Howard, Elizabeth Jane (Vol. 29)
Elizabeth Jane Howard 1923–
English novelist, short story writer, scriptwriter, and editor.
Howard is noted for her sensitive observations of human relationships and for her precise, elegant style, which critics often describe as exquisite. Although her works contain highly romantic themes, critics point out that Howard avoids sentimentality through the use of satire, and they sometimes describe her as a novelist of manners. Howard's fiction usually revolves around female protagonists.
In Howard's novels the actions of her characters are prompted by a change of circumstance. For example, by visiting a family very different from her own, the adolescent protagonist in The Beautiful Visit (1950) makes discoveries about herself, and in After Julius (1965), it is a weekend gathering that brings together previously estranged characters. Some critics complain that such situations are overly contrived, while others praise their realism. Howard is also commended for her unorthodox narrative technique. In After Julius the point of view shifts from character to character, while The Long View (1956) traces the stages of a disintegrating marriage in reverse chronological order. The highly organized structure of these works has favorably impressed some critics.
Like her earlier works, Howard's recent novel, Getting It Right (1982), has drawn both praise and disapproval from critics. This story of a shy male hairdresser in search of a meaningful relationship has been faulted for its clichéd themes, stock characterizations, and poorly developed plot, but it has also been praised as a satire of middle-class mores.
(See also CLC, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 8.)
Florence Haxton Bullock
Miss Elizabeth Jane Howard's first novel, "The Beautiful Visit," is a lively, wistful, romance-saturated autobiography of a young English girl from the day she encounters a strange boy flying his kite in Kensington Gardens and carries him triumphantly home to tea, on through the tempestuous years of her adolescence….
Miss Howard writes her novel with a brilliant ease that is impressive. Her more matter-of-fact passages have a salty adroitness….
Throughout most of the novel, however, Miss Howard needs—and uses—a more tenuous and subtle style to convey the texture and flavor of a girl's romantic experiences. Occasionally she goes off the deep end into passages that are tortuous or even downright silly. And her horror story of the maiden, the eccentric old woman and the parrot lacks, understandably, the mastery of a "Wuthering Heights" or a "Fall of the House of Usher." Taken as a whole the novel shows both considerable promise and pleasant performance.
Florence Haxton Bullock, "Wistful and Romantic Novel," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), August 30, 1950, p. 8.
(The entire section is 179 words.)
This novel ["The Long View"]—Elizabeth Jane Howard's second—is a very good one, aimed to please and not perturb. Technically its design is an anti-chronological arrangement of episodes in the lives of a comparatively cultured, reasonably well-off married couple, Conrad and Antonia Fleming—Arcades ambo, egoists both, he the infallible tyrant, she the acquiescent resister. Each nicely selected episode (they are datelined respectively 1950, 1942, 1937, 1927 and 1926) contains a dramatic situation. Indeed, the word 'situation' is used as a kind of paper-clip: the opening of Part I being 'This, then, was the situation,' Part II begins 'The situation is perfectly simple'—and so on from part to part. It is the only obtrusive gadget of an ingenious construction, if we agree to ignore the contrivance that at the end of the first (or last) episode the susceptible and soignée Antonia is confronted responsively by a masterful and mysterious stranger in much the same casual fashion as she is in the last (or first).
Though in the method of story-telling here employed some tension may be lost, continuity of interest is preserved, curiosity never being left unpiqued. Curiosity about Antonia, traced back from the threat of maturity to the promise of maidenhood, is almost completely satisfied. Conrad's wish to remain enigmatic is perhaps too scrupulously respected. He had, it must be supposed, something of charm to compensate for...
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The Times Literary Supplement
One of the trials of becoming an "important" novelist is that critics start to make hay with influences and trends. Miss Howard has already won a high reputation with her two earlier novels, and The Sea Change confirms her place among the important women novelists now writing. Though it would be a mistake to saddle her already with high-flown comparisons or influences—particularly since one is much aware of her potentialities and of the quiet confidence with which she is developing along her own lines—it may be worth quoting a remark of Henry James, who was similarly preoccupied with variations in technique. He says:
Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.
This is Miss Howard's constant theme, the flux of relationships at a level of intimacy which demands the most delicate investigation if we are to discover truth, and the most intricate selection of situations that will appear both complete and natural.
The Sea Change is told through each of the four characters in turn, and this gives the reader the illusion of being at the centre of the circle of events, although it means the sacrifice of the surprise element and occasionally appears self-conscious because of the need to distinguish...
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Elizabeth Jane Howard seems to belong, by nature as well as by profession, among those British women writers whose trademark is their exacerbated sensibility. If the dean of these novelists, Virginia Woolf, achieved a collaboration of sense and sensibility as yet unmatched, her successors—most notably Elizabeth Bowen and Rosamund Lehmann—though less raw-nerved and more safely cushioned have the same passion for nuances. This peculiarly feminine contribution to the modern novel is the yardstick by which Elizabeth Jane Howard should be measured.
There are four major characters in Miss Howard's [The Sea Change], not one of whom, on the surface, could escape the charge of stereotype…. At first glance these figures are so recognizable that the reader is tempted to believe that he knows about them all there will ever be to know. But it is a mistake to draw this conclusion. Long before the novel ends, Miss Howard has peeled away not only their familiar apparel, but also their pretenses and defenses, and has caused them to suffer such a sea change in their concept of themselves and one another that they become absorbingly unique.
For the reader who seeks unplumbed depths of human character the opening scene is discouraging….
But soon the novel turns into something richer and stranger. It begins to change tone with the appearance in its pages of the fourth of the protagonists, the new...
(The entire section is 404 words.)
The Times Literary Supplement
It is [the] self-conscious concern about how to balance obligations which provides a theme for Miss Howard's [After Julius], and it is by exploring the repercussions, twenty years later, of one man's grand gesture of self-sacrifice that she questions whether the idealist, concerned with saving the world rather than those he loves, has the right to such a choice.
At the time of Dunkirk, Julius, a guilty survivor of the First World War, had quietly equipped a small boat, crossed the Channel, picked up three men, and died of bullet wounds before regaining Newhaven, leaving a young widow and two daughters. Esme, now fifty-eight, is preparing her comfortable Sussex house for weekend guests, among them Felix, the young doctor with whom she had been having an affair at the time of her husband's death, who had reacted to the news that she was now free by volunteering for the Marines; he has spent the intervening twenty years in the Far East. Julius's younger daughter Emma is twenty-seven and still a virgin, working in the family publishing firm. When a rough-voiced young poet called Daniel Brick turns up to collect his royalties and appears to be homeless, she decides to take him home for the weekend. Her sister Cressy, who gives occasional piano recitals and is perpetually in tears over some unsuitable man or other, arrives as usual tense, truculent and beautiful.
As in some prewar country-house comedy, the guests no...
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Thomas J. Fleming
["After Julius"] is Elizabeth Jane Howard's fourth novel—time to ask where one of England's most talented writers is going. Miss Howard has been called "promising" so often the word must make her shudder. She has also been pinned as a "lady novelist"—fit companion for such quivering stylists as Rosamond Lehmann.
I suspect Miss Howard does not accept this description of herself…. Is Miss Howard tired of being hailed for her exquisite sensibility? Does she want us to notice that she also has quite a bit of sense in her books?
At bottom, all the characters in "After Julius" are working out a dilemma that has muddled middle-class lives in England and America for generations—how the do-good tradition of loving "humanity" in the large permits people (especially men) to fink out on loving people individually. Women, of course, are the inevitable victims of this masculine malaise….
Miss Howard handles this story pretty much in the manner of her previous books—shifting points of view between the major characters. The style is superb, as always. The sensibility still casts a glow. Beautiful Cressida, endlessly analyzing her failures at love is a fascinating, totally believable character.
However, the same jarring artificiality remains. Asking us to believe Esme and Felix have remained in emotional limbo for 20 years while waiting for their confrontation is a bit creaky. The...
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The New Yorker
Miss Howard, a talented and totally humorless writer, has produced a long and engrossing novel about lovers and love affairs. There is nothing in [After Julius] to disturb or distress anyone. It is the escape novel brought to a special, very feminine peak of perfection. Sex, suffering, and security are so closely entwined here that the novel seems to take on the shape of a great big heart—a perfect heart, warm and cozy inside, with lots of mirrors, and, outside, presenting an image that is enviable because it is both sophisticated and rosy. The book, in which coincidence sprouts as many arms as Shiva, is kept off the ground solely by the charm and will of its author, a remarkably seductive writer.
A review of "After Julius," in The New Yorker (© 1966 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLII, No. 8, April 16, 1966, p. 199.
(The entire section is 143 words.)
The Times Literary Supplement
As a gimmick for the culture department of television, how about a studio gathering of the "Elizabeth" novelists—the Misses Bowen, Taylor, Jenkins and Howard? The game would be to attribute selected quotations. Of course, such a confrontation would reveal very considerable distinctions of personality and talent—supposing the participants were likely to agree to such frivolous categorizing. But the thought occurs, not entirely frivolously, after one has checked back from Miss Howard's [Something in Disguise] to make sure that the many echoes of character and situation are not, as it were, generic. The opening scene, of a middle-class family wedding day in the Home Counties, complete with scatty widowed mother and cynical bachelor son, for instance; or the theme of a gauche, schoolgirlish virgin blossoming in the sophisticated hands of a paternal lover; the loneliness of a woman, growing too old for love, gently consoled by a scruffy cat; one could pick a dozen more examples, none the less enjoyable for seeming vaguely déjà vu, that will be comfortingly familiar to the many admirers of "Elizabeth" novelists.
Not that Miss Howard, during the four years since her last book appeared, has marked time. For the first ninety pages of Something in Disguise it seems as if she intends to make us laugh, with lots of brittle talk and expert guying of vulgar provincial life, Surrey snobbery, and trendy young London living...
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Elizabeth Jane Howard's [Something in Disguise] is really about selfishness; both unconscious and otherwise. It's also about love and happiness; what passes for them most of the time, and how most people acquire them at the expense of others. A family—May and her two children, Elizabeth and Oliver, her second husband, the Colonel and his daughter, Alice—tread out an intricate dance of tentative gropings for affection and rough grabs at happiness. The girls and May are well-meaning and affectionate, but inhibited in their ability to express this to each other. Oliver is feckless, lazy and selfish, using people, especially Elizabeth, shamelessly. Alice makes a disastrous marriage to get away from her awful father. May is left alone with him, taking refuge in a League of shady metaphysics. All the women feel themselves to be stupid and hopeless, the men superior and more intelligent.
Moments of apparent happiness and romance are abolished by quick changes of heart, revelations of true feelings and sometimes sheer wickedness. In the end, everyone is sadder but not much wiser. Miss Howard's stringent pen is brought to bear on certain types of middle-class moeurs and speech, but I suspect that she sometimes doesn't fully realise quite how terrible they are. Her descriptions of Alice's marriage and her appalling in-laws are among the best things in the book. But I can't quite accept the total innocence of the girls, nor the...
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Elizabeth Jane Howard's publisher compares her with Jane Austen. "Something in Disguise" lacks the Austen richness of texture and gentle touch and investigates private thoughts as a structural concession to modernity—but the comparison is not entirely unjustified. Like a substantial handful of contemporary English writers—among them Elizabeth Taylor and, more eccentrically, Henry Green and the late Ivy Compton-Burnett—Miss Howard is a novelist of manners. (Amusingly and quite improbably, one of the characters in this her fifth novel enjoys the very writers I've mentioned.) And like Jane Austen, these novelists of manners tend to rely on the milieu of the generally well-off, often idle, upper middle class….
["After Julius"] revolved around the ultimately too easy resolution of the problems of a mother and two daughters during a weekend in the country. And in its way the book was rather like a formal English country weekend: undemandingly pleasing, stylish, circumscribed, softly growing in atmosphere, dotted with false moments and people you don't like or can't believe in, finally both satisfying and irritating and then—quickly forgotten. Nothing could be more out of touch with the world or more typically upper middle class than such a weekend, and although "Something in Disguise" eliminates the soft glow, is more brittle and consistently comic, takes in the Riviera and Jamaica as well as Surrey and London, it also qualifies....
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How the Modest Hairdresser is Deflowered by a Millionaire, becomes Involved with a Member of a Superior Class, and Finally Learns that Love was All the Time to be Found in the Cubicle at Work … Some rather maudlin modern Moll Flanders? The newest packaged product, hot from the conveyor-belt? Alas, no: an outline of Elizabeth Jane Howard's new and, as her publishers say, "long-awaited" novel [Getting It Right], which seems to have been written under some odd and regrettable compulsions towards up-to-dateness, from which she should feel herself honourably absolved.
Her timid virgin hairdresser [Gavin] is male, slightly improbably aged thirty-one, a victim of acne and boils, living at home in New Barnet with his parents, his records, his poetry books, and his fantasies about women. At the book's outset, he goes to a party in Knightsbridge with some homosexuals he knows (introduced, one imagines, to allow the statutory glimpse into their menage later on), and is bedded, with ecstatic success, by the rich hostess. He also meets there a poor little jibbering wreck of a contemporary rich girl—called Minerva, a rather old-fashioned Howard touch—who travels with a parrot in her Mini; but their relations remain quite audaciously platonic. True love finally manifests itself in his trainee apprentice, who has cropped hair like fur, and very big, very round spectacles and a small illegitimate son, all...
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[Getting It Right is funny] enough, but Gavin's odyssey is just not that interesting. He develops, but there is never any real crisis, no wrestling with alternative destinies. Important issues, such as the impossibility of monogamy and the meaningless tedium of life in the suburbs, are mentioned and then dropped. The poor sod never gets a chance to get things wrong; he just trots along while Howard throws up diversionary incidents to keep things going. (p. 599)
So why keep reading? Because, I suppose, of the Soap Opera Effect, by which even the most trivial characters become interesting when you know enough details about their personal lives (is this why we keep our friends?). Howard makes Gavin an attractive character by effectively describing the mental agonies of the extremely self-conscious: "Another thing about parties, he recalled, was that he nearly always felt too hot at them." Or, "Gavin decided to stand, and then thought he couldn't stand all through a drink, so he sat down."
Unfortunately, the psychological realism with which Gavin is portrayed does not sit easily with the two-dimensional caricatures that make up the rest of the cast. Howard seesaws between the wish to say something deep about the human condition in North Barnet and the wish to get not-too-expensive laughs.
Getting It Right is entertaining, like a BBC sitcom, but is it London? Howard has an excellent...
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Despite its peculiarities and stereotyped minor characters, "Getting It Right" gives a humorous peek at a social world that seems quite credible. The situation, of course, is serious and preposterous at the same time. The solemnity accorded anything pertaining to Gavin's sexual encounters seems out of proportion, especially since every other facet of human behavior is treated as a fit target for ridicule. The novel is often quite funny, but the minute the lights go down, the prose takes on a funereal glow and the reader gets the rather unexpected sense of being on sacred ground, with the narrator's tone, full of pomp and significance, seeming to sound the stern alert, "definitely no laughing aloud." Such sanctimony is likely to make a skeptical reader more so, and Gavin Lamb does not hold up very well under such scrutiny….
[Gavin's] ailment and [his] cure, however, seem oddly out of proportion. Gavin Lamb is repeatedly referred to as someone so paralyzingly frightened of other people that he has had only one friend in his life. He has lived almost exclusively in a world of daydreams, solitude and crushing routine. Now it is perfectly possible that one evening can transform someone's character and life. But if it does and if such an event is the crux of a novel, it seems only fair to make the case for how this happens in convincing detail. The notion that overcoming a sexual inhibition can work miracles is a comforting one and...
(The entire section is 332 words.)