Theatrical Lives in the ’50s: Elizabeth Jane Howard’s “The Sea Change”

What is the perfect suitcase book? One never knows what one will be in the mood for.  On a recent trip, I brought along Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus – a lovely book, but very serious.  

 Something light is best on vacation.  And so I decided to read something by Elizabeth Jane Howard, the witty, charming, but not too cozy author of the critically-acclaimed family saga, The Cazalet Chronicles.  Howard, whose third husband was Kingsley Amis, was the author of elegant popular novels, which occasional columnists in The Guardian praise and try to revive; yet she seems still to be relegated to the women’s fiction ghetto.

 I rushed into the nearest bookstore, looking for the one book by Howard I hadn’t read.  I  grabbed a copy of The Light Years. That had to be the one!  I read twenty pages before I realized it was the first in The Cazelet Chronicles, which I have actually read twice.  I had been looking for either The Beautiful Visit or The Long View – not sure which.

Once home, I found a copy of her enjoyable 1959 novel, The Sea Change. It is 1950s escape reading, a story of glamorous, sophisticated people who live in luxurious hotels in London and New York,  then pop over to Greece if they feel like a change. It’s the kind of book where people call each other “Darling” – only Howard is too good a writer to do that.

She tells the story from four different points-of-view: Emmanuel, a rich, successful playwright;  his frail wife, Lillian, who has a heart condition and mourns the death of their daughter; his assistant, Jimmy, who organizes their daily routine and advises Emmanuel on the casting of his plays; and the naive new 19-year-old secretary, Alberta, fresh from a vicarage in Dorset.

Selfish sixty-one-year-old Emmanuel is a charming, incurable womanizer.  No wonder 45-year-old  Lillian has a “heart'” condition!   The novel begins with Lillian’s discovery of  Emmanuel’s previous secretary, Gloria, seemingly dead in the bathtub:  she attempted suicide because Emmanuel  ended their affair and fired her. 

 We do get tired of god-like Emmanuel, who can’t keep his hands off the secretaries and actresses.  Gloria survives, but just barely. He pays off her sister to make amends.

The reader is on tenterhooks throughout the book to see if Emmanuel will seduce Alberta, a bright, philosophical young woman liked by everyone. Lillian asks Emmanuel not to seduce her.  “Anything but that.” But Emmanuel does fall in love with Alberta after she acquires a dazzling new wardrobe.

Alberta is a Cinderella figure:  suddenly she travels, has dinner with charming people, and wears expensive clothes.  She is oblivious of sex:  Emmanuel is a sympathetic father figure, she thinks.   Because Emmanuel and Jimmy cannot cast the right woman for his new play in New York, Emmanuel decides Alberta should play the part.  Jimmy has to teach her to act.  They fly to Greece for this!  Alberta has a lovely time, though she isn’t sure she wants to act.

The characters are a bit too theatrical at times.  Emmanuel is old enough to know better about Alberta; Jimmy’s life centers on Emmanuel, though he, too, is exasperated with him; and Lillian, who still adores her husband, is helpless and vulnerable but has a surprisingly sharp tongue. When she receives orchids from a theater bigwig, she says, “My God.  They might be all right forty feet up a tree in Brazil, but can you imagine pinning them on to your dearest enemy?” 

These rich characters are different from you and me.  I would like the orchids! 

Reading through Burn-out: A Retreat into World War II Women’s Fiction

Blogger burn-out is a strange concept. Writing a blog is a voluntary activity, done for the love of writing, or perhaps for self-promotion or sales. It can be an escape from the real world, which is a fairly horrible place at the moment. Blogging is usually a personal choice.

And yet I suffer from blogger burn-out, intensified by the serious burn-out known as Covid fatigue.

Because of my two major burn-outs, I have retreated abruptly into English women’s fiction. It takes me far away from my own troubles, though I am a bit surprised to find myself suddenly in the late 1930’s and ‘early 40’s. Everything I read is set in England during World War II.

Over Thanksgiving, always a good time for light reading, I became absorbed in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Cazelet Chronicles. Then I picked up a copy of Angela Thirkell’s 1942 novel Marling Hall (one of her Barsetshire novels) to complement the reading of Howard. The genres and styles are very different, but they treat many of the same issues. There are, however, so many characters to keep straight. Fortunately The Cazelet Chronicles has a family tree in the front of the book, but I would love one for the Thirkell, too.

I certainly wish I had this copy!

Mary consider Howard’s Chronicles a literary masterpiece, though I view these books mainly as an engrossing, beautifully-written family saga. Thirkell’s light, comical novels are unique, perhaps best compared with E. F. Benson’s, though her characters are, in my opinion, more fully developed. But tell me, Thirkell fans, about David Leslie, who I suspect will marry Lettice by the end of Marling Hall. Was he in love with Mrs. Brandon in The Brandons? Or was that someone else? It has been a while since I’ve read Thirkell!

Then I decided to watch the movie Mrs. Miniver. Such a great World War II movie, on the domestic front! There was much crying her over the death of one of the characters. But now I have mixed up some of the events in Mrs. Miniver (the movie, not the book) with the Cazelets and Marlings! So do you suppose I will read Mrs. Miniver next?

My coy seems to have been marketed to romance readers! The cover has nothing to do with the content.

My husband looks askance at these charming women’s books, and assumes they are trash because of the covers. I assure him that COVERS LIE (especially the Thirkell). It isn’t even the right period!

Alas, he will never read them. I did get him to read a Thirkell once, and he disliked it. I doubt he will read the Cazelets. So it goes: men and women are different.

My copy of this Cazelet cover is also marketed to women readers

A Good Holiday, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s “The Light Years,” and Paula Byrne’s “Mad World”

Thanksgiving is an uncomplicated holiday, with homely food and minimal dysfunction.

If you are a fan of big Thanksgiving get-togethers, however, you probably missed the family party that provides year-long fodder for stories. You will have lamented the absence of Aunt Viola, who brings the vegan gluten-free pies made with “flax eggs” and tofu, and delivers tirades on why you should purify your own drinking water. (She is your favorite relative.) Uncle Richard, who brings the 2-liter bottles of soda and generic beer, will tell her to chill. “Drink a Coke if you’re worried.” And then your dramatic cousin, a non-reading librarian in recovery, says,”Don’t you mean snort, Rich?”

Then there is a group glare.

Well, none of us have social skills, we all long to be deaf- mutes or Aspergers at the table, and my husband and I were quite happy to have our own quiet dinner. I’d clipped out a new recipe from the newspaper. As I understood it, you simply threw a chicken, potatoes, and Brussels sprouts onto a baking sheet in the oven and forgot about it. When I actually read the recipe all the way through on Thursday morning, I discovered it was necessary to have TWO WOODEN SPOONS EXACTLY THE SAME SIZE, between which one placed the raw potatoes while cutting them into 1/8 inch slices. Very mysterious instruction.

It was easier just to roast the chicken, make mashed potatoes, and let my husband make his fabulous caramelized Brussels sprouts. We are capable of making a traditional Thanksgiving meal…

So a good feast was had by all!

WHAT DID WE READ? That’s what you really want to know.

I am inhaling Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years, set in 1937, the first volume of a stunning family saga, The Cazalet Chronicles. This is in the class of Susan Howatch’s absorbing, fast-paced novels, and like all great family sagas, it centers on a rich, likable, but slightly dysfunctional family. The Cazalets are a huge, complicated tribe, who can be kept track of in the convenient family tree and character list at the beginning. Among them is the matriarch Kitty, nicknamed Duchy (for Duchess); her son Edward, a philandering husband of his ex-ballerina wife, Viola; Hugh, still recovering from the First World War; Rupert, an artist whose first wife tragically died in childbirth, and who is now married to a shallow young woman who abhors his children; Rachel, the lovable spinster aunt; scads of children, housemaids, cooks, horses. There are also elements of Upstairs, Downstairs, for those of us who are fascinated by the houses of the rich.

I planned to reread Evelyn Waugh this weekend, but realized it might involve the urge to make (non-alcoholic) cocktails, freelance a gossip column, leap into fountains… Instead I perused Paula Byrne’s superb biography, Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead.

I knew nothing about Waugh’s life, but picked this up because I love Brideshead Revisited. I was astonished by how closely his experiences are interwoven with his fiction. Although the focus is Brideshead, Byrne also fills us in on the writing of other novels, concentrating on the characters and incidents from Waugh’s life. And yes, the fey, whimsical Oxford friends are based on Waugh’s own friends. At Oxford he hung out with a group of gay aesthetes, and had affairs with three men, all of the same “Rupert Brooks” type, according to Byrne.

And so I finally concluded that Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flite are gay. It always seemed ambiguous to me: I assume it was supposed to be? Waugh himself was blatantly gay at Oxford. Later, he had heterosexual experiences and married twice, and these experiences also influence his work. After Sebastian, there is Julia. And there are wives in his other novels.

Waugh actually got time off from the War by saying he needed to write Brideshead.

Mad World is an excellent biography, a good guide to Brideshead, and a great read.