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! 

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