Rediscovered Classics: The Long View
Hilary Mantel has written an illuminating introduction to The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard, our Rediscovered Classic this month.
While exploring all the merits of this finely-crafted novel, Hilary Mantel puzzles one key question: why is The Long View not recognized as one of the great novels of the twentieth century? Mantel in fact goes further, suggesting that Elizabeth Jane Howard's entire body of work has been over-looked and that the reason for this lies, undoutedly, in her gender.
Ultimately though, The Long View, Mantel argues, is full of charm, humour and intelligence and is deserving of another, long, look.
Begin your book, writers are advised, in a way no one can ignore. Start a fire on the page: set a sentence fizzing, and lob it at your reader like a hand grenade.
There is risk in such a fierce approach. It may be the writer, not the reader, who is stunned by the effort. For the rest of the book, she can hardly summon the energy to live up to her own first paragraph.
There is a quieter way: ‘This, then was the situation.’
With a hushed, baleful confidence, the writer places a chair for you. You are in Mrs Fleming’s dining room, and you are complicit. Dinner will be oysters, grouse and cold orange soufflé. In parenthesis, lightly signalled as if by the touch of a fork on crystal, comes the first treat:
Eight people were to dine that evening in the house at Campden Hill Square. Mrs Fleming had arranged the party (it was the kind of unoriginal thought expected of her, and she sank obediently to the occasion) to celebrate her son’s engagement to June Stoker.
This is a moneyed world, made exotic by its vanished etiquette. Women flock into Mrs Fleming’s bedroom to powder their faces. Their long skirts almost trip them on the curving stair. They are on their way to drink champagne in tribute to the virginal June, who is already beset by horrible doubts. The action, for the moment, is contained in a soft haze of candlelight. Disquiet is tapping at the long panes. Inside, the tight, trivial minuet, society’s ritual suffered with varying degrees of passivity, apprehension, boredom. Outside, chaos: a world of colliding, ungovernable possibility which ‘petrifies the imagination’.
In recent years Elizabeth Jane Howard, who was always known as Jane, has become famous for a quartet of novels known as the ‘Cazalet Chronicles’, which draw on her own family story and were adapted for radio and television. Tracing the fortunes of an upper-middle-class family, the quartet begins in 1937 and covers a decade; a fifth novel, All Change, skips ahead to 1956. The novels are panoramic, expansive, intriguing as social history and generous in their storytelling. They are the product of a lifetime’s experience, and come from a writer who knew her aim and had the stamina and technical skill to achieve it. It would be rewarding if the thousands of readers who enjoyed the series were drawn to the author’s earlier work, when her talent seemed so effervescent, so unstoppable, that there was no predicting where it might take her. From the beginning she attracted superlatives, more for the gorgeousness of her prose than for the emotional extravagance of her characters. Their laughter was outrageous, their weeping contagious, their love-affairs reckless. But there was nothing uncalculated about the author’s effects. From the first, she was a craftswoman.
The Long View, published in 1956, has a five-part structure. It begins in 1950, and each part draws us backwards through the life of Antonia Fleming, till we arrive in 1926, when we find her as a young girl about to be tenderly deceived, baffled and bullied into wifehood. It is a book much easier to read than to describe. The art lies in its construction, and its construction activates desire. The present is seductive for the reader, desolate for Mrs Fleming; you must read backwards to discover why. The writer knows exactly where to break off a narrative strand. She arouses powerful curiosity, and calmly refuses to satisfy it. Lured backwards, the reader finds Antonia as a mother, a wife, a lover, a daughter and finally, simply herself. Her story is told with intensity and a distilled sensuous power. Dismay at the human condition ripples beneath a style that sparkles and fizzes, like the champagne which the bride-to-be dilutes with her shameful tears.
Elizabeth Jane Howard’s first novel, The Beautiful Visit, won the John Llewellyn Rhys memorial prize. It is daunting to think that The Long View, so accomplished, so technically adroit, was only her second book. Despite early praise and attention, it was hard for Jane to make a living. She came from a background where the necessity was not much considered. In The Long View, Mrs Fleming’s passport states her occupation as ‘Married Woman’. In this world, men are not obliged to explain or account for themselves. Creatures endlessly to be placated, they look to mould a woman into a satisfactory, if not perfect wife. Conrad Fleming seeks to mould Antonia. He is a man of unblemished conceit, immaculate selfishness. Young women readers today may view him with incredulity. They should not. He is faithfully recorded. He is the voice of the day before yesterday, and also the voice of the ages past.
Again, we may be bemused by the innocence and passivity of June Stoker, whose engagement party begins the story. But June, with her pink face powder and her quivering uncertainties, is an ordinary girl of her time and class: just as Mrs Fleming’s daughter Deirdre is ordinary, in her defiance, her emotional brinksmanship, her search for a man to validate her. The author pays close attention to these people. She describes with sensuous precision the infinite number of trivial things that create the texture of their lives.
It is because of this precision she ushers a willing reader with her, to explore every nuance of feeling. This author understands impulse, because she feels the heady rush. She feels the chilly breeze in the street, and the chilly draught of misgiving in the heart. In the moment feelings are experienced, they are described: they are pinned to the page. Neither the outer nor inner world is privileged above the other, but every sentence captures their interplay: the clear light of logic and intention, and the flecked and dappled shadows of unconscious drives, of half-formed desires. The author’s eyes and ears are sharp, but her judgment is benign, withheld. She respects her characters. None of them exist to be despised. Conrad, for example, is ‘a student of strife’ who leaves a trail of damage, knowing women will sweep it up. But he is witty, and sometimes startlingly perceptive and kind; we can see why Antonia is carried away by him. In these novels, even monsters are fools for love. Whether they are shivering ingénues or hardened egotists, they are seeking grace. They cling to a belief that someone will see through their erratic behaviour to their enduring qualities. They are looking for someone to read them and stick by them; to know the worst, but continue to turn the page.
Elizabeth Jane Howard was born in 1923 to a family who were affluent, well-connected and miserable. Her father and his brother were the directors of the family timber firm. They didn’t do much directing; ‘they just had a jolly nice time,’ she said. They had earned it. Her father had enlisted at seventeen, survived the Great War on the Western Front, brought home a Military Cross. He was a warm father, but duplicitous and unsafe. Her mingled fear and fascination fuelled the Cazalet novels, which are less cosy than they appear. Her parents’ marriage and their subsequent relationships, together with her own, provided a model of instructive dysfunction for almost every story she wrote. ‘There were only two kinds of people,’ thinks Conrad in The Long View: ‘those who live different lives with the same partner, and those who live the same life with different partners . . .’ It is one of many such jaundiced observations – pithily expressed, painfully accurate.
Jane’s mother, Kit, was a disappointed dancer. She had given up her professional career for marriage. The dancer’s world is so brutally testing that it’s hard to say, in any particular case, whether such a choice was coloured by a suspicion of being not quite good enough. Second-rate young men went abroad, their CVs condensed into the acronym FILTH: Failed in London, Try Hong Kong. Women in retreat from their potential could choose the internal exile of marriage, and the results were often dingy. Kit does not seem to have liked her daughter. Perhaps she was jealous of her. Jane was a young woman of spectacular looks. Repeatedly in the novels, mature adults gaze in mingled envy and delight at the person least to be envied, an adolescent who is a writhing mass of uncertainties. Jane had little formal education, but she was a reader. And her piano teacher imparted something of great value: ‘how to learn: how to take the trouble and go on taking it.’
Briefly, she became an actress. The Second World War blighted her career hopes. Like Mrs Fleming, she saw ‘the value of lives rocketing up and down like shares on a crazy stock market’. In such an atmosphere, decisions were taken quickly – there was no long view. She was nineteen when she married the naturalist Peter Scott, then a naval officer, aged thirty-two. The night before the wedding, her mother asked her if she knew anything about sex, describing it as ‘the nasty side’ of marriage. Jane’s daughter Nicola was born during an air raid. It was a horrific experience. She knew to save it up and use it later. When the war was over she abandoned husband and infant daughter, something the world does not readily forgive. She moved into a dirty flat off Baker Street: ‘a bare bulb in the ceiling, wooden floors full of malignant nails . . . the only thing I was sure of was that I wanted to write.’
There was another marriage, a brief one, to a fellow writer. Then she became the second wife of Kingsley Amis, an acclaimed and fashionable novelist. Jane wanted love, sexual and every kind; she said so all her life, and she was bold in saying so, because it is always taken as a confession of weakness. The early years of the Amis marriage were happy and companionable. There is a picture of the couple working at adjacent typewriters. It belies the essential nature of the trade. Jane was strung on the razor wire of a paradox. She wanted intimacy, and writing is solitary. She wanted to be valued, and writers often aren’t. The household was busy and bohemian. She kept house and cooked for guests, some of them demanding, some of them long-stayers. She was a kind, inspiring stepmother to Amis’s three children. The marriage was, as Martin Amis has said, ‘dynamic’, but the husband’s work was privileged, whereas Jane’s was seen as incidental, to be fitted around a wife’s natural domestic obligations.
During those years she wrote a number of witty novels, full of the pleasures of life, while enduring periods of deep misery. Her husband was making money and collecting applause, but she kept faith with her talent. Well-bred people did not make a fuss or make a noise, her mother had told her, even when having a baby. That is a prescription for emotional deadness, not creative growth. But if pain can be survived, it can perhaps be channelled and put to work. In her novels Jane described delusion and self-delusion. She totted up the price of lies and the price of truth. She saw damage inflicted, damage reflected or absorbed. She had learned more from Jane Austen than from her mother. Comedy is not generated by a writer who sails to her desk saying, ‘Now I will be funny.’ It comes from someone who crawls to her desk, leaking shame and despair, and begins to describe faithfully how things are. In that fidelity to the details of misery, one feels relish. The grimmer is it, the better it is: slowly, reluctantly, comedy seeps through.
The journalist Angela Lambert has asked why The Long View is not recognized as one of the great novels of the twentieth century. One might ask why Jane’s whole body of work is not rated more highly. It’s true her social settings are limited; so are Jane Austen’s. As in Austen’s novels, a busy underground stream of anxiety threatens to break the surface of leisured lives. The anxiety is about resources. Have I enough? Enough money in my purse? Enough credit with the world? In various stories, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s characters teeter on the verge of destitution. Elsewhere, money flows in from mysterious sources. But her characters do not command those sources, nor comprehend them. Emotionally, financially, her vulnerable heroines live from hand to mouth. Even if they have enough, they do not know enough.
Their unarmed state, their vulnerability, gives them a claim on the sternest sensibility. Why should I care, some readers ask, about the trials of the affluent? Why should I care what happens in Campden Hill Square? But readers who do not care about rich characters do not care about poor ones either. Jane’s novels can be resisted by those who see the surface and find it bourgeois. They can be resisted by those who do not like food, or cats, or children, or ghosts, or the pleasures of pinpoint accuracy in observation of the natural or manufactured world: by those who turn a cold shoulder to the recent past. But they are valued by those open to their charm, their intelligence and their humour, who can listen to messages from a world with different values from ours.
But the real reason the books are underestimated – let’s be blunt – is that they are by a woman. Until very recently there was a category of books ‘by women, for women’. This category was unofficial, because indefensible. Alongside genre products with little chance of survival, it included works written with great skill but in a minor key, novels that dealt with private, not public life. Such novels seldom try to startle or provoke the reader; on the contrary, though the narrative may unfold ingeniously, every art is employed to make the reader at ease within it. Understated, neat, they do not employ what Walter Scott called ‘the Big Bow-wow strain’. Reviewing Jane Austen, and admiring her, Scott saw the problem: how can such work be evaluated, by criteria meant for noisier productions? From the eighteenth century onward, these novels have been a guilty pleasure for many readers and critics – enjoyed, but disparaged. There is a hierarchy of subject matter. Warfare should get more space than childbirth, though both are bloody. Burning the bodies rates higher than burning the cakes. If a woman engages with ‘masculine’ subjects, it has not saved her from being trivialized; if a man descends to the domestic, writes fluently of love, marriage, children, he is praised for his empathy, his restraint; he is commended as intrepid, as if he had ventured among the savages to get secret knowledge. Sometimes, perfection itself invites contempt. She gets that polish because she takes no risks. Her work shines because it’s so small. I work on two inches of ivory, Jane Austen said, ironically: much labour, and small effect.
Time has sanctified Jane Austen, though there are still those who don’t see what the fuss is about. It helps that she was a good girl, with the tact to die young; with nothing to say about her private life, and her heart guarded from examination, critics had to look at her text. Modern women have less tidy careers. When Elizabeth Jane Howard died in 2014, aged ninety, the Daily Telegraph’s obituary described her as ‘well-known for the turbulence of her personal life’. Other ‘tributes’ dwelled on her ‘failed’ love affairs. In male writers, affairs testify to irrepressible virility, but in women they are taken to indicate flawed judgement. Cecil Day Lewis, Cyril Connolly, Arthur Koestler, Laurie Lee and Ken Tynan were amongst her conquests; though of course, the world thought they had conquered her. Divorces and break-ups may damage the male writer, but the marks are read as battle scars. His overt actions may signal stupidity and lust, but the assumption is that at some covert level he acts to serve his art. A woman, it’s assumed, does rash things because she can’t help it. She takes chances because she knows no better. She is judged and pitied, or judged and condemned. Judgements on her life contaminate judgements on her work.
Though authors like Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield opened up a new way of witnessing the world, good books by women still fell out of print and vanished into obscurity: not just because, as in the case of male writers, fashion might turn, but because they had never been properly valued in the first place. In the 1980s, feminist publishing put them back on the shelves. Elizabeth Taylor, after a period of neglect, has come back into fashion. Barbara Pym was neglected, rediscovered, consigned again to being a curiosity. Sometimes a contemporary writer has to hold up a mirror for us; we have learned to read Elizabeth Bowen through the prism of Sarah Water’s regard for her. Anita Brookner’s critical fortunes show that it is possible to win a major prize, be widely read and still be undervalued. For all her late success, and perhaps because of it, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s work is misperceived. Her virtues are immaculate construction, impeccable observation, persuasive but inexorable technique. They may not make a noise in the world, but every writer can learn from them. In teaching writing myself, there is no author I have recommended more often, or more to the bewilderment of students. Read her, is my advice, and read the books that she herself read. In particular, deconstruct those little miracles, The Long View and After Julius. Take them apart and try and see how they are done.
I can’t remember the exact date I met Jane. It was at the Royal Society of Literature, in the late 1980s, at one of their meetings at Hyde Park Gardens. The RSL is lively now and based elsewhere, but in those days the gaunt premises, their lease shortening, seemed left behind by the world. Knowing the dust and decrepitude of the upper floors, the empty chill of the basement beneath, I was not awed by the grand neglected rooms, nor the grand neglected Fellows who stood looking out on to the terrace. Sometimes when you admire a writer you are disinclined to find out much about them. I must have seen photographs of Jane, but ignored them. My mental picture was of a small sinuous creature, with a gamine haircut and wide eyes like a lynx; someone who spoke in a dry whisper, if she spoke at all. The reality was quite different. Jane was tall and stately, with a deep, old-fashioned, actressy voice. She had the feline quality I had imagined, but it was leonine, tawny, dominant, not slinking nor fugitive. If she had purred, the room might have shaken. She was an impressive and powerful woman.
But in conversation, I found, she was kind and unassuming. She never forgot, in her fiction, what it was like to be a young girl, and she carried an ingénue spirit inside a wise and experienced body. She seemed self-conscious about the impression she created, and anxious – not to efface it, but to check and modify it, so as to put others at their ease. If they were not at ease, they could not show themselves and there would be nothing for her to carry away. She was interested in people, but not simply in a beady-eyed writer’s way. When she took the trouble to make a friend of me, she also made a friend of my husband, who is neither an artist nor a writer. She dedicated her last published book to us, jointly. It seemed too much. She had given me years of delight and instruction, and I felt I had not repaid her. In those years I was short of energy for friendship, though she must have seen I was not short of capacity. Our work did not make much of a fit, and we appeared together just once, at a small bookshop event. She read beautifully. Her professional training shone through, her voice strong and every pause judged to a microsecond. But she read unaffectedly, smiling, with pleasure in the audience’s enjoyment. I was happy that the Cazalet novels brought her new fans. As much as her style, I admired her tenacity. She was still writing when she died: a book called Human Error. I wish I had asked her which of the selection available she had chosen as her focus.
No doubt the best conversations are those that never quite occur. I sensed that we both lived in hope, and had frequently lived on it. I always felt there was something I should ask her, or something she meant to ask me. The morning after she died, I was one interviewee among many, talking about her on radio. I was working in Stratford-on-Avon, so used the RSC’s studio. It was a last-minute, short-notice arrangement and I had only just learned of her death, so I may not have been eloquent. But I saw her face very clearly as I spoke. She had acted in Stratford as a girl and she would have liked what the day offered: the dark wintery river, the swans gliding by, and behind rain-streaked windows, new dramas in formation: human shadows, shuffling and whispering in the dimness, hoping – by varying and repeating their errors – to edge closer to getting it right. In Jane’s novels, the timid lose their scripts, the bold forget their lines, but a performance, somehow, is scrambled together; heads high, hearts sinking, her characters head out into the dazzle of circumstance. Every phrase is improvised and every breath a risk. The play concerns the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit of love. Standing ovations await the brave.
From the lauded, bestselling author of the Cazalet Chronicles.