I wonder if Elizabeth Jane Howard is as well known and appreciated as much as she should be? If you know her or have read her, likely you are most familiar with her quintet of books known as The Cazalet Chronicles. She wrote eighteen books over the course of her career which include not only novels but short stories and a memoir. She had an interesting life which included work in the theater as well as a marriage to author Kingsley Amis. My January prompt book was her first novel, The Beautiful Visit, which she published in 1950 and which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for best first novel. I can see why.
I write in my books. Only with pencil and very lightly. Usually it is only a matter of a little mark to remember a particular passage, but I almost felt like I was having a conversation with the main character as I was reading this book. I don't think she was ever actually named, but I read something which referred to her as Lavinia, so I will follow suit. Lavinia is quite a complicated young woman, and my impression of her and reaction to her thoughts and actions ran quite the gamut from start to end. She surprised me, disappointed me, maybe even confused me a little, but in the end she won my approbation.
As I was reading I thought it was a matter of first book jitters. A little stilted language, a character who didn't do what I expected (or maybe wanted) her to do. She was awkward and sometimes the dialogue felt awkward, but now that all is said and done I think Howard knew just what she was doing. Lavinia didn't quite seem to fit the mold of a young woman living around the war years of 1914-1918. Then again, maybe she does. She just didn't accept a tidy and predictable life in the end and for that I admire her greatly. Certainly she is raised to be a typical young middle class woman, but she has little education and no skills at all to see her through life independently. It is expected she'll marry, but first I think the 'Beautiful Visit' came along and then the Great War and then all bets were off.
The story opens with an invitation to a Christmas house party in the country which her elder sister turns down so she goes instead. There is something magical about the Lancings and their friends. They are perhaps a little Bohemian, wealthy, and unusual. It's the people she meets there that will set her on her life's trajectory and help guide it however inadvertently, though things don't always turn out as she wants or expects. Late in the story, one of the young men she first met that fateful Christmas, will say to her:
"You have always, to me, ever since I first met you, seemed possessed of a potential capacity for life which I am quite without."
But at that point, that first moment she is an unformed, unmolded young woman. Inexperienced and uncertain what she wants from life. The Visit comes and goes, and she catches some small glimpse of what life might be perhaps. When she returns home to London she tries to gain a little independence hoping to work in a library, but her parents reject the idea. One of four children, her father is a composer and her mother a housewife. Her brothers, of course, are educated and go off on careers but she and her sister are meant to be proper young women. For her sister that is not a problem since she is most conventional with hopes that verge on a possible religious life, or at first it seems as that is all she wants or hopes for. In any case she likely will follow and hope for a more traditional path in life. The family, however, live lives of genteel poverty and as the years tick by the family falls further into penury so for the girls in the family, there are few opportunities.
For much of the novel I felt like Lavinia is a character to whom life just happens. She drifts along with little control and when she does try and make life choices and assert her independence, the results are almost always disastrous. Nothing she does really ends in any sort of success. Even the war, which gives her sister opportunities and purpose, just rolls over Lavinia. She finds love but loses it. But each little attempt builds and it becomes her story, which she finds she wants to tell it, and it is as a writer that she finds her voice. So much happens in this story, not all of it is happy, but it always feels real. Howard captures life so perfectly and particularly the plight of women in this era of both claustrophobia and possibilities. What happens when the war gives women a taste of freedom and independence but then is taken away once the war ends is one of the themes Howard takes up so well in this story.
I had to go back at the end to the beginning and read the prologue once more. It makes more sense in light of what comes after since the story begins in that prologue in a boat with Lavinia wrapped in fur, asleep on the floor with two notebooks of her life story lying in the middle of the bed. It's easy to forget those first pages, but it was helpful to know that all the struggles she must endure in the story ends with her thinking--"life loomed before me, as wide with chance as it had been the day I was born." My "prompt" was a fresh start and I never would have realized what a perfect choice this would turn out to be.
Needless to say Elizabeth Jane Howard is a most impressive writer, but then I knew that already via the Cazalets and her wonderful memoir. This first novel had Virago Modern Classic written all over it style-wise (though it was a reissue from Picador/Macmillan). I will most certainly be reading more of her work and now will have to get my hands on more of those reissues.