Elizabeth Jane Howard Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Daniel George

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 his cold sensuality (for which outlets are conveniently available) and for his consistently sarcastic manner (uncharacteristic, surely, of company lawyers). So far, the marriage has survived its inevitable vicissitudes—infidelities (if the old-fashioned term can be countenanced) on both sides; war-time separation (Conrad hush-hushed); holidays abroad; children trouble; a flare-up of incompatibilities. It is, we infer, now approaching breaking-point. Episode '1956' is left to be imagined.

Not many novels deserve to be read twice. This one does—preferably, the second time, from finish to start. Meanwhile, to read it once is to renew acquaintance with an author whose achievement would not suffer by strict comparison with that of any living woman novelist.

Daniel George, in a review of "The Long View," in The Spectator (© 1956 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 247, No. 6664, March 16, 1956, p. 352.

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

Virgilia Peterson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 404 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 669 words.)

Thomas J. Fleming

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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 entire section is 304 words.)

The New Yorker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


(The entire section is 143 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 506 words.)

Mary Borg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 328 words.)

Steven Kroll

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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…....

(The entire section is 457 words.)

Anne DuchêNe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 651 words.)

Jonathan Birchall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 396 words.)

Eve Ottenberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 332 words.)