Mum was born in London in the midst of WWII. She told us that her mother was always so wonderfully calm that she has no memory of being afraid in the bomb shelters, although they did worry about Fred, our grandfather. He’d been a black cab driver before the war, and became a fireman for the duration. Few people knew the streets of London as well as the cab drivers, which made them ideal firefighters – if a street was blocked by bombing, they knew the quickest way around.
Reading this book of Mums, I was transported further back, to the period surrounding WWI. One of the things that struck me was how robustly Ms Howard illustrated the tedium and narrowness of the world that was inhabited by middle class women in the Edwardian era. Little to look forward to beyond marriage and children, and maintaining ones social standing. There is a wonderful line, ‘the world stops when you get married, so you’d better make sure it stops in a good place’. And a lot of tea is taken in this book.
The central character, who narrates the story, reaches sixteen and finds herself invited to a house party by a relative of her mothers. The party inspires her, she sees the world opening up, full of promise and adventure, and afterwards she does everything she can to break free despite her lack of education or experience, including a stint as a ‘lady companion’ for the stuff of nightmares, the brilliantly bonkers Mrs. Border and her wig. There are the tragedies that are unavoidable in any work dealing with the Great War, more interesting perhaps is the exquisite portrayal of the way in which extreme grief is handled by the protagonists. Terribly British. Have some tea.
And our vulnerable heroine, who remains nameless as does her sister. She seems a strange girl to me, but thinking about it, she is a product of her times, and thus, a testament to Ms Howard’s beautiful prose in presenting her as such. There are oceans of anxiety and fear and wonder layered beneath her reserve. As the War ends, her life changes again with a second house party. Same family, same house, same Nanny, but time has bruised these apples and our heroine’s eyes are wide open this time. Her adventure is really just beginning. She’s a little bit empowered.
To be honest, I found the ending a little inconclusive. I do like my T’s crossed. But I have found myself thinking a lot about this book. Her writing reminds me very much of Howard Spring, it’s more of a painting than a book, a crystal clear picture of days long gone. It made me think about how much has changed in the past century, particularly for women. It made me think about affordable train rides and duck ponds and tea at four. It was Ms Howard’s first novel, it won a prestigious award, and it is indeed very fine writing, taking you deep into the world as it was then and addressing the social issues faced particularly by women. The perfect attention to detail, the quality of the observational writing, and the sensitivity with which Ms Howard handles her characters are astonishing. I’m really looking forward to reading her later work.
The absolutely vast societal changes that have happened between then and now are blatant in this novel. Yes, in 2018 we still have a way to go, but we are so much better off than we were in 1918. Mum was all about the empowerment of women and the under-privileged, the importance of being able to stand on your own two feet and make your own way in the world, and I think Elizabeth Jane Howard was too.
Let me know if you’d like to read The Beautiful Visit, and I’ll send it to you. Mum first read in in 1993, and again in 2016 so its safe to say it has her recommendation also.
Persian Fire is also as yet unclaimed…!