Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard  

First published in 1999, when Elizabeth Jane Howard was nearing the twilight of her career, Falling was inspired by real-life events. When Howard was in her seventies, she fell for the charms of a con man – a seemingly attentive man who took advantage of the fact that she was unattached and vulnerable yet receptive to admiration. At first, Howard was flattered by the attention, but the affair proved devastating when her lover’s true intentions became clear. Having been badly bruised by these events, she channelled her experiences into Falling, a fictionalised version of the story that feels horribly real. It’s an excellent book – engrossing, chilling and beautifully written, like a slow-burn thriller in the Patricia Highsmith vein.

In the novel, the narrative is conveyed through alternating chapters, giving readers an insight into both central characters – Henry Kent, a relatively good-looking man in his sixties with a background in gardening, and Daisy Langrish, a successful playwright, also in her sixties. Having separated from his wife, Hazel – a woman who always resented his lack of success – Henry is living from one day to the next, camping out on a dilapidated boat while its owners are abroad. With no money to speak of, Henry is on the lookout for a well-heeled woman, preferably someone middle-aged with no thoughts of having children. Of course, a faded beauty would be ideal, a neglected divorcee or widow just ripe for the picking; but most importantly, she must be comfortably off, wealthy enough to support Henry without his needing to work…

When Daisy Langrish (aka Redfearn) moves into a nearby cottage, she quickly becomes the target of Henry’s attention. With two bruising marriages behind her, Daisy is wary of getting her fingers burnt again. In particular, she was badly hurt by her second husband, Jason, a successful actor who left her for a much younger woman following two years of wedded bliss. Nevertheless, despite a few reservations, she agrees to let Henry sort out the garden for her when he calls to enquire.

The ‘Henry’ sections of the book are written in the first person, giving the reader full access to his thought processes right from the very start. Consequently, we can see how quickly Henry sizes Daisy up, pinpointing her vulnerabilities and planning his strategy accordingly. He knows he needs to win Daisy’s trust, carefully disarming her as gently as possible.

Trust. I could clearly recall that the first time our eyes met hers were full of wary defence; she was not accustomed to trusting people. I must disarm her, but so gradually that she would be hardly aware of it. (p. 70)

Almost immediately after their initial meetings, Daisy has to go the US for a couple of months, much to Henry’s dismay. While abroad, Daisy breaks her shoulder and foot during a trip to Mexico – an accident that leaves her hospitalised in the US for several weeks as she recovers from the injuries. Meanwhile, Henry is eager to discover more about Daisy, viewing this as a way of bolstering his chances. As far as Henry sees it, the more he knows about his target, the deeper the connection he can forge. So, he breaks into the cottage and rifles through Daisy’s belongings, reading her diary and personal letters – all of which give him an insight into her painful break-up with Jason.

Armed with this information and a few sob stories of his own, Henry starts writing to Daisy in hospital, gradually developing their relationship while she is vulnerable and alone. Moreover, when Daisy is finally well enough to return to the UK, Henry makes himself invaluable to her recovery, fetching groceries and keeping an eye on her as she settles back into the cottage.

Slowly but surely, Henry inveigles his way into Daisy’s life, steadily planning his advancement with the ultimate goal of marriage. At first, Daisy remains on her guard, fearful of a degree of intimacy that she certainly doesn’t want. For years now, she has kept herself emotionally closed down, fearful of opening up as a means of self-protection. Nevertheless, she has to acknowledge Henry’s attentiveness – his tenderness, even. It’s almost as if he can anticipate her needs without encroaching too far on her privacy. Maybe, just maybe, he actually loves her? Could this be her last chance of happiness, an opportunity to come first in someone else’s affections? As Henry works his magic, Daisy begins to wonder…

She was touched by his candour and his courage. Here she stopped. Was she not more than touched, more than grateful? For over two weeks now he had tended her with a delicacy and kindness that was surely unusual in any man, only credible, indeed, if some kind of love was involved. Perhaps he did love her, actually love her. The possibility, the faintest chance, that this might be so, might actually be real… (p. 268)

Something that Howard does so well here is to show us the relationship from two different perspectives, illustrating the true intentions behind Henry’s actions – and how Daisy is ultimately taken in by this technique. While the ‘Daisy’ sections are mostly written in the third person, some passages are presented as letters or diary entries, giving us direct access to her thoughts. Her gradual surrender is incredibly painful to observe, especially as we know just how devious and manipulative Henry can be. At first, one might consider him a fantasist, the sort of man who feeds off his own delusions; but as the narrative gradually unfolds, his psychopathic tendencies become increasingly clear…

My abstinence I intended her to interpret as my extreme love for her, and this was entirely successful; indeed, I had every kind of success and it was a sweet triumph to see her at ease, looking up at me with a kind of grateful radiance. I told her that she was beautiful and that I loved her (one cannot do this too often), and she answered that I made her feel beautiful. I knew then that I had accomplished much; was more than halfway to her becoming mine. (p. 307)

Howard also gives the reader just enough information to piece together Henry’s disreputable past as the story goes along. Slowly but surely, we learn of his underlying personality and habits – more specifically his short fuse and tendencies towards violence, his dislike of interference from those he considers outsiders, and his lack of any social contacts or real friends. He really is a very nasty piece of work.

Howard is such an astute observer of human nature, exploring her characters’ motivations with insight and understanding. The supporting players are beautifully drawn too, particularly Daisy’s agent, Anna, who is suspicious of Henry from the start. Even Daisy’s somewhat distanced daughter, Katya, has some nagging doubts about her mother’s lover, exacerbated perhaps by her own marital problems.

In short, this is a thoroughly engrossing novel, a compelling exploration of just how easy it is to be seduced when we are vulnerable and alone. My thanks to Andrew Male, who recommended this book to me as one of Howard’s late masterpieces. He was absolutely right, of course. (How could he not be?) It’s a brilliantly unsettling read – my favourite EJH to date.

Falling is published by Picador; personal copy.

28 thoughts on “Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard  

  1. Liz Dexter

    Gosh this does sound a good one, I’ve not really enjoyed what I’ve read of hers, bizarrely, but I think that comes from reading one that had both a cat death gratuitously used as a plot device and a not-great portrayal of an eating disorder (can’t remember which one that was now!) and that put me off. This sounds fascinating, though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That sounds like Something in Disguise, which I liked very much, especially on a second reading. (There’s also a very romantic relationship in ‘Disguise’, which seems too good to be true; but I think that’s a deliberate move on Howard’s part to show us the some of the pitfalls of falling head over heels in love.) Falling is excellent, and I would definitely recommend it if you’re ever minded to give her another try. Quite Highsmith-like in its exploration of charming psychopaths, if that’s any help!

      Reply
  2. A Life in Books

    I imagine this was quite a painful read given the knowledge of Howard’s experience, albeit a fascinating one. I hope writing it proved cathartic for her. Adding it to my list.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I had to keep reminding myself that it’s based on events from her own life. It’s easy to forget every now and again, especially when you’re deep in the midst of a novel like this…I’m keen to read her autobiography (Slipstream) at some point, partly to see how she covers it there.

      Reply
  3. mementominnie

    Picked up a copy for $1 at monthly Booksale.Will go and get it RIGHT NOW.Also collected Cazalet series same way so have those to look forward to.First read Howard in my late teens with “After Julius”..

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Fascinated horror…yes, that’s a great description. It’s painful to see Henry manipulating Daisy like this – and yet, it’s hard to look away, almost like a slow-motion car crash unfolding in front of your eyes…

      Thanks for mentioning the TV adaptation as I wasn’t aware of that! Co-written by Andrew Davies and EJH, with Michael Kitchen and Penelope Wilton in the lead roles – that’s an impressive line-up. Definitely worth a look if it pops up in the schedules at some point.

      Reply
  4. whisperinggums

    A reading group member once recommended that we do a book of hers but so far we haven’t. Would you recommend this one? Or another? This certainly sounds interesting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’d definitely recommend this one! I’ve read six or seven or her standalone novels over the years, and it’s my favourite of the lot (with Something in Disguise in second place). Either of these two would make an excellent choice for a book group as there’s plenty to discuss, especially around the psychology of the characters.

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    Your enthusiasm for EJH has really put her on my radar. I really like the ‘chilling’ sound of this, especially with your reference of Patricia Highsmith. This does sound like a really powerful novel your favourite to date is high praise indeed.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      This is the one to go for if you ever decide to try her, Ali. It’s very Highsmith-like, especially in the portrayal of Henry, a charming, deluded fantasist with psychopathic tendencies…

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Oh, this sounds gripping Jacqui! How clever to present the dual narrative like this, and what a swine he sounds. I had no idea EJH had been affected like this in real life either. I’m still to read her but do have one of her titles lurking… 😊😊

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you’ve got Something in Disguise, IIRC? That’s another really good one, although I still have a bit of a reservations about the portrayal of one overly romantic relationship in that novel, possibly a deliberate move on Howard’s part to show us the difficulties of falling head over heels in love with someone who seems too good to be true! The background to Falling sounds so disturbing…I must read her autobiography (Slipstream) at some point to discover more…

      Reply
  7. madamebibilophile

    I think this would really get under my skin and I’d be reading on in horror! It sounds so well done. I have one EJH in the TBR and I really must get to her, she sounds a wonderful writer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ve been a bit hit-or-miss with her over the years, but this one’s terrific – really disturbing, especially given the backstory behind it. Which one do you have in your TBR, Madame Bibi? I’m wondering if it’s one of the standalone novels I’ve read or something different. (And you’re right to say she’s very good writer. Even her lesser novels contain some great descriptive passages, particularly on rooms, clothes and food!)

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          It may well be…although I think I’d have to read her autobiography to know for sure. That novel has a fascinating structure, focusing on five key points in a couple’s relationship in reverse order. A little like Francois Ozon’s film 5×2, if you’re familiar with that? I’ll be very interested to see what you think. (I ought to return to The Long View too, as I probably underestimated it on my first reading!)

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

  9. Karen K.

    This sounds excellent but also harrowing! I’ve read all the Cazalet novel and loved them, I also have several of her stand-alone books on deck but have only read one, The Long View which I liked but didn’t love. I also have her memoir which sounds interesting!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, very disturbing at times!

      I too had some reservations about The Long View, so you’re not alone on that front. Alongside Falling, the other standalones I’ve enjoyed include Something in Disguise, Odd Girl Out and After Julius (with the exception of the ending which felt somewhat problematic). Her memoir sounds fascinating. doesn’t it? Definitely something I’d like to read.

      Reply

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