Category Archives: Howard Elizabeth Jane

Getting It Right: Elizabeth Jane Howard

“People usually find what they seek, if they really search for it.”

For some reason, I had the impression that Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel, Getting It Right, was the story of a young man losing his virginity–the fodder of those teen movies which so many people seem to find hilarious. Anyway, it was that description that put me off of reading this book, and that’s a shame as this is a wonderfully funny tale–different from other novels I’ve read (and enjoyed) from this author to date. In fact, I think this is my favourite Howard novel so far.

getting it right

Gavin Lamb, is a 31-year-old London hairdresser who lives with his mum and dad. Right away we have an impression of Gavin, right? Even his name gives the reader a hint that Gavin is a gentle soul, and then he’s still living at home. What’s going on with that?

Gavin is a good son, a loyal friend, an excellent hairdresser and takes his job very seriously. Beyond work he has an active intellectual life; he’s a classical music aficionado, loves poetry and literature and also attends the opera.

Now let’s list what’s wrong with Gavin’s life:

He has mentally constructed something  he calls the ‘Ladder of Fear,’ and women are right at the top. He’s painfully shy with women, so there’s no girlfriend, but there are fantasies. Not graphic and mostly dreamlike. 

Gavin works for Mr. Achilles, the toupee-wearing, tight-fisted salon owner who sits reading the racing paper all day long and only breaks concentration on his bets to criticize his employees and deliver lectures.

Gavin’s married sister, Marge, is determined that Gavin should marry, and his sister’s “undoubted favourite” was Muriel. a woman that Gavin isn’t attracted to at all. Still that doesn’t put Muriel off and she pursues Gavin, even showing up at the salon, much to Gavin’s embarrassment, to get her hair done. In her mind, she’s already planted her flag and staked a claim.

Plus there’s Gavin’s weird home life. Gavin’s mother is a neurotic woman full of bizarre theories; she sits making outfits for a teddy bear no one wants, and produces meals which are a “recurring hazard.”  Once when Gavin and his resilient father “mildly” say that a curry was too hot, her reaction was extreme:

She “burst into wracking sobs and a tirade that beginning with their ingratitude had extended to the futility of her whole life. It had taken hours to calm her, and even then she had not been really appeased and they had been treated to tinned food served with sardonic sniffs and nasty remarks made to Providence for nearly a week.” 

One particularly revolting meal involves a chicken mole for which Gavin’s mother substitutes “that nasty unsweetened chocolate” with Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut. Gavin and his father work in cahoots to bolster domestic tranquility with appeasement:

She was always one jump ahead, Gavin thought, no sooner had they laid one anxiety to rest than she pounced upon another and they lumbered after her shovelling sand into all the ground she cut beneath their feet: she called it ‘Where would be you be without me?’ and he [dad] called it ‘understanding women’. It gave them both a sense of domestic strategy, Gavin thought. 

So these are the things troubling Gavin when the novel begins. Gavin’s one friend, masseur Harry lives with the volatile, vain, violent Winthrop who smashes china and delivers black eyes from flying ashtrays. Harry, thinks that Gavin may also be gay but that he just hasn’t ‘declared’ himself yet. Harry, deciding to be ‘helpful’ invites Gavin to a party, and while Gavin feels as though he’s “being propelled along what could only turn out to be a sexual cul-de-sac” he attends the party to avoid Muriel. It’s a party that changes Gavin’s life. ..

The characters range from eccentric to downright bonkers. Gavin’s policy of appeasement gets him into deep waters when he meets the anorexic, desperate, needy and totally looney Minerva Munday and her bizarre parents. 

At one point in the novel, a character asks Gavin if he’s noticed that “everyone who gets married” is a bit enclosed. There’s Peter, a hairdresser who works with Gavin, and his wife Hazel. They’ve exploded into a frenzy of DIY home improvement and their dreary one-dimensional lives are driven by Peter’s extreme financial planning for a future that looks stunningly miserable. Then there’s Minerva’s parents who are also totally bonkers. Her mother is an alcoholic and her father is a pompous bore. Their marriage, complete with stately home and a creaky old butler, could very well be a long-running stage play as it seems guaranteed that the same lines are rolled out every night. All the marriages/relationships in the novel are bizarre with each partner acting out the roles and the lines they’ve held for years, both dodging and creating domestic explosions as best they can. 

Finally I have to add that some of the most brilliant parts of this wonderful book are Gavin’s scenes with his clients. Some of the clients are sweet, some are nasty, some are sad and some come in and rant their beliefs at Gavin who puts his mind “in neutral.” There’s too much to add here but one of my favourites is Mrs Wagstaffe and her “irritable dachshund Sherry.” She insists on bringing the dog to the hairdresser and there he sits “poised” in his owner’s lap and fends off Gavin.

“Now then, Sherry, good morning, Mrs Wagstaffe,” he said in that order.

“Isn’t he amazing? He never forgets.”

Since Mrs Wagstaffe came in regularity every three weeks to have her iron-grey bob and fringe trimmed, there seems no earthly reason why Sherry should forget, but as a master of petty grievance he would probably remember if she didn’t come in more than once a year. 

“Let him smell you,” invited Mrs Wagstaffe, but Gavin had been had that way.

I’ve said on this blog numerous times that I prefer nasty characters, but Getting it Right is an exception. Gavin is a nice person: kind, considerate, responsible–a good employee, a good friend, a good son, and while ‘nice’ people can be boring to read about, Gavin proves to be an exception. Gavin is given to deep introspective musing about people and relationships, and he is deeply sensitive (too much so) when it comes to the problems of others. This leads to Gavin believing he’s responsible for situations and people when he isn’t. I enjoyed being in Gavin’s head–although I winced a bit when he started his intellectual education of a workmate.

Highly, highly recommended. 

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The Sea Change: Elizabeth Jane Howard

“It’s the difference between leading a Jane Austen life and a Tolstoy one.”

Emmanuel Joyce, a famous playwright, half-Irish, half Jewish, his fragile, much younger wife, Lillian, and their faithful ‘fixer,’ Jimmy all live together in various hotels and travel back and forth between Britain and America. Their lives are intertwined in the production of plays-although Lillian, whose only child died decades earlier, isn’t sure just what her purpose is any more. They live out of suitcases, and plunge into social lives in New York and London, and Lillian “whose active ambivalence about Emmanuel’s work nearly drove him crazy at times” actively ignores her husband’s many affairs. Even though this is a pathological situation, the dynamic between the three characters works successfully. Emmanuel alternates between longing for solitude and treating his chronic invalid wife like a china doll, and it’s Jimmy’s multi-tasking job to squire Lillian around when she’s dumped into his hands. Everyone gets along, the system works, but no one ever addresses the pathological aspects of this threesome.

But things shift after a dramatic, unsuccessful  suicide attempt by Emmanuel’s secretary and latest mistress. After the event, Lillian employs, on impulse, a young girl who will accompany them to New York. This young woman, Sarah, has the same name as Lillian’s dead child, and so Emmanuel asks her to call herself Alberta, just to make things easier.

the sea change

‘Alberta’ comes from a large, closely knit, eccentric country family, and she’s the daughter of a vicar. A character who really belongs in a Jane Austen novel, she’s a unique, unpretentious, disarming combination of naiveté and sagaciousness. To work as a secretary for a famous playwright seems a fabulous opportunity, but given the fate of the last secretary, it’s clear that Alberta could unwittingly bring serious trouble into the Joyces’ lives. She’s certainly a catalyst for change.

The story unfolds through four narrative voices: Emmanuel, Lillian, Jimmy and Alberta–with the latter’s story partly told by long letters home. These shifting voices give the story grace, dimension and interest. We first see Lillian through the eyes of Jimmy; she seems high-maintenance and he calls her a bitch, and yet when we hear Lillian’s voice we discover she has hidden depths of sensitivity. Emmanuel, who at first seems all ego and bombastic self-interest is shown to be a self-made man, inspired by his drunken, brutal father whose poetic, self-pitying rants spiked and became dramatic performances during his drinking binges.

But his father lurched and jabbered on; charged with disastrous vitality-bored by everything but his own imagination of himself and haunted by all the chances he might have had.  

The character of Alberta, who is a breath of fresh air in the stagnant lives of the Joyces, is an absolute delight. She has a delicious sense of honesty and loves to repeat pronouncements from various eccentric relatives. Lillian is terrified that Alberta will become Emmanuel’s next mistress, and yet she can’t help really liking the girl. Emmanuel finds himself inspired and renewed by Alberta, and Jimmy… well Jimmy’s a bit of a cipher–even to himself.

Here’s a taste of Alberta’s spirit in this quote taken from a letter she writes home:

Then we had an extraordinary picnic lunch in an office with two men who had been at the auditions. They just ate yoghourt because they were dieting, but they talked about what they would have liked for lunch all the time we were eating ours, until I must say that it got quite difficult and hardhearted to go on eating it.

I recently read and reviewed Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View— another look at a stagnant marriage, but of the two novels, I much preferred The Sea Change for its generous look at human nature, and the subtle way, through the various narratives, we are reminded that we all have private sorrows.

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The Long View: Elizabeth Jane Howard (1956)

Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel, The Long View begins in London. It’s 1950. Mr. and Mrs. Fleming (and I hesitate to call them Mr. and Mrs. as it makes them sound like some joint entity, which they are most definitely not)–Conrad and Antonia–have been married for 23 years. They have two children: Julian and Deirdre. Julian is on the brink of marriage to June Stoker and Daphne is in the throes of a love affair, which, even with an unexpected complication, is about to end.

It’s the evening of a dinner party for eight to celebrate Julian’s engagement to the very boring, very ordinary June Stoker. The dinner party is described in tedious, predictable detail before it occurs, and so we know that Mrs. Fleming isn’t looking forward to it but she “sank obediently to the occasion.” The big unknown of the upcoming evening is whether or not Conrad Fleming will bother to show up to the dinner party that he demanded and arranged.

Julian and Deirdre are total opposites. Whereas Julian is controlled. unemotional, doesn’t like fuss and has very distinct ideas about a wife’s ‘duty'( like his father), Deirdre is a mess. She’s constantly in the throes of some love affair or another and seems to always juggle two men at once:

one, dull, devoted creature whose only distinction was his determination to marry her, in the face of savage odds (the other, more attractive, but even more unsatisfactory young man).

In the build-up to the dinner party we also meet June Stoker, a young woman who’s marrying to escape a suffocating home life, and yet it’s also clear that marriage to Julian isn’t going to be an easy solution.

the long view

So the dinner party, with its awkward moments, takes place, and Mr. Fleming who has “constructed a personality as elaborate, mysterious and irrelevant, as a nineteenth-century folly” shows up. This is a man who doesn’t “care in the least about other people, […]. He cared simply and overwhelmingly for himself.” Thinking about his wife, he rues the fact that “he had at one period in their lives allowed her to see too much of him. This indirectly had resulted in their children.” His son, Julian, bores him, and he thinks his soon-to-be daughter-in-law is an “exceptionally, even a pathetically, dull young woman.” He expects the marriage to end badly for his son, with “two or three brats, and a wife, who, drained of what slender resources had first captivated him, would at the same time be possessed of a destructive knowledge of his behaviour.”

Mr. Fleming, who is very smug about “trying not to be a father of any kind,”  echoes Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr. Bennet, but Mr. Fleming is a much more malevolent version, and whereas Mrs. Bennet is really a horrid creature, Mrs. Fleming, who after 23 years of marriage is “literally exhausted” by her husband, now lives her life in a strangely disconnected way. With her sad acceptance, she echoes Mrs. Dalloway, and no doubt the upcoming dinner party was at least partially responsible for that. The dinner party is an event that we could expect the family to enjoy–at least on some level, but it only serves to reveal the pathology of the Flemings’ marriage, and leaves Antonia with the  acknowledgment that “after their first three years she had spent the remaining twenty fighting the battle of his boredom.”

Personally, I think the battle is long lost. We learn that Conrad Fleming is constantly unfaithful; the dramatics of his various mistresses amuse him (“During luncheon, a woman, nearly in tears, and with a Viennese accent, telephoned and asked for Mr. Fleming,”) and by the end of the evening, we see Antonia, at 43, contemplating “the skeleton of perhaps twenty-five years ahead of her on which she must graft some fabric of her life.”

While the pages of the Fleming’s lives move backwards in time, we are privy to Conrad Fleming’s thoughts, but always this is Antonia’s story. 1942 shows us the Flemings’ marriage in wartime, 1937–the Flemings are on a holiday in France, Conrad departs, unable to bear family intimacy for a moment longer, and he faces a crisis in his marriage. Then it’s back to 1927 to the Flemings’ wedding and a honeymoon in Paris. Finally it’s 1926, and a painfully shy 19-year-old Antonia is overshadowed by her aging beauty mother’s need to constantly criticize the daughter who possessing youth, is a potential rival.

The novel’s interesting structure begins by showing us a marriage in which both partners have reached some sort of toxic point in a relationship that is long past stagnation. But the glimpses of earlier years grant us a better view of the perennially unfaithful Conrad, a maddening character, who when he marries Antonia and sweeps her off to Paris, has very decided views:

“I’ve bought you a house, you know.”

“Have you? I wasn’t worrying. Why should I? Where is it?”

“Ah. I am not going to tell you tonight. If you don’t like it, we will get another. But I haven’t furnished it at all.”

“Then we shall not go straight back there?”

“Oh, no. The first step is to put you in it, and then choose things that will go with you.”

“Are they not to go with you also?”

“I am a chameleon,” he said, with a gentle sardonic gleam.

And so over the years, Antonia, now Mrs. Fleming “a great big beautiful doll” installed in the two beautiful homes the Flemings own, finds herself as she says “a sort of scene shifter for Conrad” a man who “likes an elaborate setting.”

By the time the book concludes, we have answers to how the Flemings’ marriage got to this point, and while I was very annoyed by Conrad and wished someone would puncture that insufferable ego, the book argued that we don’t arrive at any given moment in our lives by chance. We have walked certain pathways, turned at certain signposts; there are reasons why we are where we are.

Finally, I have to include this quote because I loved it. This is spoken by Antonia’s friend Leslie, who is a widow at the dinner party, but we also see her married and pregnant in France before the war. Here she is warning June, who isn’t even married yet, about what to expect when she’s pregnant.

Dreadful books about its age and weight at every conceivable moment, and ghastly yellow knitted matinee coats (what are they so often yellow?) and letters from hospitals, and photographs of other people’s babies so that you can see exactly how awful it’s going to look when it’s larger.

I liked this–didn’t love it. The novel slowed down at a few points, and the writing is very mannered. Still, I will definitely be reading more from this author. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s third marriage was to Kingsley Amis, and that makes her a stepmother to Martin Amis

Review copy

 

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