In the 1980s, I discovered Virago Modern Classics. The American editions had black covers, not green, but the cover art was identical.
As a feminist, I was thrilled to find these reprints of lost women’s novels, though Dial Press, Virago’s American publisher, published only a few. One of my first Viragos was Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets: the attractive cover showed a fascinating detail from Still Life at Bedtime by Barbara Balmer. In this skillful, engrossing novel, first published in 1936, Lehmann describes the desolation of a young woman painfully in love with a married man.
The impoverished heroine, Olivia Curtis, a low-paid assistant to a photographer, is separated from her husband but does not bother to get divorced. She lives in London in a room in her cousin Etta’s flat, and has many artistic, interesting friends. Sometimes she goes hungry, but she tries to be cheerful. One weekend, traveling home on the train to visit her sick father, she meets a former neighbor, Rollo, who is now a wealthy, unhappily married man working in the City. He says he’ll telephone her.
Of course we recognize this syndrome: Will he call? There are echoes of Dorothy Parker’s short story, “A Telephone Call,” in Olivia’s interior monologue. But Lehmann is more remote, writing from a third-person point-of-view.
The telephone rang, faint to her ears: someone inquiring, Kate would answer. It couldn’t be Rollo: not yet. Not ever, of course. Rollo would think about ringing up, sometime tomorrow maybe; and then he wouldn’t do it. Because nice men don’t like to get mixed up…. Rollo was undoubtedly in the category of nice men, broad-minded. They are on their guard….
Rollo becomes all to Olivia, but Olivia is not all to Rollo. It does not end well for Olivia.
I related to Oliva–at least in my imagination. Like Olivia, I was cheerfully poor, though Bloomington was unlike London, a city I imagined to be impossibly glamorous. (Bloomington is more charming–really.) I sometimes had to sell books so I could buy tampons. A humanist friend who needed distractions from finishing her dissertation invited me to live with her after my boyfriend dumped me. And she had too much humor to let me wallow in my misery: she sent me out on a date with a guy who rode a motorcycle. Everyone loved him except me–he wasn’t “Rollo.”
On a second reading of The Weather in the Streets a few years ago, I admired it less. Lehmann captures the mood of frustrated love, but there are a few purple patches. It is, I think, a book for younger grown-ups–women in their twenties and thirties! My favorite Lehmann is A Note in Music, which I described at this blog as “the best novel I have ever read about women in their thirties” (here.)
For many years I have collected Viragos at used bookstores, library sales, and the Planned Parenthood Book Sale. And a decade ago some woman donated her Viragos to the Planned Parenthood Book Sale. You can imagine how thrilled I was. And now I am at that same crossroads of life, passing on books I have read and keeping only books I have not read. Mind you, I’m hanging on to my favorite Viragos. But I am surprised at how many I am giving away: my Winifred Holtbys, even some of my Elizabeth Taylors. Do you think the Planned Parenthood Book Sale will like them?
Below are photos of the Viragos I’m weeding. I have read all of these, and there is not a bad book in the bunch, but I don’t need them.
And here are some more:
How do you feel about collecting books? Do you keep all your Viragos? Something about green spines. These are the only books I have kept together as a color-coded collection.