26 November 2016

The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Recently, Artemis Cooper was a guest on one of the books podcasts I subscribe to.  It was the middle of the night when podcasts are supposed to lull me back to sleep, but not this time.  At one point Cooper said that if you only ever read one of Elizabeth Jane Howard's novels it should be The Long View as it's her masterpiece.  It just so happened that I had bought the very book only a week before.  Oh the thrill of coincidence.

First published in 1956, the story begins with a gathering at the home of Conrad and Antonia Fleming, in Campden Hill Square.  The occasion is in honor of their son's engagement.  The atmosphere of women arriving in wakes of perfume as they pop upstairs to check their hair and make-up reads like any given evening in Howard's sphere.  There's also the aspect of ritual as the women eye June, barely out of her teens, as she's about to navigate the world of 'married women'.  There's a myriad of choices to be made if you're to run the perfect home.  But the story soon veers from middle-class life in 1950s London.

The story is divided into five sections, each jumping back in time throughout Antonia's life to her late teens.  It goes a long way in explaining why she married a man as ruthlessly vile as Conrad.  He's the sort of person who likes to offer choices in a manner veiled to look like options when really the outcome is win-win for him.  His attempts to achieve manhood frequently involve treating women like children, and he's not beyond leaving change on the bedside table of women he's slept with.

Howard's exquisite prose and powers of observation blend in such a way that a gift from Antonia's father-in-law is very much a portend of the gloom ahead...

'It was a snowstorm.  She suddenly remembered having one as a child, and wondered where it had gone, even when it had vanished.  Hers had been a small thatched cottage with two pine trees; this was a lighthouse on a rocky point surrounded by a raging sea.'

I loved this book.  The frustration I initially felt due to Antonia's passive nature melted into sympathy by the last few chapters.  I wished it were possible to time shift her away from the path her life would take.  Aside from that, the glimpses into various social groups throughout three decades are beautifully detailed.  There's tennis, horses, and dinner parties on Monday evenings because working for money is either unnecessary or invisible.

The Long View was my introduction to Elizabeth Jane Howard.  If this is her masterpiece it sounds as though nothing else will compare, but somehow I doubt that.  Writing this beautiful, storytelling so masterfully laid out, can't be a one-off.  And speaking of introductions, Hilary Mantel's offering in my Picador edition is one of the loveliest I've ever read.

The reissues of Howard's books are gorgeous, and I know readers on these blogs will buy up books and store them away until they're not the thing to talk about anymore.  But if you do have a copy of The Long View squirreled away...don't!


Portrait of a Young Woman by Edwin Holgate
(1938)

5 comments:

  1. You mean to say you haven't read The Cazalet Chronicles? Darlene! You will LOVE them. If not, I will buy you any book you choose. Honestly.

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  2. It's shocking, isn't it! I've had my eye out for that series for absolute ages. It never appears as a whole in second-hand shops and I can't bear the thought of a mismatched set. What I did do last week is request that my library replace the missing copies...we own the first and last in the series. So fear not, this will be my next obsession! And thanks for the laugh this morning.

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  3. Now I'm laughing because I have the first four in matching editions but the last volume is different and I'm fighting the urge to replace the first four!

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  4. Ah, you had me up to "...a man as ruthlessly vile as Conrad." I don't think I can bear to read about a woman in the 1950s trapped in that socially approved cage.

    Hmm, I thought I was the only one who snapped up books reviewed on blogs, and then kept them for the right moment.

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    1. The number of times I wanted to slap that man, Susan!

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