Authors: Elizabeth Jane Howard
For Ursula Vaughan Williams with love from Jane
Elizabeth Jane Howard has described herself as being in the straight tradition of English novelists. ‘I simply write about other people, by themselves or in relation one
to another. The first aim of a novel should be readability.’
True, she does not offer the tractarian, the gothick, the prophetic, the mythic; not faction, or the experimental preliminaries of a screen script set in concrete verse, or computerized
documentation of a junkie paradise, for an audience dedicated, even fanatical, but scanty. She writes novels, of personal conflict, scheming, dismay, resolution against odds. Social issues are
implicit, but subtly realized through discussion, reflection, group-codes. They are never flourished like war cries or lecture headings masquerading as imagination: they are a reminder of Rebecca
West remarking that there is very little in Shakespeare which can be used as propaganda for adult suffrage.
‘Straight tradition’ may suggest stodginess, at best pellucid imitation of classical models. Here, it is very misleading. Original perceptions and inventive narrative transcend form.
This author can transform the familiar – a dinner, a walk in a park, a garden vista – into the strange, the enticing, the extraordinary. Simultaneously, she conveys the desirability of
life, by demonstrating that appearances, however ominous, may deceive, little can be taken for granted. Life is no disease or trauma to be partly cured by worldly success, romantic coincidence,
perfect love or a word in the right quarter. It is a gift not to be squandered or lost: both sexes must work at it, with imagination and intelligence, as they grapple with each other or with
themselves; they must keep at concert pitch, in friendship, love, marriage, and the apparently normal.
Humour helps. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s is not rollicking; the false nose and battered hat are not among her props. Like E. M. Forster she relishes the sly, the oblique, the deft exchanges
of minds civilized if not always genteel. She can use satire, shrewdly, but not to hate or pettily despise and is quick to spot sudden incongruities. In this novel, she casually mentions a retired,
one-legged prostitute residing in a Home ‘with what she described as a not very nice class of person’, and observes ‘various salads fainting gaily in their bowls’.
Her career began with the considerable advantage of omitting school, thus saving her from her convictions and standardized thought, reinforcing some ingrained independence. She has been model,
actress, secretary, dramatist, worked for the BBC, tirelessly served authors on platform and committee, has travelled widely, married distinguished but difficult men, been a mother and stepmother;
splendid qualifications for writing humane novels. Her independence does not falter; she will never be fooled by some Post-Literature claque into accepting the impossibility of making value
The Song the Old Cow Died Of.
An authority on cooking and gardening, she knows how things work. Theatrical experiences may have helped her ease
with scenic effects, time-changes, dialogue, small clues to an eventual climax, the depiction of both the private and public self in a single incident.
Her gaze is cool, sympathetic yet gently tempered by irony. None knows better the traps threatening freedom or happiness, however well-fortified the home, thickly padded the conscience, heavily
stocked the bank balance. Most people are vulnerable to guilt, self-doubts, nagging suspicions, sometimes torment. Fine manners, witty rejoinders, stylish routines barely disguise the brute
struggle to survive, if possible with dignity. Irresponsibility, wilful blindness, invite retribution. Always, freedom is important. Sybille Bedford, a leading contemporary writer, praising
Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘complex and original talent’, mentions the theme of choice, of limited free will, inherent in any novel of stature. Throughout her work, Howard allows her
characters the dignity of choice; none are ciphers, digits, pretentious symbols fulfilling some lifeless pattern. Fate may exist but it is more useful, more entertaining to behave as if it does
Getting it Right
, Gavin Lamb does at first seem to exemplify our northern ancestors’ apprehension of
, inexorable Destiny. He is a London hairdresser, skilled but
scarcely fashionable, at thirty-one still a virgin, living with his suburban parents, perhaps fated to wither on the bough or be fatally pecked. He is spotty, dandruffy, and perforce diplomatic, at
times obsequious. He is also decent, doggedly fair-minded, reticent. Virtually self-educated, he listens to Mozart, Brahms, Richard Strauss, discriminates between Curzon, Gieseking, Serkin; he
reads Anthony Powell, Aldous Huxley, can quote Tolstoy; a client’s stutter reminds him of Demosthenes, George VI, Somerset Maugham. Yet he has only one real friend, feels himself ‘not
up to real life’, is complete only in dreams and day-dreams where he is free to utter real thoughts, behave as he wishes, not as others command. An art catalogue, or a mere closing of eyes,
can provide impossible girls against vivid southern décors but, awaking, he finds movement in any direction actually perilous. He has sex on the brain yet hopelessly confines it to the head,
and his friend recommends him to find a boy and leave home. Familiar with a Berthe Morisot or Vuillard painting, he shrinks from real people outside his professional range, particularly those who
‘are up to it’, and must content himself with acute though suppressed observation, noting a face under the dryer ‘suffused to the matt apoplectic bloom of unpeeled
beetroot’. He resembles an early H. G. Wells young hopeful, though his creator has sustained a belief in the Novel as a self-sufficient art-form, which Wells did not. Wells wanted to change
the world by lecturing it; Howard knows that the novelist and poet are already changing the world by giving new coatings, new imageries, to make the familiar altogether unfamiliar, and revealing
the hitherto unperceived.
Gavin realizes that drifting can be as dangerous as lingering. He needs some shock, some catalyst, to propel him into ‘getting it right’ with those who really are up to it.
Unwillingly, he goes to an expensive party. Elizabeth Jane Howard is finely tuned to parties, their nuances, brief encounters, chasms, blocked escape routes, ambiguous promises, the undercurrents,
pockets of boredom, hope, menace. Arriving, Gavin is immediately closeted with his hostess, Joan, wealthy, fifteen stone, in an orange wig, who at once starts a truth game, and he unexpectedly
finds himself talking freely to a stranger.
He finished his drink. Then, with a final effort, he said, ‘I invent girls who are in love with me. Girls who’ll do anything I want. You’re the kind of
person that, in a different way, I’m afraid I am.’
(She said:) ‘I’m grotesque. I underline it, so that everybody else will know that I know I’m grotesque. I make the most of a bad job. I love men – particularly
beautiful men – and I’m sorry for myself. When I saw you, I wondered what you’d cost.’
There was a silence between them during which Gavin became conscious of his total absence of fear. He could look at the figure before him – at the orange hair and orange mouth painted
on to a dead white face, the plate-glass diamanté spectacles, the corseted bulk of the silver lamé – simply as part of the pieces of declared truth about her which neither
of them felt the need to judge or disclaim. It was as though she had made herself transparent; as though what ordinarily constituted the brick walls of personality had become like glass –
or even clear water. Had he become like that for her? Had she accepted those fragments of truth about him, and if she had, what might happen next? Some of his exhilaration ebbed and he felt a
familiar spasm of fear.
Very soon, in stark contrast, he meets Minerva, waifish, unstable, clinging, and surely a liar. If his relation with Joan resembles an operatic duet, that with Minerva seems a
duel, at first clumsy and tentative, then points are scored, feints accomplished, a swipe dodged. A direct hit might settle everything. There emerges, however, a third girl, hitherto barely noticed
though continually present and unobtrusively waiting. To disclose more would spoil things. Suffice that rosebuds are swiftly gathered, a tree of knowledge is partially ransacked, and Gavin realizes
that set-backs can be transformed to assets, that glittering prizes can tomahawk the recipients, and that chance can be as fruitful as design. Joan’s party presents him with a maze, with
intricate twists and illusions, perhaps leading to a challenging centre, or perhaps only to an escape-hatch no longer wholly desired.
There ensue comedy, pathos, suspense. A visit to Weybridge, visiting self-made rich at their nastiest, introduces Sir Gordon, who ‘held out his hand with a gesture just short of warding
him off that turned into a handshake’, and whose face drains from plum ‘to the mauve, twilit dusk of far-off hills’. Gavin’s mother is a memorably comic compression of
aggrieved self-contradictions and scathing non-sequiturs, the perpetual small explosions ‘of an excitable person who was short of excitement’.
Mum kept the rest of the house so nice that it was in a perpetual state of suspended animation – there was no sign that anyone ever read, sewed, talked, left things
about, or even dropped or broke them – whatever they did, she cleared it up almost before they had finished doing it. Even meals were cleared off the table the moment their mouths –
or possibly only plates – were empty. The garden was rather like that as well. It was so tidy and symmetrical that putting even one deck chair in it made it look lop-sided. Largely on the
strength of these things, Mrs Lamb had the reputation for being a wonderful wife and mother.
Getting it Right
is an excellent story, yet some very good stories have made very bad books. The matter of style is crucial, the author’s individual slant on life, thus on
language. Vision, though this word is too often followed by the pompous or vague. Yet vision, style, ensures the survival of such writers as dissimilar as Henry Green, L. H. Myers, Patrick
Hamilton, and extinguishes a long gallery of bestsellers ennobled by Hollywood, gossip columnists, and indeed the Crown. Some styles are so instantly recognizable that to name the author is
The woman’s a whore, and there’s an end on’t.
With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind
The station master’s whiskers are of a Victorian bushiness and give the impression of having been grown under glass.
Evelyn Waugh is unlikely to be mistaken for Charles Lamb, Virginia Woolf for Pepys. Several facets of Graham Greene entwine in a single sentence:
A man like Titus Oates occurs like a slip of the tongue, discharging the unconscious, the night-side of an age we might otherwise have thought of in terms of Dryden
discussing the art of dramatic poesy, while his Thames boatmen rested on their oars and the thunder of an indeterminate sea-battle came up from the Medway no louder than the noise of swallows
in a chimney.
Elizabeth Jane Howard has assured literary personality, a style not declamatory or grandiose, but fresh, flowing – one cannot strain for originality – and very
visual. She presents notable set-pieces but it is often the small observation slipped in almost as an aside that can illuminate the page:
Her mouth, as moist and pink as an uncooked chipolata, curled into its miniature smile.
She must have looked extraordinary when pregnant – like a young tree with one enormous pear.
Her profile was almost beautiful if her skin hadn’t been so stretched over her bones, like silk on a model aeroplane.
Inexperienced writers give us too much explanation, too many details, not trusting their readers’ imagination, so that the work sags.
Getting it Right
in pace and leaves fruitful gaps, because its author well knows that, however substantial the evidence, answers are seldom final, that truth, like love, is usually provisional, neat verdicts can be
unreal. Some areas of life will, and should, remain mysterious. Mystery, of course, is one thing, jargon and obscurity quite another; the former quickens the imagination, the latter suffocates it.
A rereading of this novel will prove what a heap of pleasure remains long after the outcome is known. Indeed, for some readers the deepening, more leisurely pleasures, will then actually begin, the
coordination of craft, characterization and language.