s Own (1929), which was a revolutionary book in its time.

Lehmann’s other contemporaries such as Elizabeth Bowen, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Rebecca West were focusing on women in such novels as Bowen’s To the North (1932) and The House in Paris (1935), Compton-Burnett’s A House and Its Head (1935) and Daughters and Sons (1937), and West’s The Harsh Voice (1935) and The Thinking Reed (1936).

Of all the protagonists in Lehmann’s novels about mature women in love—A Note in Music (1930), The Weather in the Streets, and The Echoing Grove (1953)—Olivia stands out as the best-developed protagonist, as a woman who is learning to fend for herself because she is forced to fend for herself. Like most Lehmann protagonists, Olivia ends up disillusioned. Lehmann appears to be saying that perhaps disillusionment is a concomitant of the kind of independence that Olivia is developing.