A couple of months ago, the Backlisted team covered Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1969 novel Something in Disguise for their Halloween episode of the podcast. It’s a book I had read before, with somewhat mixed feelings; however, Andrew and Laura’s impassioned case for it being a rather sly, perceptive novel about the horrors of domestic life prompted me to revisit it with a fresh pair of eyes. Naturally, they were right! (How could they not be?) On my second reading, I found it much more chilling from the start, partly because I already knew just how painfully the story would play out for some of the key characters involved…
So in this post, I’m jotting down a few things that particularly struck me on this second reading – largely for my own benefit, but some of you might find it interesting too.
As the Backlisted discussion touches on, the novel’s title has multiple meanings. Not only are certain individuals in the story concealing things from those closest to them, but the novel itself is also ‘something in disguise’. In essence, this is a domestic horror story masquerading under the cover of a family drama/whirlwind romance, complete with a breezy ‘women’s fiction’ style jacket to misdirect the reader; and while I’d picked up some of this domestic horror (particularly Alice’s miserable marriage to the insensitive, overbearing Leslie) on my first reading, I’d missed some of the early warning signs about Herbert’s true intensions. More on these red flags a little later in the post.
In my previous write-up of the novel, I’d noted the following points about the family’s matriarch, May, whose first husband had been 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.”
May and Herbert’s Surrey house is almost a character in its own right, such is EJH’s talent for describing settings, furnishings and rooms. Herbert appears to have pushed May into buying it with the proceeds of an inheritance, somewhat against her better judgement. It’s a terrifying place – cold, dark and oppressive, the type of dwelling that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Shirley Jackson short story.
The floors of the wide, dark passages were polished oak, which, as Herbert had pointed out, obviated the need for carpets. The staircase was also oak – no carpet there, either, which made it slippery and a nightmare to negotiate with heavy trays. The hall, with its huge, heavily-leaded window – too large to curtain – was somehow always freezing, even in summer, and dark, too, because here the oak had crept up the walls to a height of about nine feet, making any ordinary furniture and look ridiculous. There was also a tremendous stone fireplace in which one could have roasted an ox; and, as Oliver had pointed out, nothing less would have done either to warm the place or to defeat the joyless odour of furniture polish. ‘It really is a monstrous house,’ she thought… (p. 83)
As the novel progresses, May begins to feel increasingly unwell, but no specific illness can be identified, with the doctors ultimately putting her condition down to age or the stress of Alice’s wedding. (At the beginning of the novel, Herbert’s daughter, Alice, marries Leslie – the first man to pay her any attention – chiefly as a means of getting away from her hideous father.) Moreover, the Colonel’s self-centred, duplicitous manner becomes increasingly apparent, leaving May to take the full strain of his selfishness, with no-one else in their Surrey home to offer support.
It’s hard to talk about how the May-Herbert storyline ends without getting into spoiler territory, but it definitely takes a very sinister turn. On my previous reading, I hadn’t fully grasped Herbert’s intentions until the closing scenes; however, this time I noticed just how many clues about his true colours are dropped in along the way. Instances such as the following when May’s daughter, Elizabeth, and her older lover, John, turn up unexpectedly at the Surrey house.
…they had arrived without warning at the innocuous hour of tea time, but this had so enraged the colonel that May had thought he was going to have a stroke. They had ‘broken in’ on him when he was in the greenhouse mixing something up for the lawn; no common courtesy left – he’d looked up from measuring something because he thought he’d heard a sound behind him, and there was this giant stranger without so much as a by-your-leave standing over him – enough to give any honest feller a heart attack. He’d lost his temper: not for long, but enough to make everyone feel intensely embarrassed… (p. 247)
And here, where Elizabeth wonders if men are largely responsible for the terrible things that happen to women. Perhaps John is responsible for his ex-wife’s drink problem and his daughter’s petulant behaviour? Maybe even Herbert – or Daddo as Elizabeth thinks of him – has a villainous streak? Sometimes it’s hard to tell…
And Daddo! She [Elizabeth] thought, with exactly the same hectic alarm; supposing he was wicked and just masquerading as stupid and dull! There was absolutely no reason, she went on, wildly, why on earth stupid people shouldn’t be wicked: it was far more likely, when you came to consider it. It was supposed to be far easier to be wicked than to be good…(p. 128)
This re-read also reinforced how trapped Alice must have felt in her marriage to Leslie – another self-absorbed bore with no regard for his wife’s feelings. In my previous post, I’d quoted an excruciating passage from Leslie and Alice’s wedding night (which you can read via the link). However, during this reading I highlighted a section from later in the novel when Alice is pregnant, desperately battling a combination of loneliness, isolation and nausea, to which Leslie seems oblivious.
By the time Leslie returned she was just beginning to feel sick again, but gave the appearance of having been at wifely occupations all day. He would make himself a drink, switch on the television and tell her about his day in a raised voice over it, while she struggled with nausea and supper.… When, eventually, they went to bed, Leslie left her alone which was the single best thing about being pregnant, she decided. He would kiss her forehead, pat her hand, sometimes – maddeningly – stroke her belly, but he seemed to regard sex as unnecessary. (p. 199)
Also worthy of a mention before I finish is Alice’s marvellous cat, Claude, who steals the whole show – quite literally in this scene – as he tucks into a pair of salmon trout that Herbert has held back from the catering for Alice and Leslie’s wedding.
He [Claude] had known for ages how to open the larder door, but had not advertised the fact, largely because there was hardly ever anything there worth eating; but he was extremely fond of fish. He inserted a huge capable paw round the lower edge of the door and heaved for several minutes: when the gap was wide enough he levered it open with his shoulder and part of his head. The fish lay on a silver platter on the marble shelf, skinned and garnished. He knocked pieces of lemon and cucumber contemptuously aside, settled himself into his best eating position and began to feast. He tried both fish – equally delicious – and when he could eat no more, he jumped heavily off the shelf with a prawn in his mouth which he took to the scullery for further examination. (pp. 21–22)
Claude really is quite the character – the sort of pet that does as he pleases, as many cats are inclined to do!
So, a fascinating reread for many different reasons, some of which I’ve noted above. I still feel that John is a little bit too good to be true. His whisking Elizabeth away to a life of luxury in the South of France seems like a fantasy – too idealistic or fantastic to buy into completely. But maybe that’s a deliberate decision on Howard’s part; I’m curious to hear any views.
Something in Disguise is published by Picador; personal copy.