The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard

First published in 1956, The Long View offers an insightful view of the different stages of a deeply unhappy marriage, one that ultimately seemed destined for disaster right from the start. The novel has a very interesting structure, beginning in 1950 when the couple in question – Antonia and Conrad Fleming – have been married for twenty-three years, and then winding back in time to 1942, 1937 and 1927, the time of their honeymoon. In this respect, it mirrors the structure of François Ozon’s excellent film, 5×2, which focuses on five key timepoints in the disintegration of a middle-class marriage, presenting them in reverse order. Crucially, Howard’s story finishes in 1926 just before Antonia meets her future husband for the first time. While the story is presented mostly from the perspective of Antonia, there are times when we are given access to Conrad’s thoughts, albeit intermittently.

When the novel opens in 1950, Antonia is preparing for a dinner party to recognise the engagement of her son, Julian, to June Stoker, a rather unexceptional young woman who seems desperate to get away from her insufferable mother. I say recognise as opposed to celebrate as there appears to be nothing joyous or pleasurable about this occasion. If anything, Julian – an advertising executive – looks set to emulate the model of an ill-fated marriage set out by his parents. There is a sense that finding a socially acceptable wife is the next thing on the list for Julian; and June, with her innocence and naivety, seems as suitable a prospect as any. June isn’t sure of her feelings for Julian (or of his for her); she merely hopes that everything will turn out okay in the end. Antonia recognises these doubts all too clearly, a point that only becomes fully apparent once the latter stages of the narrative are revealed. Conrad, for his part, is convinced that the couple’s time together will follow a well-trodden path, one almost certainly destined to create complications for both parties.

He had no doubt that Julian was marrying an exceptionally, even a pathetically, dull young woman, and the only mitigating feature of the affair, Julian’s extreme youth, was not likely, in view of his work and disposition, to count for very much. He would probably attempt to extricate himself at thirty, or thereabouts, by which time he would have two or three brats, and a wife, who, drained of what slender resources had first captivated him, would at the same time be possessed of a destructive knowledge of his behaviour. This would inevitably lead to his leaving her (if indeed he were to achieve it) for entirely the wrong reasons. (p. 16)

You’ve probably got the measure of Conrad by now, a selfish, arrogant and thoroughly obnoxious man who is largely absent from the family home in Holland Park, London. He cares very little for Antonia, a point that becomes abundantly clear from the opening pages of the novel.

He had a heart when he cared to use it. But on the whole, he did not care in the least about other people, and neither expected nor desired them to care about him. He cared simply and overwhelmingly for himself; and he felt now that he was at last a man after his own heart. The only creature in the world who caused him a moment’s disquiet was his wife, and this, he thought, was only because he had at one period in their lives allowed her to see too much of him. (p. 15)

After twenty-three years of marriage, Antonia has been left feeling emotionally drained and worn out. Having long since given up the battle of striving for Conrad’s approval and affection, she now faces the long years ahead, trapped in a stagnant life upon which she must try to carve out some kind of meaningful existence for herself.

It was too late to mourn any private intentions she might once have had towards herself – she had been loved, and touched and fashioned; dominated, protected, and ignored, until even her enjoyment of the wallpaper that her husband despised was coloured by the fact that he despised it. Even the few occasions when she had thought that she had asserted herself were direct results of her association with him. (p. 61)

There are other worries for Antonia too, most notably in the shape of her rather impulsive daughter, Deirdre, a girl who always seems to have two men on the go at any one time. It soon becomes clear that Deirdre also looks set to make a mess of her life – in this case by running off with the fall-back option when it turns out that her preferred lover does not reciprocate her feelings for him.

As the novel moves back in time, Howard peels back the layers of Antonia and Conrad’s marriage, enabling us to see key moments in their relationship and the fault lines therein. With his work taking him all over the country, Conrad sees little of Antonia during WW2, their paths occasionally crossing in London in between missions. The marriage is well and truly dead by this stage, suffocated by Conrad’s controlling personality and the fallout from his earlier affairs.

In 1937 (ten years into the marriage), we find the couple on holiday with friends in St Tropez, with Conrad desperate to get away from the group. In the end, he goes back to London to see his beautiful young lover, Imogen, a girl who shares something of the freshness and innocence of Antonia back in the days of her youth. By this point in the marriage, Antonia has started to realise that some of Conrad’s liaisons run the risk of disrupting the nature of her life with him. In this scene, Antonia recalls the occasion when she spotted her husband at the opera in the company of a ravishing young woman, a point she confronted him with later that night.

He had begun calmly by saying that the whole scene was horribly dated, and that were she to attend the opera more often she would learn that such behaviour as hers invariably led to disastrous consequences; but when these remarks merely elicited from her a flood of ill-considered and conventional allegations he became dangerous: wholeheartedly agreed with her, ignored her tears, and left her on the discouraging note that there were only two kinds of people – those who live different lives with the same partners, and those who live the same life with different partners; a remark, he said, to which she could not possibly object, since she had so perfectly created the situation which provoked it. (p. 124)

Back in 1927, we find the couple on honeymoon in Europe with the warning signs apparent from the start. It soon becomes clear that Conrad simply wants to mould and fashion the malleable Antonia into something to suit his very exacting needs. In essence, he treats Antonia like a decorative pawn in some sort of elaborately designed game.

‘I married you,’ he said slowly and clearly, ‘because you are going to be extremely beautiful, which means for me that you will be a pleasure to see, a delight to be with, and because, possessing you, I shall be envied by others. Knowing this, I wanted you. I married you because you are not a fool, because you have innate good taste, because you have a vast capacity for enjoyment, and because, if I was to marry at all, I wanted at least the possibility of perfection. You will not be perfect: but the amount that you will fall short will be my fault – not yours – and that responsibility is more desirable to me than anything else. (p. 278)

Perhaps most revealing of all is the final section of the novel set in 1926 where we find the nineteen-year-old Antonia – or Toni as she is referred to here – living at home with her parents in Sussex. Toni’s flighty and sociable mother, Araminta, fails her daughter badly, criticising and teasing her at every opportunity. In some ways, Araminta views Toni as a sort of rival, the latter’s innocence and youth representing potential threats to her own allure and beauty.

She was, her mother said, too tall and far too thin; her hair, although positively dark, was too fine to be manageable and she had almost no colour. Her eyes were her only good feature, said her mother, and proceeded to dress her in every shade of inferior blue which detracted from them. (p. 324) 

Toni’s father, on the other hand, is cold and withdrawn, eschewing the social whirl of weekend parties at the house in favour of working on his books. At first, it appears as though Wilfred is blind to his wife’s affairs and other goings on in the house; but when the desperately gauche and naïve Toni finds herself falling for one of her mother’s friends, it transpires that her father has observed and understood the situation all too clearly.

The revelations in this final section of the novel go a long way to explaining why Antonia married Conrad so quickly the following year. Moreover, they also cast a particular light on certain events in the earlier sections of the book – most notably Conrad’s fascination with his young lover, Imogen, and June Stoker’s forthcoming marriage to Julian.

The Long View is an interesting but claustrophobic novel. While I liked the opening and closing sections, I found the middle sections too protracted and drawn out. The writing is good, but it lacks the economy and focus I admire in the work of other writers such as Elizabeth Taylor and Penelope Fitzgerald. There are times when the tone is very caustic and bitter, too clinical and critical for my tastes. As the story is told almost exclusively from Antonia’s perspective, it could be argued that the picture we see is rather one-sided. I have no doubt that Conrad is responsible for much of the trouble in the Flemings’ marriage, but Antonia is not without blame either – she too has affairs at certain points in the relationship.

Nevertheless, I’m not unhappy that I read this novel – at least now I can say that I have tried Elizabeth Jane Howard.

The Long View is published by Picador; personal copy.

49 thoughts on “The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard

  1. A Life in Books

    A very thoughtful review, Jacqui. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s fiction seems to have enjoyed something of a revival over the past few years but I agree with you: her work doesn’t match the likes of Elizabeth Taylor. It feels set in a very small world.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It wasn’t so much the domestic setting or focus that didn’t work for me, it was more a case of the novel’s tone. It just felt too caustic and bitter to me. To be honest, I was quite happy to turn the page on this couple! The final section saved it a little as it was illuminating to see Antonia in the days of her youth…but even so, not my favourite read.

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    There is something very unbridled and gossipy, almost soap-opera-ish in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s work (I’ve recently started reading the Cazalet chronicles in order). It reminds me a little of the recently read Neapolitan series by Elena Ferrante. That quote about Conrad’s capacity for love is too close to my personal experience, so this is perhaps not the right book for me at the moment.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, I definitely wouldn’t recommend this one to you Marina, especially given your own experiences. It’s not the cheeriest of reads. While I haven’t read the Cazalets, I suspect they’re lighter than this one – as you say, more soapy, which is no bad thing.

      Reply
  3. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    It doesn’t sound like there is a single likeable character in this book, and I think I would detest Conrad. If you had enjoyed the reading experience, I would have considered adding it to my TBR, but since you didn’t like it all that much, I will gladly skip this.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      A wise decision, I think. With the possible exception of Antonia, I can’t say I had a lot of sympathy for any of the characters here. An unusual reaction for me as I’m not usually phased by unreliable characters as long as they’re believable and well-written. Looking back on it again, I think it was the caustic tone that really got to me here – not easy to take, especially given the length of the book.

      Reply
  4. banff1972

    I remember looking at this in a bookstore in Canada last year but eventually put it back on the shelf. I seem to remember Hilary Mantel wrote an introduction? That intrigued me, but something about the book didn’t quite appeal, and after reading your review I don’t regret my choice!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s right. My Picador edition comes with an introduction from Hilary Mantel, She argues (very eloquently I have to say) for EJH’s abilities as a writer, placing her in a similar category to other underappreciated writers such as Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Bowen and Anita Brookner. On the strength of this novel, I would take any of those other writers over Howard any day of the week, but maybe I’ve not given her enough of a chance yet? This was my first experience of Howard while all the others are more familiar to me.

      To be fair, Mantel lists ‘immaculate construction’ as one of Howard’s strengths, and that chimes with my thoughts on the structure of The Long View – it’s probably the most interesting thing about the novel. Nevertheless, I can’t quite see why it’s considered to be a masterpiece or one of the great novels of the 20th century. To me, it felt overlong and protracted in places, especially in the middle sections. But then again, what do I know? I’m only an amateur reader with no literary qualifications to speak of! Needless to say, I would be fascinated to hear your opinion of this book, particularly in comparison to the works of other women writers of the mid-20th century – Taylor, Bowen and suchlike.

      Reply
      1. banff1972

        “An amateur reader with no literary qualifications to speak of.” Pshaw! True, you are an amateur (though that is a badge of honour, in my books) but you have plenty of qualifications, having read more 20th century literature than most people!
        Although I’m interested in an abstract way in situating Howard alongside those other names I love so much (Taylor, etc), the rewards here don’t seem that great. I suppose if I were to give Howard a try, I’d aim for the Cazalet novels. People seem to like those more.
        Anyway, I sympathize with the reading rut you’ve been in. I’m stuck in one right now. It’s annoying!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          You are too kind. :)

          No, no – you’re right to think twice about The Long View. I can’t say that there’s enough here to justify the investment in reading time – after all, it’s a long book. The Cazalets do seem to be quite popular, don’t they? Maybe I should have tried one of those instead of persevering with this one. It was its inclusion in the Picador Classics series that tempted me – I guess I took it as a sign of its status within her body of work.

          Reply
        2. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, and I meant to say that I’m glad to be out of this reading rut too – I hope you manage to shake yours. My next review will be One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, which I really loved. It’s like an Elizabeth Taylor with touches of modernism. Just wonderful.

          Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              I don’t think she terribly well known, especially outside of the UK. I only discovered her myself via other bloggers’ reviews/recommendations. Anyway, it’s a real gem of a novel. I think you’d like it a lot.

              Reply
  5. bookbii

    Interesting review Jacqui, beautifully expressed as always. It sounds like another mixed read, though I suppose it is a difficult approach – starting at the present and looking back – to achieve without it being shot with bitterness. Those extracts, particularly the ones from Conrad’s viewpoints, highlight the harshness you’ve talked about in your review. Most unpleasant! Here’s hoping for a better read next time.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. Yes, the bitterness really comes through in the writing. It wasn’t hard to select the key passages when it came to writing this review – to be honest, they almost picked themselves.

      This is the last book in a run of somewhat underwhelming reads for me (I actually pulled it forward a little just to get it out of the way). From next week onwards, I’ll be back to reviewing books I really enjoyed. They’re so much easier to write about!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I was expecting to like this a lot more than I did. It just felt too stifling to me – too bitter and caustic in tone compared to the Elizabeth Taylors I’ve read.

      Reply
  6. Cynthia's Biblio -Files

    I’ve been hearing a lot about these women writers of mid century. they are very popular on Instagram. It hasn’t been my thing, maybe I will check them out. Elizabeth Taylor was another one mentioned.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s definitely worth trying one or two of them just to see how you get on. Elizabeth Taylor is probably my favourite so far. Her books are so beautifully observed – very economical too, not a word out of place. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont might make a good introduction to her work. It’s where I started with her and I’ve never looked back since.

      Reply
  7. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel

    A wonderful review Jacqui. As I read I kept thinking it sounds a bit Taylor-esque and so I might like it. It was nice to see Taylor mentioned at the end because that was exactly what I was thinking. Glad you enjoyed the book, even though some parts were not as enjoyable. I have heard good things about Howard’s Light Years. So maybe I will start with that one as my first.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      To be honest, I didn’t particularly enjoy it overall, only certain sections and elements. I was hoping for something more Tayloresque, but it didn’t quite deliver for me in terms of the precision or insight I enjoy in her work. A Game of Hide and Seek (which I think you’ve read) is a much better book than this; it’s more sympathetic and forgiving in tone.

      Like you, I’ve heard good things about the Cazalets, so maybe Light Years would have made a better entry point. I sincerely hope you enjoy it should you decide to give this author a try!

      Reply
  8. buriedinprint

    But, then, it’s hard to beat Elizabeth Taylor. Especially on marriage. Except, have you read Blaming? I wonder if some of its tone mght be similar to/different from here in The Long View. Even though you didn’t find this one a perfect match for you, I’m quite intrigued. And also in the Ozon film, which I see is old enough that I shouldn’t have missed it but, somehow, have.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, I haven’t read Blaming. I thought it best to save that for a while as it was her final novel.

      The Ozon is great, well worth catching. He can be a bit hit or miss at times, but this is one of his better productions. As an aside, I absolutely love his latest, Frantz – a film about loss, grief and survival, the stories we tell others to save their feelings.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s great to hear. I’ll try not to put it off too long…it’s just that I’d like to read a few more of her early novels first!

          Reply
  9. Naomi

    I do like a good novel about marriage… and I like that it starts at the end and works its way back… it’s too bad you weren’t completely happy with it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, so do I. That’s partly why I had such high hopes for this one! The reverse view is a really interesting way of looking at the unravelling of a relationship. If you like the sound of this idea, then I would definitely recommend the Ozon film 5×2 – it’s very cleverly done.

      Reply
  10. 1streading

    Pinter’s play Betrayal uses the same structure- I seem to remember that your sympathies changed as the play moved backwards – that doesn’t seem to be so much the case here.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Good spot with the Pinter. Peter Bradshaw references it in his review of Ozon’s film, 5×2, which uses a similar device. Oddly enough, I’ve never seen it (I’m more of a film person than a theatregoer!), but I might think again if a new production comes to London.

      My feelings towards Conrad didn’t change much as the story moved back in time, he was pretty manipulative from the start. That said, the final section on Antonia’s youth was excellent, very enlightening – so it was worth persevering with in the end!

      Reply
  11. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

  12. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Coming to this a little later as my WP notifications haven’t been coming through and I’ve just realised I’ve missed nearly a week of people’s posts!! Interested in your take on EJH – I’ve considered reading her in the past and hesitated, but for no particular reason. If you do take on the Cazalets I shall follow your reviews with interested as I know that series is highly rated.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No problem at all – WP can be very flaky at times! You know it’s funny, I was expecting to enjoy this a lot more than I did. It’s my kind of era, and the book’s structure really appealed to me – but it just felt too long and overwrought. A couple of EJH fans suggested I might prefer The Beautiful Visit, Something in Disguise or Getting It Right, so I’ll take a look at them at some point. Not right now — I can’t say I’m desperate to get back to her — but maybe in a year or two. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can’t say I would recommend it! Glad to hear you liked the approach to 5×2 – it’s a really interesting way of looking at the unravelling of a relationship. I’m hoping to watch it again fairly soon.

      Reply
  13. datz

    This was the second EJH novel I’d read outside the Cazelet series and I did find it hard going. The Beautiful Visit I thought was a much better “read”. The Cazelet series I have probably read 4 or 5 times. It’s a great series to disappear into and one of my favourites. It’s also full of autobiographical detail and characters taken from EJH’s life. I’d definitely not be put off The Cazelets by this particular novel!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s very encouraging to hear – thank you! You are the second or third reader to recommend The Beautiful Visit, so that’s got to be worthy of further investigation. I’ll definitely take a closer look. It’s interesting to hear that she drew on experiences from her own life for elements of the Cazalets. At first, I wondered if that might have been the case with The Long View, but I don’t know enough about the state of her first marriage to take a view!

      Reply
  14. Max Cairnduff

    Too claustrophobic for me I think – I had that word in mind then saw you use it (which means your review had already prompted the thought of course). The tone doesn’t sound very enticing either. One I’ll pass on.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      A wise decision, Max. There aren’t enough positives here to outweigh the negatives. I’m glad the sense of claustrophobia came across before I mentioned it. The quotes have that feel, don’t they? Very stifling and full of bitterness.

      To be honest, the Mollie Panter-Downes I posted about this morning is a much better book – a little like an Elizabeth Taylor with touches of modernism. Other have likened it to Mrs Dalloway as a) the story unfolds over the course of one day and b) the author moves seamlessly between the thoughts of the main protagonist and those of the characters she comes into contact with as she goes about her business. It’s a real gem – I think you’d like it a lot.

      Reply
  15. Lady Fancifull

    I like ‘Cazalets’ – this, with your beautifully chosen quotes, intrigues, but also seems potentially really distressing – what an awful speech where Conrad sets out his reasons for marrying Antonia.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just. His arrogance is truly astonishing. He’s quite possibly the most unpleasant character I’ve encountered in literature for quite some time…

      It’s good to hear that you liked the Cazalets – they seem to be much loved. I’ll give her another try at some point, not immediately but maybe in another year or two. :)

      Reply
  16. Elena

    Sometimes I forget how much I like Elizabeth Jane Howard, and how underrated she is. I read the first installment in the Calazet chronicles and I loved it. But then I forgot. I had no idea Howard had written stand-alone novels, and this one is going into my Christmas’17 list! Thanks, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. I didn’t love this, but I’m definitely open to giving her another try at some point – maybe in a year or two depending on how things go. The Cazalet series seems to be a great favourite with many readers, so it’s good to hear that you enjoyed the first instalment too. I get the feeling that she mined her own life for many of these novels. There’s a lot of bitterness and disaffection in The Long View, and I wondered whether these feelings had been informed by some of her own personal experiences and relationships with men.

      Reply
  17. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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