Norway and Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius

Oslo opera house

Oslo opera house with the almost finished new Edvard Munch museum to its right

This is my first post since returning from a break in Norway. Three days in Oslo, a lovely city, with floating saunas in the harbour opposite the dramatic sloping roof of the Opera House – designed to look like a glacier. You can walk to the top and get a great view from the top.

Long train trip to Bergen, which at first we found a letdown after Oslo, but it grew on us. Then the Hurtigruten ferry (the name means ‘rapid route’) up the coast, over the northernmost tip of the country and back down yet another fjord into Kirkenes (‘church on a promontory’) just a few kilometres from the Russian and Finnish borders to the south and east. It was one of the most bombed cities in WWII, and has suffered greatly over the years from invasions and occupations by hostile forces.

Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius coverI read the two books I took with me. First was Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius. Picador paperback, 2015, 339pp. 19651. This was the first in a bundle I bought for a ridiculously low price from the Book People, a budget UK online bookseller. Jacqui Wine recommended this at her blog as the best one to start with.

I enjoyed the crisp, intelligent writing style, and the observations of characters were astute. In this respect EJH reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor: both writers are good at depicting lonely, unfulfilled, thwarted women. Esme is particularly well drawn: at 58 she’s spent the past twenty years as a widow, her eponymous husband Julius having sacrificed his life by sailing single-handed to assist at the Dunkirk evacuation, with no previous maritime experience. It’s an act of suicide, for he’d discovered Esme was having an affair.

Esme’s lover Felix is fourteen years her junior, the love of her life, and she’d hoped when her husband died that they’d at last be able to be together. She’s disappointed. Now, twenty years on, he’s invited himself to a weekend at her country house in Sussex. Her two daughters are there, both also unhappy in love.

The narrative is structured with poise and skill: the three parts deal with the three days of the weekend, with frequent glimpses into the past lives of the main characters that gradually explain how they’ve become the people they are. Five of the chapters in each part take the restricted viewpoint in turn of each of these main characters, with the sixth being a culminating set group piece, usually ending in disaster or farce. Events become complicated, enlightening or humiliating for all of these five characters, as revelations are made that transform their views of themselves and each other. There’s some dark humour to leaven the rather melodramatic plot, and a particularly poignant section in which, in flashback, the fate of Julius is recounted.

It’s a novel of set pieces, such as country house meals and rural walks. Descriptions of interiors and the outdoors are delicately done, integral to the unfolding of character and relationships. The housekeeper’s cat is a fine feline portrait.

Like Jacqui, however (link to her post here) I had grave reservations about some of the sexual relations. Howard is astute about the dawning sexual liberation of the early sixties, with some frank and touching insights into its consequences. It wasn’t the outspokenness that disturbed me; it was her portrayal of abusive and controlling treatment of women by some of the male characters without any apparent sense that this was reprehensible. Unfortunately this ruined for me what had otherwise been an entertaining and well written novel.

The men are weakly done, too. Esme’s anxious and vulnerable younger daughter Emma has brought home an uncouth, working-class boor called Dan Brick (apt name) who we are intended to believe is a poet. She works at the family publishing firm, and he’s supposed to be a literary genius. Yet he shows no sensitivity to or interest in language, culture or people. He’s an inverted snob, scorning the privileged lives of these wealthy people from a world so different from his. He’s a character who doesn’t ring true at all, and this seriously weakens the novel. I found it impossible to believe that a young woman like Emma would be attracted to such a brute.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by Esme’s former lover, Felix, either. Like some of the other characters he attempts to reconcile conflicting moral impulses (Dan wouldn’t even begin to understand such a concept), but ultimately he too behaves like a cad.

I was left at the end thinking that Howard wanted in some way to punish these lonely, desperate women. She shares some of the acerbic wit of Elizabeth Taylor’s narrators, but little of their generosity.

There’s another review of After Julius by Caroline here

I enjoyed the second book much more: Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know will be the subject of another post. There may be more on Norway, too.


8 thoughts on “Norway and Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius

  1. Well, firstly, I am very jealous of your trip!

    As for EJH, I had considered reading her, though tbh I’m not so sure I want to any more. Despite her good writing, I would find myself too angry with the controlling relationships I think (I got a bit cross with Otto in The Caravaners at times!) I don’t think she’ll be a priority for me at the moment!

    • Karen: I find these accounts of coercive control too upsetting as a reading experience. That’s probably a shallow response from a literary POV, but it’s what I feel. The narrator’s apparent complicity with the male violence undermines all the fine writing that’s gone before

  2. Norway sounds so interesting, I’d love to get there. (We could have added it to our Russia itinerary, but after two weeks of Russian cuisine, I was more tempted by Paris).
    Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know is good, but I found myself wishing that he’d write another novel…

    • Lisa: the scenery was wonderful and the light constantly changing. Tóibín said in a recent interview on BBC Radio 4 that he’s halfway through a new novel, hopefully in remission after his cancer treatment

  3. I seem to remember I liked this one much more than you did but, sadly, it hasn’t stayed with me while most of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels are so fresh in my mind still. I would love to visit Norway.
    Thank you for the link.

  4. Yes! I think your comment about Howard wanting to punish these women in some way is spot on. When my piece went live, another reader – quite a fan of Howard, I think — made the very same observation. It’s a shame, because (as you rightly point out) there’s actually a lot to admire here. Like you, I felt the portrayal of Esme’s inner feelings was very sensitively done. Virtually all the men in Howard’s novels seem to be deeply flawed or monstrous in some way. Cressy’s former lover was another horror, so callous and unfeeling when he learned of her unplanned pregnancy…

    Anyway, I’ll be very interested to see what you make of the others should you decide to read any more!

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