When I started reading my way through the unread books on my shelves in alphabetical order, someone asked me what I’d do when I had more than one book to read by the same author. Would I read them all in one go, or would I let myself just read one and come back for the others later? I wasn’t sure of my answer at the time, and hadn’t actually needed to worry about it until I got to Elizabeth Jane Howard, whose books it turns out I am very good at buying, but not very good at reading. The Cazalet Chronicles, five marvellous books written in the 90s and early 2000’s, about various generations of the upper class Cazalet family in mid century England, are some of my most favourite books of all time, and yet I didn’t know much about the rest of her oeuvre until I took a good look at the other books of hers I have on my shelf. As luck would have it, I had three of her early books, The Long View, The Sea Change, and After Julius, which were all published in the 50s and early 60s, and I decided that it would be interesting to read them in chronological order of their publication to see her development as an author at this stage of her career, and to compare them with the Cazalet books she wrote almost a lifetime later, with the last in the series being published just before her death, in 2013.
The Long View is the story of a disastrous marriage told in reverse, beginning in 1950, when the protagonist, Antonia Fleming, is preparing for a dinner party to celebrate her son’s engagement. A beautiful, intelligent woman, still only in her only forties, Antonia is exhausted and diminished by the years of being dominated yet utterly ignored by her husband. He is a selfish, arrogant and emotionally incontinent man, for whom other people exist only as a means to further his own desires. He hangs like a spectre over Antonia’s life, which has been defined by her relationship with a man who has no understanding of the concept of love. It seems incomprehensible that Antonia can ever have seen anything in him to love, but as the novel moves back to key points in time in their marriage, the reasons for their situation in 1950 slowly become clear. We see them during the war, on a holiday Conrad is desperate to escape so he can be with his mistress, on their honeymoon, and then finally just before they meet, with a depiction of the then-nineteen year old Antonia, at home in the countryside with her parents. There were times during the middle of the novel when I became disengaged; Conrad is such a horrific person, and Antonia’s acceptance of his behaviour so frustrating, that I struggled to be able to feel any real interest in their lives. However, as the novel progresses and the story goes further back in time, Howard reveals elements of the characters’ personalities and past experiences that enable their later actions to be better understood, making the significance of events in the earlier sections of the novel come powerfully into focus. The last section of the novel, seeing Antonia’s crushing first experience of love and the destruction of her innocence as she realises her parents’ marriage is based on deceit, was particularly brilliant, and brought the events of the entire novel together in an almost unbearably heartbreaking way. The final line of the novel is incredible – and made me want to start all over again. Thinking about it as a whole, it is a rather brave way to go about the writing of a novel, because the entire first section of the book, which deals with June, the fiancee of Antonia’s son, and Deirdre, her unhappy daughter who is pregnant by a man who doesn’t love her, is fantastic, but these characters are never revisited, and as events move further back in time, the decision to ask the reader to begin the reading experience by spending so much time with these people who don’t seem to have any place in the overarching narrative is hard to understand. However, when you reach the end, you understand entirely – you are seeing the beginning of Conrad and Antonia’s marriage all over again in the disastrous mistakes their children are about to make – and the whole thing becomes an awful, claustrophobic circle. It’s not a pleasant novel, by any means, and neither is it perfect – but it’s brilliantly, beautifully written, incredibly insightful, and so innovatively structured. It left me quite stunned by the end, and the characters have certainly stayed with me; if you’re willing to persevere through the somewhat stodgy middle, I can promise that you’ll find it a highly rewarding experience.
Next in line was The Sea Change, her third novel, which is about Emmanuel, a jaded playwright in his sixties, his sickly, frustrated younger wife Lillian, his live-in manager/assistant Jimmy, and his innocent young secretary, Alberta, who spend the novel travelling between London, New York and the Greek island of Hydra, in the pursuit of casting an actress for Emmanuel’s new play. Told in chapters of alternating viewpoints, the troubled past of Emmanuel and Lillian’s marriage is revealed, marred by the death of their daughter at a young age, alongside both Emmanuel and Jimmy’s growing attraction to Alberta, who remains blissfully ignorant of her appeal, and simply revels in the joy of travelling for the first time beyond her much-loved childhood home in Dorset. The peripatetic life Emmanuel and Lillian have always led, never living anywhere permanently, and always travelling, initially seems glamorous, and yet it gradually transpires that this has nothing to do with glamour, and everything to do with grief. When Jimmy and Emmanuel decide to train Alberta for the part in Emmanuel’s new play, the whole party decamps to Hydra for six weeks, where, in close proximity with one another and with nothing in particular to do, the fault lines in their relationships are painfully torn open and none of them will leave the island the same. This was my favourite of the three novels; I loved how vividly Howard draws the settings of a vibrant, glamorous midcentury New York and a blissfully unspoiled, white sugar-cubed Hydra, and each of the characters was so well-drawn, intriguing and sympathetic, and so utterly different from the other. The ending certainly isn’t what you expect, considering the premise of the novel – Howard can’t be accused of cliché – and I wished there had been more by the time I closed the pages. Always a sign of a good book!
Howard’s fourth novel, After Julius, has a really interesting and unique premise – Julius, a character we never meet and only learn about through the other characters – was killed in the D-Day landings, having piloted a small boat he had no idea how to sail to try and do his bit for the war effort. Middle aged, unhappily married, with a career in his family’s publishing firm and a penchant for poetry, his heroic act baffled those around him, and twenty years on, we meet his wife, Esme and grown up daughters Cressy and Emma, all of whom are unhappy and unfulfilled. It transpires that Esme was having an affair with a much younger man, then-trainee doctor Felix King, at the time of Julius’ death; having never loved her husband, he was the love of her life, but he left her after Julius’ death, and she has lived a sort of half-life ever since. Cressy, a stunningly beautiful war widow in her late thirties, lives in a messy flat with her much younger sister, and has spent the last two decades in between various disastrous relationships and fitful attempts to make a music career. Emma, quiet and capable, has closed herself off from relationships with others and merely exists, her life a comfortable yet limited world of ordered routines. The novel opens on a perfectly ordinary Friday for all of them, and yet the weekend ahead, when both girls go to Sussex to see their mother, will prove unexpectedly life altering for everyone in ways I can’t mention otherwise I’ll ruin the entire plot; suffice to say Felix turns up for the weekend, and everything goes downhill from there. I did enjoy After Julius, but I found it the least accomplished, character and plot wise, of the three novels I read. She uses the same alternating viewpoint narration as in The Sea Change, to good effect, but some of the characters – namely Emma and her bizarre, rather Stella Gibbons-esque boyfriend Dan (who she meets on Friday and decides to marry on Sunday!) – seemed rather unnecessary to the central plot, which really only revolves around Cressy, Esme and Felix, and it would have been better to stay focused on them, in my opinion. There is also a glorified rape scene at the end of the book, which I found incredibly distasteful and made me question Howard’s own attitudes towards consent when it comes to sex. This left a rather unpleasant taste in my mouth and coloured my response to the entire book. In fact, both girls, Cressy and Emma, are presented as basically in need of a good seeing-to and then a nice wedding and some babies to sort them out – rather regressive for a novel being published in the 60s. This was the only one of the novels that felt dated to me, and while it’s just as beautifully written as the others, it is definitely flawed in many respects and doesn’t stand up as well in comparison to the rest.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading my way through Howard’s backlist – it’s amazing to think that she wrote over a period of 60 years, and the Cazalets, which are quite different in tone and style to these more acerbic earlier works, were written when she was in her 70s and 80s. In my opinion, she very much improved with age, but her early novels are still excellent, beautifully written and insightful reads about women and their motivations, and they are also an intriguing window onto the middle years of the twentieth century, a period whose literature I haven’t really read in any great depth. Howard has certainly been confirmed for me as one of the great underrated female authors of the twentieth century, and I can highly recommend seeking her out.