After Julius by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I’ve been looking for an opportunity to try again with Elizabeth Jane Howard, ever since my somewhat mixed response to The Long View, her novel of a deeply unhappy marriage told in reverse. While structurally very interesting, TLV felt rather uneven and was ultimately marred by bitterness for me. I just couldn’t engage with or invest enough in the characters to care about them – an issue exacerbated by Howard’s somewhat clinical, dispassionate tone.

So here I am again with EJH – this time, her 1965 novel, After Julius, which also fits nicely with Simon and Karen’s latest ‘Club’ event, running all this week. Happily, this experience was much more positive for me. I’d even go as far as to say that I loved this novel with one very notable caveat – more on that later, as the scene in question comes towards the end.

The Julius of the title is Julius Grace, an affluent publisher who was killed while assisting in the Dunkirk evacuation during WW2. The story takes places over a weekend some twenty years after Julius’ death, as the remaining members of the Grace family, together with a few guests, gather at the family home in Sussex. What starts as well-intentioned, sociable occasion ends in devastation as various revelations connected with Julius’s heroic actions gradually come to light.

Hosting the weekend is Esme, Julius’ fifty-eight-year-old widow who has never remarried following the loss of her husband. Joining Esme for the weekend are her two daughters: the beauty of the family, Cressy (37), a rather reluctant concert pianist; and the more practical, down-to-earth, Emma (27), a reader and editor in the family’s publishing firm.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Emma has brought along a young man, a wayward poet named Dan Brick, whom she met earlier that day while at work. Being essentially working-class, Dan comes from a very different social sphere to the Graces and their friends, and his responses to the events of the weekend are rather interesting to observe. Importantly, he seems to have clicked with Emma, a young woman whose only previous experience with the opposite sex has blighted most of her adult life.

Cressy, on the other hand, has come alone. Following an early, disastrous marriage which promptly ended with her husband’s death in the war, Cressy has subjected herself to a string of unhappy affairs, failing to achieve any sense of comfort or emotional fulfilment despite her desires. In essence, her situation is encapsulated in the following quote.

Had been married; husband killed in the war. No children. Sad, but infinitely intriguing – and convenient. Surely there must be a lover lurking about? Some cynical, selfish fellow who ruined sensitive intelligent girls by spending two evenings a week with them – preying upon their finer feelings with anything from money, the right sexual touch to downright lies about the future? But there never was, for Cressy was passionately monogamous. So whoever it was took possession, spent two evenings a week with her (and sometimes more, but they couldn’t be sure from week to week – they’d telephone anyhow so don’t go out: and, poor fool, she never would), and preyed upon her feelings with whatever equipment they could bring to bear. (p.60)

Cressy has vowed to end her latest hopeless affair, a liaison with the thoroughly self-centred Dick Hammond – a factor made all the more complicated by his unexpected arrival at the house for Saturday night’s dinner party.

Also in attendance for the weekend is Esme’s former lover, forty-four-year-old Felix King. While Julius was still alive, Esme embarked on a passionate affair with Felix, the one great love of her life irrespective of their differences in age. As the novel unravels, it soon becomes clear that Esme had never truly loved Julius, certainly not in a deep, fulfilling sense. His obsession with quoting poetry to her in moments of heightened emotion had put paid to all that, right from the early stages of their marriage.

In all moments of emotion he resorted to poetry; and this included making love to her. She had pleaded ignorance, but this only provoked hours of tender instruction, and every time he reached out for some slim calf-bound volume from a shelf, or threw back his head and half shut his eyes (he knew a fantastic amount of stuff by heart) the same wave of unwilling reverence and irritated incomprehension swept over her. (p. 28)

Emotionally isolated in her relationship with Julius, Esme turned to Felix for a little love and affection – perhaps unsurprisingly so given the nature of her situation.

No son was a private, nagging refrain, and for the rest of her functions she sometimes felt as though she was endlessly laying an elaborate table for a meal to which nobody in the end sat down. (p. 33)

Felix for his part was attracted to Esme, finding her shrewd, sophisticated and wonderfully entertaining. Nevertheless, it was too early in life for him to settle down back then, even once Esme became free following her husband’s untimely death.

Now Felix is keen to see Esme again after a gap of twenty years – the first time the former lovers will have met following a rather abrupt end to their relationship. As she waits for Felix to arrive at the house, Esme wonders why he wishes to see her again. Is out of duty, curiosity, or some other unknown motive? It’s hard to tell.

Esme knows she still loves Felix, possibly even more so now than before. If anything, his reappearance releases an intensity of feeling that has been allowed to accumulate for too long, precipitating a liberation of sorts. What Esme doesn’t know is just how Felix will react…

After Julius is a very carefully constructed novel, elegantly alternating between the perceptions of the five main characters, alongside a few pivotal group scenes. The inner lives of Howard’s women are captured with great precision and accuracy, painfully revealing past traumas and their resultant scars: Esme remains trapped in a kind of time-capsule, continuing to harbour deep feelings for Felix, in spite of his apparent abandonment of her; Emma has repressed all thoughts of love and emotional fulfilment following a horrendous early experience at the hands of a brute; and Cressy has spent most her life trying to fit around her lovers’ plans in the desperate hope of some affection in return.

With the possible exception of Julius, whom we encounter through flashbacks, the leading male characters here are mostly self-centred cads, frequently treating women as love-objects, merely to picked up and dumped at a moment’s notice. In this scene, one of the female characters – I won’t say which one – reveals how she was bullied by a former lover who had learned of her pregnancy.

He was furious! He managed to make me feel squalid and entirely to blame. (…) This man was supposed to have loved me: he wrote books about people and ideology – he was regarded as a pioneer, a humanitarian, someone of great integrity who cared what happened to society – a responsible and courageous man – one in a million. And yet there I was pregnant, honestly because he bullied me about knowing better, and all he wanted to do was to be shot of the situation – never mind what became of me in the process. (pp. 278–279)

As a slight aside, there is an interesting sub-theme running through this novel, that of the tension between a person’s public conscience to serve the good of humanity and their private desire for personal advancement. It’s a dynamic that touches several of the characters here – Julius, Felix and Cressy, in particular.

Returning to the men, even Dan – whose outward appearance is rather amiable – harbours worrying beliefs about the ‘acceptable’ roles and behaviours of women. In this scene, Dan is reflecting on Cressy’s reactions to her mother, especially once it transpires that Felix has returned.

Well, that sister of Emma’s would make an occasion out of a milk shake on a wet Sunday afternoon. She hadn’t seemed to like the doctor either; but then he’d never seen anyone treat their mother as she had done – downright discourtesy if ever he’d seen it: crossed in love, he had no doubt, and nearly on the shelf on top of that. No wonder the poor thing was edgy. Of course, the father had died, and a houseful of women without a man to crack the whip always made them soft and restless. (pp. 118-119)

This a perceptive, beautifully observed novel of secrets, guilt and longstanding resentments. The insights into characters’ perceptions and emotions, particularly those of the emotionally stranded women, are brilliantly judged. There is also some gorgeous deceptive writing here, particularly in the depiction of the interiors and the natural world.

My one reservation relates to a very brutal scene towards the end of the novel in which one of the women submits to a horrific act of violence, virtually accepting it as part-and-parcel of her relationship with the man concerned. It’s tricky to say any more without revealing spoilers, but I found it difficult to accept this character’s reactions in the hours and days following the incident. Maybe it’s merely a reflection of the prevailing attitudes of the period or some of EJH’s own damaging experiences – it’s a little hard to tell. Feel free to comment on it below, especially if you’ve read the book.

Update: Caroline has posted an excellent review of this novel, which you can find here.

After Julius is published by Picador; personal copy.

44 thoughts on “After Julius by Elizabeth Jane Howard

  1. Lisa Hill

    I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on the violence except to say that I don’t like the sound of it.
    But the poetry, what a hoot! I suspect that this was payback to some hapless lover of the author…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The scene in question is pretty grim, I have to admit. It left me wondering if EJH had experienced something along these lines in one of her own troubled relationships…

      As for the poetry readings, I pity poor Esme (or EJH herself?) having to put up with that. What a trial that must have been for her. I suspect you’re right about it being some kind of payback to a former lover from the past. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s right. He was her third husband, and they got married in the same year as the publication of this book. I suspect that some of her work (The Long View and possibly certain elements of this) were informed by some of her own damaging relationships with men. Probably not Kingsley in this instance, as the timing wouldn’t fit unless there had been difficulties before their marriage, but maybe one of her earlier husbands or lovers.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    The backgrounds and interactions between the characters sound so interesting and well put together. In real life as well as in fiction families often have a lot of history and baggage that they carry around. Such baggage can be the source of some very good fiction.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a very carefully constructed book with a good degree of subtlety in the characterisation -several of these individuals aren’t quite who they might appear to be at first sight. So, you’re right, family secrets or baggage plays a significant role here. I think you’d like this, Brian. I’m glad I went back to her as this novel feels much more accomplished than The Long View.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting. Thanks, Joanne. I haven’t read the Cazalets but have heard great things. Sounds if I ought to try them at some point, maybe once I’m done with Anthony Powell! :)

      Reply
      1. J. C. Greenway

        Ahhhhh the endless tbr list… ;)

        I may have read the Cazalets after reading your review of The Long View, they are good in places but also full of infuriating characters! Must get around to reviewing them one day…

        Reply
  3. anon

    I have read EJH over the years but she is not a favourite.THE CAZALETS is a good series but too many characters in them.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, it’s funny. I’m definitely experiencing mixed reactions to EJH’s work. I’m actually reading another of hers right now — Getting It Right — mostly because I’ve got so much time on my hands at the moment. Some of the characters are great (Gavin’s mother in particular), while others just don’t ring true for me — a ridiculous vampish woman named Joan and a complete train-wreck of a girl, Minerva. As a writer, Howard seems rather uneven to say the least!

      Reply
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  5. Simon T

    This sounds wonderful – I’ve only read one of her books, the first in the Cazalet series, and did enjoy it. A stand-alone might be even better for my poor memory!

    And the note you put at the end reminds me of how difficult I found similar scenes, almost brushed off, in a novel by Penelope Mortimer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you would like this, Simon. Caveats aside, it’s very good. The female characters in particular are portrayed with enough depth and nuance to make it an absorbing read.

      It’s interesting, isn’t it, how our perceptions of a writer can be affected by just one or two key scenes? The incident in question felt somewhat unnecessary to me, almost as though Howard had been trying to make a particular point rather than focusing on the appropriate way to end her story. It just jarred with the rest of the book for me. Anyway, that niggle aside, I really enjoyed it – thanks for giving me the perfect excuse to read it!

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    I have never read any Elizabeth Jane Howard, though my mum enjoyed several of her novels some years ago. I have felt oddly prejudiced against her books, which makes no sense at all, I think maybe someone put me off them. She was a great friend of the writer Elizabeth Taylor, and was in attendance at a centenary event I attended at Reading library in 2012. I must say this novel sounds very good, but I suspect I would have felt the same about that incident too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that can so easily happen if someone, particularly a close friend or an individual whose opinion you respect, takes against a certain writer. It’s happened to me in the past, especially with Nancy Mitford (a writer I now enjoy, much to my surprise). I do think you’d like this as the characterisation is very good. Plus, it’s definitely your kind of era and territory – very much in the same ballpark as Elizabeth Taylor, but maybe not as precise.

      Reply
  7. madamebibilophile

    I’ve never read any EJH but I’d like to give her a try. This does sound good but its a shame about that scene. I had a similar experience with China Court by Rumer Godden. I really enjoyed it, and then right at the end there’s an episode of domestic violence which leads to sex. It didn’t ruin the whole book, but it came close.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Sounds very similar. That aside, this novel is still very much worth reading. It’s very elegantly constructed — I get the feeling that’s one of EJH’s greatest strengths — plus the secrets surrounding Julius and Esme are really rather intriguing. I would be fascinated to see what you think of this, particularly given your experience with the Godden!

      Reply
  8. Sandra

    The Cazalet Chronicles are among my absolute favourites yet I’ve struggled with anything else by EJH, including Slipstream, her autobiography. Certainly in Cazalets one of the things that resonated was Howard’s ability to capture the inner lives of the female characters, as children and as adults. But I’ve not been able to connect with any characters in the others books I’ve read (and sometimes abandoned). I have read The Long View – it left me cold. I felt nothing for the characters and felt EJH was too detached from them herself. Similarly with Slipstream: she was so removed from her her own life in the re-telling

    Having abandoned Slipstream I had decided to stay with the series I enjoyed so much and give up on her other work but I’m curious now about After Julius, one that I haven’t looked at before. Maybe I’ll give her one last try.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s really interesting to hear, Sandra. Thanks for sharing your experiences of EJH’s work. I certainly felt a sense of clinical detachment in The Long View. There wasn’t a lot of compassion or empathy there, which I found surprising given some of Howard’s own personal experiences.

      It sounds like I should try the Cazalets at some point – they do seem to have been very well received by many readers. In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts on After Julius should you decide to give it a try!

      Reply
      1. Sandra

        I’ll let you know if I try it, Jacqui. The Cazalet books are easy but rewarding reads, though I can quite see that they aren’t for everyone. I hope you give them a try. You’ll know from the first book (The Light Years) whether the rest are for you or not :-)

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s great, thank you. It sounds as if I should try the first one, just to see how I get on with the style. As you say, I ought to be able to tell from that if the series is going to work for me. :)

          Reply
  9. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Fascinating review, Jacqui, and a good choice for 1965. I’m another one who hasn’t read EJH but I have to admire her for putting up with Kingsley all those years… It sounds like she writes very well and particularly about women, although I think the shocking event is perhaps unusual from a woman author unless she’s trying to make some kind of point about what women have to put with from men at times. However, I guess in 1965, despite the changes in society, attitudes were still pretty backward and rigid. I may have to give her a try at some point.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I’m glad I managed to find something to tie in with your club in the end. Luckily a five-volume set of some of EJH’s standalone novels turned up trumps with After Julius!

      As for EJH herself – yes, she’s a perceptive writer, strong on capturing the inner lives of women at various ages from young adulthood to middle age. Nevertheless, there’s an anger or bitterness in certain elements of her work, a quality that feels somewhat at odds with the more compassionate tone of some of her contemporaries (Elizabeth Taylor, for example). You’re right, I think she is trying to make a statement about the kind of abuse some women have to endure in the course of their relationships with men, but in this instance, it just felt too blunt and pointed to me. A little more pushback from the women in question would have been good to see.

      Reply
  10. Scott W.

    I have to admit a distaste for works in which some social gathering serves as a catalyst for unleashing all kinds of pent up emotions and past secrets among the attendees. But I’m most intrigued here by the angle of the public vs. private persona. I don’t know Howard at all, but from your review it appears she’s interested in a kind of “micro-ethics” of relationships.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can understand that, Scott. It’s a well-worn plot device, for sure. Nevertheless, I do find these set-ups rather intriguing, possibly for many of the reasons you mention above! (It would be a very dull world if we all liked the same things. :) )

      The public vs. the private persona is a very interesting dynamic here, one that manifests itself in different ways across various characters in the novels. So we have Julius heading off to help troops in the Dunkirk evacuation while others believe he should be putting his own family first; we have Felix dedicating most of his adult live to altruistic efforts, working as a doctor overseas, something of a contrast to his own internal desires; and we have another tension between private and public motivations as captured by that unwanted pregnancy quote above. The man in question is all set to spirit the woman away to a backstreet abortion as soon as possible. It’s a very interesting range of situations.

      Reply
  11. Caroline

    Lovely review, Jacqui. I’m glad you found your way back to her. This was my first, and so far, only one of her novels and I think it was a great introduction.
    I can absolutely not remember what Dan did. Sadly, while this made my best of at the time, I forgot most of it. No idea why. I liked it very much.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. I’m glad I gave her another try, too. This was much more successful for me than The Long View, but I do get the feeling that her novels will be a bit hit-or-miss for me. (I’m reading another at the moment which is proving to be rather uneven – a later novel, Getting It Right. Some of the characters are great — very nuanced and credible — while others are quite frankly ridiculous. It’s a very strange mix indeed!)

      **********Spoiler alert *********************

      It was Emma’s reactions to Dan’s abusive behaviour that I had a problem with in the end. After the tensions of Saturday’s dinner, Emma takes Dan back to her flat in London as an escape from the unbearable atmosphere of the house. What should be a tender, compassionate scene rapidly turns sour when Dan forces himself on Emma, effectively raping in her in a very brutal manner. However, rather than kicking Dan out or refusing to having anything to do with him when he tries to make amends, Emma agrees to marry him! Then next thing we know, she’s throwing in her job to get married and go travelling with Dan. I appreciate Emma is very naive and inexperienced sexually, but even so, I just can’t buy that reaction after such a horrific incident. As an individual, Emma has a lot going for her – she’s bright and personable, has a good job and a reasonable place to live. In other words, she has a good degree of independence in her life. So, her decision to give it all up for a louse like Dan seems bizarre, however convincing his apologies might be.

      Reply
  12. Pingback: Winding up the Week #67 – Book Jotter

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think it is a reflection of the times, at least to a certain extent. However, I suspect Howard is also trying to make a specific point here about what happens to some women when they slip into abusive relationships without putting up any form of defence. It’s as if she’s trying to make an example of Emma, to show how some women just submit to this behaviour and then act as if nothing unacceptable has happened afterwards.

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

  14. Sue Gedge

    Hello, Jacqui! Having just finished reading ‘After Julius’, I, too, am disturbed by the ‘Dan’ scene at the end; it seems that EJH doesn’t want us to think Emma is entering into an abusive relationship, but that Dan will never rough her up/semi-rape her again in that way (and perhaps wouldn’t have done it all, if he’d guessed she was a virgin) and that all will be fine between them from now on. It certainly seems very inexplicable to a modern reader; I couldn’t work out if Dan was motivated by some sense of class war, sado-masochism, control freakery or just didn’t know how to behave. And EJH seems to suggest the deflowering of poor Emma by Dan was good for her in somw way. Weird. A kind of early Fifty Shades of Grey, perhaps?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think I agree with your analysis, especially now that I’ve have to some more time to let the book settle a bit in my mind. There is this sense on the part of Emma that Dan will never treat her like that again, but I don’t know if EJH is trying to point out the foolishness of this belief (once an abuser, always an abuser) or if she want us to give Dan the benefit of the doubt. It’s a little hard to tell, but my suspicions point to the former. As for Dan’s motivations in the attack, I think there’s definitely an element of hatred for the class, especially given his reactions to Emma’s family. Probably something else mixed in there too – as you say, a sado-masochistic streak seems very likely. All in all, a very thought-provoking book…

      Reply
      1. Sue Gedge

        I do think that in the early sixties, when the book was published, attitudes were very different.
        Marital rape, for example, wasn’t a criminal offence in the UK and the police would keep out of a wife-beating incident or a ‘domestic’ as it was called. I’m not at all sure that EJH wants us to think of Dan as an ‘abuser’ (a term which is far more current now than it was then); it may be that she was thinking of ‘rough sex’. (The film ‘Last Tango in Paris’ came out just a decade later.) But the scene does read very strangely to us in the 21st century.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, you’re right – thank goodness attitudes have changed somewhat, although there’s still a way to go in certain respects. I’ve just read another couple of EJH’s novels with rather mixed results. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to write about them fairly soon!

          Reply

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