In Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel Odd Girl Out, there are references to the decade-long marriage of Anne and Edmund Cornhill as an “island.” That may seem a peculiar term to use when describing a marriage, but in this case it’s appropriate. Edmund is an estate agent based in London, and Anne maintains their lovely country home (along with the help of a house cleaner.) To Anne, Edmund’s “chief attraction” is his “predictability: to many this might equate to dullness,” but Anne appreciates Edmund’s steady character after enduring a turbulent, emotionally draining first marriage which ended in divorce. Edmund likes the way Anne “always contrived to be rational about any sacrificing attitude he called upon her to make.”
It would seem to be an idyllic existence, yet I disliked Edmund from the first:
He never let her get up in the mornings until he had either set out for London, or otherwise begun his day.
What is this: wife in a box?
A crisis erupts in the Cornhill’s marriage when Arabella, Edmund’s stepsister arrives post abortion to stay with the couple. Arabella is the daughter of Clara, Edmund’s wealthy serial monogamist mother, a woman who drifts in luxury across Europe sometimes via yacht from castle to castle and who changes her husbands frequently. Arabella has spent her life with a chain of stepfathers and has an exotic yet unenviable upbringing. Anne feels protective of Arabella, yet her presence in their home is undeniably disruptive. There are some funny scenes between Edmund and his boss Sir William who insists on taking Edmund to lunch and there, due to his hearing loss and battiness, he loudly quizzes Edmund about his sex life which embarrasses Edmund but which provides free entertainment for other diners.
Anne, who has built her life around Edmund’s fantasy existence without realizing it, is living in a cocoon. Perhaps she needed a cocoon after her first marriage. :
She was someone who continually felt that she was on the brink of order in her life, and that when she actually embarked upon it, her life would, so to speak, start afresh in a more dynamic and significant manner.
The sexually uninhibited Arabella is a hodge-podge of wobbly morality, and she openly admits to Edmund “I haven’t got any serious principles–only amateur ones.” Arabella complains a lot about her life, and it’s easy to feel some sympathy for her after a few glimpses of her vain, self-focused mother, a woman who “after eighteen months with anybody [is] like a rogue elephant in velvet.” Arabella doesn’t examine life deeply (she is young) and has no grasp of consequences when it comes to how her actions affect others. She simply has too much money, which she tends to throw at problems to make them go away, and the money partially cocoons her from those consequences–unlike poor, tragic Janet who is stuck in poverty with sickly children and a whiny, pathetic, vain philandering husband who blames his failed career on his wife and children. Janet’s problems sink everyone else’s issues.
I didn’t enjoy the novel, and it was fairly easy to see where the plot where taking me. The characters were rather uninteresting (I wanted to kick some bottoms-Not Janet’s though) and the book’s conclusion is implausible.
One response to “Odd Girl Out: Elizabeth Jane Howard”
“He never let her get up in the mornings until he had either set out for London, or otherwise begun his day.”
Depends how you look at it. ‘Never let her get up” gets on my wick because nobody ‘lets me’ do anything; I don’t need anybody’s permission to do anything, I make my own decisions. But it also shows that he doesn’t expect her to get up and do the wifely breakfast-making and straightening of his tie. He looks after himself in the morning and so he should.
So he gets Brownie points from me for that.