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.
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?’
‘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?’
‘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.