This 1936 novel by Rosamond Lehmann is a follow-up to Invitation to the Waltz. I remembered very little about the earlier novel, but I had no real trouble following this story—it works well as a standalone piece. It’s also extremely timely for us today.
The book begins with a young woman named Olivia Curtis running into an acquaintance named Rollo Spencer as they’re both traveling by train to their hometown. Rollo invites Olivia, who was once friends with his sister, to come to his family’s home for dinner while they’re there. The two soon begin an affair, despite Rollo being married.
For most of the relationship, Olivia doesn’t seem particularly troubled by the fact that they cannot meet that often or that their meetings are furtive. She is herself separated from her husband, and she shows no desire to end that marriage for good and marry Rollo. Her only resentments are in the fact that she doesn’t want to be seen as waiting around for him all the time and in the worry that he may still love his wife. Most of the novel is written in the third person, but a section of first-person narration gives a strong sense of Olivia’s mix of romanticism and sensibleness when it comes to her relationship. She knows what she can’t have, but she sometimes can’t help but want it.
Eventually, however, just as the relationship seems to be cooling, Olivia becomes pregnant. As much as she might want to raise a child with Rollo, that is one thing that has been deemed entirely impossible. The child cannot exist. So she seeks an illegal abortion. Olivia has just enough money, just enough connection to be able to find a medical professional who helps women in secret. It’s not a horror-story back-alley abortion. Yet Olivia is entirely on her own to handle both the emotional and physical consequences. It’s just by coincidence and luck that she’s able to get help at all when the after-effects are more difficult than she expected.
I don’t think this book is likely to change anyone’s mind about abortion. But I do think it presents a clear picture of what even relatively privileged people might have to deal with if they decide to end an unwanted pregnancy in a place where abortion is illegal. Abortion being illegal didn’t change Olivia’s decision, but it did change how she went about it. Not being able to be open about what she’s doing makes things much more difficult than they had to be and ends up putting her health at risk in ways it wouldn’t have been if she’d been able to speak freely about her circumstances. In this case, having to go underground makes things far worse than they needed to be.