Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard

A week or so ago, I wrote about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1972 novel, Odd Girl Out, which I mostly enjoyed. The preceding EJH, Something in Disguise (1969) proved to be a less satisfying read for me, a somewhat uneven novel compared to either After Julius (1965) or Odd Girl Out. More about the reasons for this a little later.

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In short, Disguise could be thought of as a family saga, one that delves into the challenging nature of relationships, particularly those between husbands and wives. Central to the family is May, whose first husband was killed many years earlier in the Second World War. May is now married to Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, a pompous, penny-pinching bore who spends most of his spare time in London, dining at his club and visiting a ‘lady friend’ for sexual favours. Meanwhile, May must amuse herself at home, a rather staid old house in Surrey which she finds both cold and unwelcoming.

Both partners have grown-up children from their former marriages. May has two: twenty-four-year old Oliver, a bright, easy-going chap who would much rather find a wealthy young woman to marry than earn a living by getting a job; and twenty-year-old Elizabeth, a caring, idealistic young woman looking to make her own way in life. (As the novel opens, Elizabeth somewhat reluctantly leaves the Surrey home to join Oliver at his flat in London, chiefly as a means of escape from Herbert and his annoyingly boorish ways.)

Completing the ‘family’ is Herbert’s daughter, Alice, a shy, guileless young woman just setting out on married life with her much older husband, Leslie – another conceited bore with little concern for others. (In truth, Alice is so desperate to get away from her father that she accepts a proposal of marriage from the first man who shows an interest in her, almost from fear that there may never be another.) The following quote – taken from a discussion between the couple on their wedding night – captures Leslie’s attitude in a nutshell.

[Leslie] ‘Well – it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect me to be completely inexperienced at my age – now would it?’

[Alice] ‘No.’

‘I’m not – you see. Not at all inexperienced: quite the reverse – you might say. I’ve been – intimate – with quite a number of women. I’ve never known them well,’ he added hastily, ‘you understand what I mean, don’t you Alice?’

‘Yes.’

‘I mean, naturally, they weren’t the sort of women you’d expect me to have known well. That wasn’t their function if you take me. But it does mean that I know a good deal about a certain side of life. That’s necessary for men. For women – of course – it’s different. I don’t suppose – well I wouldn’t expect you to know anything at all about that.’ He finished his brandy and looked at her expectantly. ‘No.’

‘Of course not.’ He seemed at once to be both uplifted and disheartened by this. (p. 38)

Much of the novel’s ‘action’ revolves around Elizabeth and her relationship with John Cole, a wealthy, attentive man whom she meets in the course of her work, cooking dinners for private clients in the upmarket areas of London. In short, John sweeps Elizabeth off her feet, whisking her away to a villa in the South of France, one of his many luxurious properties in exotic places. Their affair is passionate, idyllic and rather unrealistic – to the point where it all begins to feel rather silly. Nevertheless, there are significant challenges for the couple along the way, not least in the form of John’s daughter, Jennifer, a spoilt brat who does her utmost to thwart her father’s new relationship. The fact that Elizabeth is the same age as Jennifer herself makes the situation seem all the more galling.

Meanwhile, back in Surrey, May is starting to feel the strain of life on her own with Herbert, without any of the children present to offer their support. As the days slip by, May begins to feel increasingly unwell, but no specific illness can be identified, the doctors ultimately putting her condition down to age or the stress of Alice’s wedding. A visit from Elizabeth – who is left reeling from Jennifer’s impact on her relationship with John – should prove beneficial to May. However, both women shy away from opening up about what is really going on in their lives, preferring instead to pretend that everything is okay.

In spite of this novel’s flaws – the rather uneven quality, the unrealistic scenarios, the overly romanticised view of certain relationships – there are some real moments of insight here, particularly in the portrayal of May’s relationship with Herbert. The following observation is very telling, hinting at the Colonel’s selfish, duplicitous nature, something that becomes increasingly apparent as the novel progresses. (The novel’s title, Something in Disguise, does feel rather apt.)

Herbert was sitting in his large chair with his head thrown back listening to the cricket news from a small and badly serviced radio resting on the arm of his chair. A whiskey and soda lay within his grasp. When he became aware of Elizabeth, he went through the bizarre and contradictory motions of not getting up out of his chair although he knew he should: or, possibly, seeming to get up out of his chair and then not managing it because he was listening too hard to the radio. Elizabeth took advantage of this pantomime to make signs at the drink and herself, and with the barest flicker of hesitation, he seemed to agree. Luckily for her, the drink was still unlocked… (pp. 180-181)

Some of the secondary characters are particularly well-drawn, most notably Alice, who is utterly miserable in her new life with Leslie, trapped in a pokey bungalow not far from her husband’s family. Rosemary (Leslie’s nosy sister) is utterly believable, in spite of only being glimpsed in brief. Pregnant, lonely and homesick, Alice misses her cat, Claude, terribly, a situation made all the more painful by the gift of a demanding puppy from Leslie’s beloved mother – a well-meaning gesture that completely misses the mark.

Ultimately, the novel builds to a rather dramatic denouement with two shocking incidents playing out virtually simultaneously. Once again, there are credibility issues here with least one of the developments – that involving Elizabeth and John – feeling somewhat brutal and unnecessary.

Having now read a few of this author’s novels, I am coming to the realisation that many of the scenarios created by EJH are deliberately designed to highlight the rather unrealistic, idealised vision of marriage held by society at the time. There is a sense that she is highlighting the foolishness of the women who fall into these traps – particularly those who buy into the highly romanticised vision of love at first sight, many of whom discover that the reality is much less fulfilling than the idealistic vision they were led to believe. Equally, others drift from one doomed relationship to another, hopelessly clinging to unsuitable men in spite of the knowledge that they will almost certainly end up damaged as a result. There are glimpses of hope amidst the pain and oppression of delusion, but these are relatively few and far between.

Something in Disguise is published by Picador; personal copy.

38 thoughts on “Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard

  1. Sue Gedge

    Oddly enough, I think of ‘Something in Disguise’ as my favourite EJH novel; it’s the one I return to most frequently and for which I have the most affection. I have fond memories, too, of the TV adaptation, decades ago, in which the lovely Anton Rodgers played John Cole–he’s on the cover of my Penguin copy of the novel. What did you make of May’s attachment to ‘the League’?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How interesting! I didn’t realise there was a TV adaption. I might have to see it out, just for the hell of it. Anton Rodgers…now there’s a blast from the past. I can totally see him in the role of John Cole; that part could have been made for him. As for May’s association with the League, I wasn’t quite sure where Howard was going with that, particularly at first. What did you make of it? A damaging influence or a potential source of strength?

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Based on our previous discussions about EJH, I suspect we might have the same set of 5 novels from The Book People. If so, I would suggest you try After Julius first as it’s almost certainly the best of the bunch. Odd One Out is quite interesting too, but the others less so. Either way, I’m very curious to see how you get on with her – do let me know!

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always. Too bad that this was a little different uneven as it sounds interesting. People falling into bad relationships is something writers have been exploring for a long time. No matter how foolish fictional characters, or real life people, behave in this regard, such mistakes are so tragic and sad.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s fertile ground for good fiction, that’s for sure. There are some truly monstrous characters here, something of a running theme in several of EJH’s novels if my experience to date is anything to go by!

      Reply
  3. BookerTalk

    This is an author I’ve been meaning to get to for some time. Though this is clearly it the best book to begin with, thr extracts do encourage me to think that she is good at characterisation.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there are moments of great insight and perception in her books, but they can be rather few and far between. She isn’t as consistent or precise as some other writers operating in a similar sphere — Elizabeth Taylor springs to mind here. Then again, maybe that’s an unfair comparison given the quality of Taylor’s work – it’s pretty hard to beat! If you are thinking of giving EJH a try, I would strongly suggest After Julius. it’s definitely my favourite of those I’ve tried so far, and Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat thinks very highly of it too. I think it made her ‘best of’ list a few years ago.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! Imagine being married to one of these men. What a horror! As you say, some very telling writing there. That second passages is a great example of EJH on top form – it’s perceptive, insightful and beautifully observed. If the whole novel were like that then we’d be talking end-of-year highlights, but sadly those flashes of real brilliance are somewhat few and far between.

      Reply
  4. Radz Pandit

    I have been following your Elizabeth Jane Howard journey with interest Jacqui but I must say I am not really tempted right now to try her out. Maybe when I do, I will begin with either Odd Girl Out or After Julius as you rate them higher than the others.

    However, I do have a few Elizabeth Taylors languishing on my bookshelves, so I think I should polish them off first :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thanks Radhika. That sounds like a very sensible plan! I still have a few Taylors left on my shelves too, so I may well be joining you on that front. :)

      Reply
  5. MarinaSofia

    I’m not really surprised that EJH had a bit of a jaded view of men and marriage, given her own biography. I’ve read some of her Cazalet Chronicles, not much else, it does occasionally feel like a soap opera. But I’m not a huge fan of family sagas, so perhaps standalone novels are a better bet. I don’t think I’ve read After Julius, or if I have, I can’t remember, so maybe worth a reread.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      After Julius is definitely my favourite of the standalones I’ve read, although Andrew Male (who I follow on Twitter) has highlighted Falling as the best of the bunch. It’s considered to be something of a masterpiece, a painfully insightful novel written in a deceptively commercial style. I may well pick it up at some point in the future, just out of curiosity. (Unfortunately, it wasn’t included in my five-book set from TBP.) As for EJH and her perceptions of men, I think you’re right to make the link with her own history. Even though I haven’t read her biography, I get the sense that there’s a lot of personal experience in these books – maybe not explicitly but more in terms of impetus and inspiration.

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    I’m glad you’re getting so much enjoyment from Elizabeth Jane Howard. I really like novels that explore complex relationships, so it’s a shame that she falls back in the romanticism when she is clearly so good at teasing out the deeper aspects of people’s relationships.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the tendency to slip back into the idealised view of relationships is definitely an issue with EJH. Nevertheless, she’s got something for sure – as I was saying to Madame bibi earlier, there are flashes of brilliance here even if they are somewhat few and far between. Not that you need any more recommendations for your TBR right now, but I would be fascinated to see what you think of After Julius should the urge ever grab you. It’s probably the strongest and most consistent of the standalone novels I’ve read so far – worth considering at some point if you’re casting around for something to try.

      Reply
  7. Caroline

    Too bad you didn’t like this as much. I think I would possibly enjoy this more than you. I like the premise very much. But I’d rather read another one first.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Interesting premise but lacking somewhat in terms of execution – that would be my snapshot summary. I think you’d really enjoy the dynamic between May and Herbert as its reminded me of the types of relationship Elizabeth Taylor explores so well. There’s also a rather wonderful cat, Claude, who actually plays quite a significant role in the story as it approaches its conclusion. The relationship between Alice and Leslie is brilliantly observed too – he really is an odious creation. That said, I still preferred Odd One Out, so maybe that would be worth reading ahead of this novel if you’re ever casting around for more EJH in the future?

      Reply
  8. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Interesting review, Jacqui. I’m not entirely convinced I would have the patience for EJH, even though there does seem to be some very pithy writing. Despite the fact that the characters and the marriages are well drawn, it doesn’t sound as if the plots are always credible and I would imagine in this kind of book you might want them to be. Also, I think I would want to flan several of the men… :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, yes! Most of the men are monstrous in their own individual ways. She’s actually very good when it comes to characterisation, but even so, I do find myself wanting to shake some of these women into action given the situations they tend to fall into. Alice is an excellent example of where EJH gets it spot on. Towards the end of the novel, Alice gradually comes to the realisation that life with Leslie has become intolerable. Something awful happens which catalyses Alice into taking positive action, so by the end of the novel we feel there is hope for her in the future. If there were more examples of this in other EJH novels then perhaps I wouldn’t feel quite so frustrated by some of her scenarios. However, the Alices of this world are somewhat few and far between!

      Reply
  9. gertloveday

    I’ve never warmed to her I must say. There are a lot of women who wrote about scenarios like this, it seems to me, and did it better (based on my limited experience of her) or certainly with more economy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, great point about the economy (or lack of it at times). Elizabeth Taylor sets the standard in this respect, and it’s true to say that EJH lacks the consistency or compactness to rival her on this front. Nevertheless, there are flashes of brilliance here – just not enough of them to make the novel feel tight and precise.

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

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