The more I read Elizabeth Jane Howard, the more I enjoy her. She really is a very good writer indeed. Subtle, perceptive and beautifully written, her novels frequently delve into the complexities of troubled marriages, and that’s absolutely the case here.
First published in 1959 (and currently being adapted for the screen by Kristen Scott-Thomas), The Sea Change is a brilliant novel, easily one of my favourites by EJH so far. At first sight, the story may seem very familiar – a successful, married middle-aged man falls for a young, attractive ingénue. However, Howard creates such a fascinating set-up, featuring four distinctive, fully fleshed-out characters, that it makes this classic narrative seem fresh and alive.
The story revolves around four central figures: Emmanuel Joyce, a successful playwright in his early sixties; his glamorous but fragile wife, Lillian, who happens to be twenty years younger than her husband; Emmanuel’s long-suffering business manager/rescuer, Jimmy Sullivan; and nineteen-year-old Alberta, newly-appointed to the role of Emmanuel’s secretary.
After twenty years of marriage, the Joyces’ relationship is in trouble, mostly due to Emmanuel’s multiple infidelities and Lillian’s failing health. Alongside her serious heart condition, Lillian has never recovered from the painful death of the couple’s only child, Sarah, at the age of two. As such, Lillian remains highly dependent on Emmanuel, placing huge emotional demands on him, which he duly struggles to meet.
…cut off from Em [Emmanuel] to the point where I [Lillian] seemed only to discover him through secondhand sources; through reading his plays – through the people he worked with and swung towards with the sudden irascible illumination of a lighthouse – through the newspapers who fired rumours and accounts of his more violent, scandalous doings which lit up his behaviour to me, like a starshell. (p. 26)
Meanwhile, Jimmy – who is virtually a member of the Joyce family himself – spends much of his time cleaning up after Emmanuel’s affairs, protecting Lillian from the worst of the fallout and comforting her in times of stress.
In short, the Joyces’ relationship plays out like a potentially explosive dance, with each participant pussyfooting around flashpoints, trying to make allowances for their partner’s behaviour while carefully concealing the truth. Occasionally, Emmanuel’s irritation with Lillian erupts, breaking through the surface layer of sympathy and understanding.
He was late and she did not like it; she was dressed and he did not like it: she would want to know exactly how he had spent the day and he did not want to tell her; she would want to tell him exactly how she had spent hers, and he did not want to know. This is where we start from, he thought; do I want to make anything of it? (p. 61)
Into this emotional battleground comes Alberta, a clergyman’s daughter full of the freshness of youth. Somewhat ironically, it is Lillian who first suggests Alberta for the role of her husband’s new secretary, viewing the girl’s purity, sheltered background and lack of sophistication as unlikely to take Emmanuel’s fancy. Nevertheless, there is much more to Alberta than meets the eye, to the point where she affects those in her immediate orbit in profound and surprising ways.
With one of his plays due to transfer to Broadway, Emmanuel flies to New York with Alberta, leaving Jimmy to accompany Lillian by boat. As such, this gives Emmanuel a week alone with his new secretary, a period that proves pivotal in the development of their relationship over the following weeks.
Despite her youth, innocence and naïveté, Alberta possesses the most remarkable sense of dignity – not self-confidence exactly, but a restful, graceful composure, with no pretensions or exaggerations to spoil the effect. To his mild surprise, Emmanuel finds himself strangely at ease with her, experiencing the kind of closeness or comfort that only a lover tends to inspire.
As the weeks pass by, Alberta becomes more involved in the play, reading for the central part of Clemency on Emmanuel’s suggestion. Allied to this, Emmanuel cannot stop himself from falling in love with her, even though he knows that another infidelity would likely destroy Lillian, such is his wife’s state of mind. Not to mention the potential damage to Alberta, who remains the epitome of goodness throughout.
Alberta was not only his secretary, she was very, very young, very innocent, and she had been discovered by Lillian, who had a bad heart, who seemed to have lost the mainspring of her life, who on top of that had already suffered a good deal from his infidelities, and deserved, at least his consideration: if he pretended to love anybody, it ought to be Lillian. If he seduced anyone, it should not be Alberta, for whom he had great liking, almost affection, and the feeling that she should be protected. (p. 249)
Meanwhile, Emmanuel is not the one beguiled by Alberta’s charms; Jimmy also falls under the young ingénue’s spell, which increases the tension between Emmanuel and his business manager as they vie for the young woman’s attention. While Emmanuel has fallen head-over-heels in love with Alberta, Jimmy’s affection for her seems born out of a sense of protection – partly a desire to safeguard her from Emmanuel and partly a need to build some kind of life for himself beyond his ties to the Joyces. Emmanuel, however, remains consumed by his desire for Alberta while also trying to conceal his feelings from Lillian and Jimmy…
A great deal of the time he [Emmanuel] thought he was mad, and wondered with a kind of reckless irresponsibility what would happen to him next. He lived alternately with her image and her presence: (…) Her presence was like air to him; essential at the time, but of no avail as a mere memory; it was only on the rare occasions when he managed to be alone with her that he could store something with which to bear her absence. (pp. 291–292)
I won’t reveal how this elegantly crafted story plays out, save to say that there are surprises to come – developments that impact all four protagonists profoundly, altering their future destinies in one form or another.
Something that Howard does so well here is to move the point of view around from one character to another on multiple occasions throughout the book. Interestingly, while Emmanuel’s sections are written in the third person, Lillian’s, Jimmy’s, and Alberta’s are all expressed in the first, giving us intimate access to their thoughts as the focus shifts. Moreover, Alberta’s chapters are mostly told through letters to her family, capturing her naïve tone of voice to a T.
I would also like to point out to you, Uncle Vin, that he [Emmanuel] is sixty-one, and could therefore quite easily be my father, and if it wasn’t for Papa I wish she was. I hope it is clear that I like and respect him very much, and that is why I hate your believing these horrible idle rumours about him. (p. 170)
Consequently, each character feels fully realised, painted in a way that reveals their hopes, dreams, fears and preoccupations, fleshing out their backstory through memories and recollections. As ever with Howard, the writing is superb, combining her subtle perceptions and insights into the vagaries of human nature with wonderfully eloquent descriptions of various locations, from the rain-washed streets of London’s Embankment to the relaxed pace of life in Greece.
Evening in Athens: the air is dry and tender; people loiter steadily – not going anywhere – simply content with existing along a street: the cafés are like hives – their interiors violently lit, with customers bunched at tables on the pavements and waiters like worker bees scurrying darkly in and out. (p. 236)
At one point in the story, the action shifts to the Greek island of Hydra, where Alberta’s preparations for the play are combined with a holiday for Lillian. It’s a setting where Lillian experiences a sea change of her own, catalysing the process of freeing herself from the burden of Sarah’s death.
Howard has created a marvellous novel here – a richly textured ensemble piece encompassing the tensions between familial responsibility and personal desire, the dissection of a failing marriage, and the fallout from the loss of a child. It also demonstrates how our lives can turn in an instant, altering our future trajectories in significant and surprising ways. In short, I adored it – very highly recommended indeed.
The Sea Change is published by Picador; personal copy.