If you think that you might read The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard and don’t want to know anything about the plot, then read no further. The pleasure of the book is, however, in the prose and acute observations of human relationships, so I don’t think that knowing a little about the plot would matter much; and I’ve no idea anyway how much I will give away.
I’m writing this on my birthday. I pay little attention to birthdays, unlike my children, but I’ve felt that because it’s my birthday I can indulge myself. So instead of working and answering emails I’ve copied out all the quotes I clipped on my Kindle. It’s taken me more than an hour, but it meant I relived the book—not the plot but the “feel.” And as I copied the words, I listened to Strauss’s Four Last Songs sung by Jessye Norman. Few things are more exquisite.
I’m going to attach my quotes at the end of this note, They are described by Hilary Mantel as “jaundiced observations – pithily expressed, painfully accurate.” I read the book because Mantel selected Howard as her favourite novelist, and I’ve attached below a long quote from her article and a link to it. I’d never read any Howard before, although I knew her as Kingsley Amis’s wife and Martin Amis’s stepmother. This is shameful but a reflection of how the world regards “women writers.” She is a better writer than either and certainly a better observer of human relationships.
“Life is lived forwards but understood backwards,” said Kierkegaard, and perhaps that’s why The Long View goes backwards. It reminded me of Pinter’s play Betrayal, which also goes backwards. The Long View was published in 1956, Betrayal in 1998. Perhaps Pinter was influenced by Howard.
The first section of the book is set in 1950. Mrs Fleming is married to an impossible man—conceited, rude, selfish, arrogant, and uncaring. The only man in the book who is not in some way a monster is her father, a man who cares not about the present but about 16th century social customs, is mostly reading in his library, and ignores the silly ways of his promiscuous wife. He is loved by Toni, as we later learn Mrs Fleming to be called, primarily because she hates her mother.
Back in 1950, her husband is about to leave her and her two children are launching into relationships that look set to be disastrous. She is a wise, comforting woman who makes people feel good. She’s a mother. Her son is marrying an unhappy, inexperienced woman simply to get the business of marriage out of the way. The wife to be, who also hates her mother, knows she doesn’t love and isn’t loved but lacks the courage to act; at least she’ll get away from her mother. Mrs Fleming’s daughter loves passionately a man who cares little for her and has got pregnant by him, perhaps in an attempt trap him. She is copying her mother, as we discover later, in loving an unsuitable man, and perhaps all women do at some point. Dumped by the man, she turns quickly to a man who loves her pathetically.
As we go backwards in time, we discover that Mr Fleming, Conrad, has had many affairs, including one with a much younger woman, Imogen, who shares an innocence with the young Toni, whom we encounter later in the book. Conrad finds it awkward that he does love Imogen, but that doesn’t stop him discarding her.
Back further, Antonia, as she is now called, is distraught by her husband’s betrayal and falls into the bed of an accomplished womaniser. He is at least, understanding women well, sensitive to her needs. But he’s more sensitive to his own needs, and she feels foolish when she understands that she’s one of dozens. He’s entirely unperturbed when she ends their relationship.
In 1927 we see Antonia launch into marriage. She’s wholly unprepared. We wonder how it happened.
The final section, from 1926, explains why. Toni lives at home in Sussex with her remote father and mother who loves parties and games. Every weekend there’s a house party with tennis, bridge, horse riding, and cocktails. During the week her mother goes to London for a couple of days, and we, the worldly wise readers, recognise that she’s with a lover. Such a thought never crosses Toni’s mind.
Toni is 19 and looks and behaves like a 17 year old. At one of the parties an older, smooth taking Irishman fixes on her. We have doubts about him immediately, but she falls in love with him. At one point he tries to seduce her, and unprepared she pushes him back. He’s angry. Later he succeeds, and we know that he loses interest at that point. She has no such idea. Worse is to come in that we sense that the Irishman has launched into an affair with Toni’s mother, and so he has. Is the mother doing it partly to compete with her daughter? We suspect so.
At the end of the book Toni meets Conrad, and we understand why she marries him—and we know what is to happen.
The book has an autobiographical feel. Toni begins as a complete innocent about male female relationships, as is, 30 years later, the woman that Mrs Fleming’s son is to marry. Her daughter is less innocent in that she has become pregnant, but it’s surely innocence as well as foolishness that leads her to go off with the old, loving boyfriend. Perhaps all women (and all men?) begin in state of innocence still, but I think that the position of women has changed radically—it is perhaps the biggest change of the last century.
Howard, who died at 90 in 2014, became far from innocent, marrying three times and having a string of lovers, including her first husband’s brother, Arthur Koestler, Ken Tynan, Laurie Lee, Cyril Connolly, and Cecil Day-Lewis. Perhaps all those lovers were the result of a sort of innocence.
Some have argued that The Long View should be included in the 100 great English novels of the 20th century. Lucky Jim, written by Howard’s second husband, Kingsley Amis, is in at least one of those lists, but I’d include The Long View before Lucky Jim. I look forward to reading more Howard.
Hilary Mantel on Elizabeth Jane Howard
“There were only two kinds of people, those who live different lives with the same partner, and those who live the same life with different partners … ”
“She had acted in Stratford as a girl, and she would have liked what the day offered: the dark wintry river, the swans gliding by, and behind rain-streaked windows, new dramas in formation: human shadows, shuffling and whispering in the dimness, hoping – by varying and repeating their errors – to edge closer to getting it right. In Jane’s novels, the timid lose their scripts, the bold forget their lines, but a performance, somehow, is scrambled together; heads high, hearts sinking, her characters head out into the dazzle of circumstance. Every phrase is improvised and every breath a risk. The play concerns the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit of love. Standing ovations await the brave.” Hilary Mantel on EJH
Quotes from Elizabeth Jane Howard. A Long Life
June Stoker would soon be introduced to a company which had long ceased to discover anything new about themselves likely to increase either their animation or their intimacy.
To June the essence of romance suggested the right man in the wrong circumstances
Their children…were the consequence of mistaken social exuberance
His daughter was a more subtle disaster. She was undoubtedly attractive, but although not a fool, she was not equipped with enough intellectual ballast for her charms
That collective mystery, the world
She was a nice, ignorant, unimaginative girl, designed perfectly to reproduce herself; and regarding her, Mr Fleming, found it difficult to believe in The Origin of the Species
What a mistake it is to listen to one’s thoughts. But it is a mistake of such infinite variety that making it constitutes a chief pleasure in life.
Men discuss the fundamentals as superficially as women discuss the superficialities fundamentally.
She passionately wanted to be regarded ‘for herself’ as women say, which means for some elusive attraction which they do not feel they possess.
Do you know why it’s easy to make decisions for other people? It is not simply because one is objective. It is because if I make a decision for you, I shall not have to carry it out. If I make a wrong decision, the responsibility will still be yours.
The radio: “hoots of canned laughter—dreadful news—unintelligible plays—sentimental songs—jokes—orchestrated signature tunes—the vicarious excitement of football and racing commentaries—comforting heart-to-heart talks on silage, national health, or chicken incubators.
They [mother and daughter] seemed two women bound together, having in common nothing in particular, and everything in general; who, were they not related, would not willingly have spent five minutes in each other’s company; but who, because of their relationship, had spent nineteen years, irritating, modifying, interfering with, decryring, and depending upon each other.
Living, he always maintained, consisted of no fundamentals, outlines, basic truths, or principles, even for one person, let alone society, but simply a vast quantity of detail, endlessly variable and utterly unrelated.
How very much I dislike the young. Their complacent certainty that their infantile dependence will be met. Their utter lack of self-containment. Their determination to be compensated for the disastrous consequences of their casual curiosity. Their greed for indiscriminate approval—their lack of technique—their senseless demands—they will pick endless watches to pieces and expect others to mend or replace them—their inability to profit by experience of others and their refusal to experience anything for themselves. Their contempt of reserve—their ceaseless searching for somebody before whom they can swagger and be saved—their brash resolve that each time they are burned is the first—their ridiculous belief that they are Adam—the first specimen of their species, magnificently unique, when they are only one more pathetically identical detail turned off the bench. Their faith in their own indispensability—their tiny wisdom and their colossal impatience.
“You spend ninety per cent of your time with children, invalids, fools, and animals. What a mind will yours become.”
“I thought that was the company approved for women by most men.”
There are only two kinds of people—those who live different lives with the same partners, and those who live the same life with different partners.
“No woman would like being told what she was, or would have been. They like the future—the future and the present.”
“We all want something which we cannot have.”
“Yes. That is tolerable. It’s the having something which we cannot want.”
How odd, he thought, listening to her, a poet can see someone in the street, and thereafter intoxicate others with what he saw, but she or I can thoroughly love, or think we love, and immediately after it seems incommunicable, or dies from our poor expression.
The trouble with human relations is that the damned ball is always rolling, or in the air, never peacefully in charge of one person.
People are so painstakingly irrational it is a wonder they survive at all.
If it is impossible to be in two places at once, it ought to be impossible to make two people unhappy at the same time.
People generally get married for extraordinarily few reasons. Legalised sex; economic security; somebody to die with. Children seem to me simply an ingenious reinforcement of these arguments.
Marriage could be the fascinating, difficult experience of living in two bodies instead of one—it matters far less than people think which alternative body they select—it matters far more than they imagine how they inhabit it thereafter.
The most mysterious, intricate point about women is that they require somebody else to teach them to live in their own body. Without that, they are lost, because they never discovered.
The point about two people is that they should change at approximately the same speed in approximately the same direction.
“Never confess your love; never, never come near anyone—the further you venture with them, the longer the way back by yourself.”
She was always expecting something wonderful to happen to her—up to the very day that she died, she believed that.
Women are sharp at discovering each other’s little faults.
People are more beautiful if they are admired, more lovable if they are loved.
So—the point of no return: the last moment before a distant approaching figure is recognisable and can be identified—has seen and been seen; before there is no turning back, and they must be met, suffered, or enjoyed, or a mutual indifference underlined. He had come to see her, and at the instant of their parting in the crowded room, they met.
In the night she woke, and all the time of her life seemed concentrated on the moment of waking, a. and all the meaning of her existence on her being deeply, irrevocably, in love.
Women nearly always know what is in the wind.