On Rereading: Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard

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.

33 thoughts on “On Rereading: Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard

  1. inthemistandrain

    Well that’s my New Year resolution broken on 2nd.January…….. Luckily World of Books had a copy.
    A Happy New Year to you!

    Reply
  2. madamebibilophile

    This does sound very dark – the quotes you pulled have a real sense of foreboding – what is he really mixing in the greenhouse? Who is going to get pushed down those uncarpeted stairs? Eek! It’s a really interesting idea to re-read having heard others experiences of the novel. I love it when another reader’s enjoyment really opens up a book for me

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, precisely. I hadn’t picked up on the sinister vibe in that greenhouse scene on my first reading, but the second time around it was plain as day. As you say, it’s such an interesting thing to do – to go back to a book like this, especially when other readers have rated it so highly. Now I can see what EJH was trying to do, In some respects, she’s issuing a warning to her readers, signalling how the most ordinary marital relationships might be more sinister than they first appear.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Happy New Year to you too, Gert. I hope you have plenty of Great Books to look forward to this year! As for the Howard, it’s a really excellent episode of Backlisted. Their Halloween specials are always good, but this one is particularly perceptive, partly due to the subversive nature of the book…

      Reply
  3. A Life in Books

    I started the Cazelet Chronicles after an outpouring of Twitter love but could not get on with the first volume at all. I thought I’d read a standalone instead an am currently enjoying Odd Girl Out so perhaps I’ll try Something in Disguise next.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I have the Cazalets and am looking forward to reading them, maybe later this year. There’s some lovely period detail in Odd One Out, though – pant suits, Sancerre, salmon trout and holidays in Greece. It’s a enjoyable book!

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Skimming your review a little, Jacqui, as I really want to read this one – I actually didn’t listen to the Backlisted episode, saving it for when I’d read it and I have a second hand copy lurking. I’m very, very intrigued I must say, and as I’ve never read EJH I’m hoping this would be a good place to start!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very wise! It’s a great episode, and I’m glad it encouraged me to return to the book with a fresh pair of eyes. I’ll be interested to see what you think!

      Reply
  5. Stephanie

    This is a wonderful description of an accomplished book. Elizabeth Jane Howard is one of the best novelists of the 20th century.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! The more I read her, the more I appreciate her style. She is a great observer of human nature, and her descriptions of rooms, houses etc. are to die for. An accomplished novelist indeed.

      Reply
    2. Vivien Pheasant

      I have now read the section on Claude several times, to myself, to my own greedy cat and to cat loving friends. We all agree it is a marvellous anecdote of a cat and I do wish I could meet him. I wonder if he is based on one of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s own cats?

      As for the book, I have read it once, long ago and loved it. I might reread and enjoy it even more.

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Isn’t he wonderful? So accurate and perfectly drawn. Like you, I can’t help but wonder whether he was based on a real cat that EJH had either owned or observed during her lifetime. He really is the most marvellous creation!

        Reply
  6. heavenali

    It’s interesting what you say about the women’s fiction style jacket, I am ashamed to say that has probably been partly responsible for putting me off EJH. However, I knew my mom enjoyed her and she was a friend of Elizabeth Taylor, so that should have been enough. Your previous enthusiasm for her has made me rethink my prejudice and one of these days I will give her a try. Which should I start with?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh…for you, I think I would suggest After Julius, as it’s a standalone novel and probably the closest in style to the types of books you enjoy. My only reservation relates to a brutal scene at the end of the book which struck a false (and horrific) note for me. I just couldn’t buy one of the character’s responses, and it took the shine off the book for me. Or you could start with Something in Disguise. I think you’d find it really interesting!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oddly enough, I’ve never read any Mary Stewart, but she’s an interesting reference point – as is Shirley Jackson. The dangers are probably more explicit (more obvious to the reader?) in Jackson’s fiction, but there are resonances with the horrors of domesticity for sure…

      Reply
  7. villabijou

    I read this some years ago after seeing a televised version of it (in the olden days when we got great British drama on television) I re-read it last year and enjoyed it even more and so moved on to The Long View which is a story of a marriage written in five parts, each part moves further back in time so it is at the end we learn why this couple married. A wonderful read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! Another reader has mentioned the TV adaptation to me, so I’ll have to see if it’s available to view, maybe on YouTube or somesuch platform. The Long View was my first EJH, and while I liked elements of it, there were other aspects that left me cold. Maybe I should try it again at some point, given my experiences with ‘Disguise’. Glad to hear that you enjoyed it so much!

      Reply
  8. Davida Chazan

    Wow… that was a blast from the past! I read this book not long after it was published, as well as a couple other books of hers. I’ve completely forgotten about her! Thanks!

    Reply
  9. 1streading

    How interesting to see you revisit a book you have already reviewed but now see in a different light. I have had the experience before of being convinced a book was better than I initially thought – in fact, sometimes I see things differently as I write a review – but I’ve never thought of writing again about a book I’ve already reviewed. (It’s why I’m a little suspicious of the idea of throwing a book aside if it’s not pleasing you). Looking forward to more of these!

    Reply
    1. Vivien

      During the first lockdown, my husband and I did a blitz on the attic and I found a large box of books that had been there undisturbed since we had moved from another house twenty years previously. I sorted through, picked out a large pile of ones I remembered enjoying, or half enjoying and sent the rest to Oxfam. Then I began re-reading. The result was astonishing. I was reading completely different books. Endings were not as remembered, characters were either more ghastly or much more attractive than my memory. Some books I loved more; others I wondered how I had ever managed to get to the end. One in particular that I had always remembered with pleasure was Dorothy Whipple’s “Someone at a distance” but although I still enjoyed it, there was not the same tug at my heart. We grow, we change, we learn. Books seem to change with us.

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        I’m nodding away at all this because it’s so relatable! Hotel du Lac is a great example of a book that speaks to me now but left me quite cold on my first reading 35 years ago. And I’m sure there would be instances of the reserve effect too. For example, I’ve never been able to bring myself to revisit The Chronicles of Narnia, mostly because I’m worried about destroying my rosy impressions of them from childhood!

        Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s interesting, isn’t it? To be honest, I don’t think I’d fully understood what EJH was doing in this novel on my first reading. It was only on my second go at it (having been ‘primed’, so to speak, by the Backlisted discussion) that I could see the clues. It’s actually a very dark, subversive book, dressed up to look like a cosy romance or family saga – an image reinforced by the Picador cover. Plus, as per Vivien’s comments below, I think we see some books ‘differently’ as we age. Books that speak to me now (e.g. Brookner’s Hotel du Lac) left me cold when I read them 30+ years ago, and vice versa!

      Reply
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