Elizabeth Jane Howard, Mr Wrong

Elizabeth Jane Howard, Mr Wrong. Picador Books, 2015. Stories originally published in the 1950s and 1970s, I think

 I’ve read one Elizabeth Jane Howard novel, After Julius (link to my post HERE) – a rather melodramatic tale of tangled, thwarted love. I also know of her as the author of the four much-praised Cazalet novels, about the lives of middle-class characters, with the focus on the women (from what I’ve read about them). I was not expecting the hair-raising ghoulishness of two of the stories in this collection, therefore.

Elizabeth Jane Howard Mr Wrong coverThe title story, ‘Mr Wrong’ is about a car bought second-hand by a nervous, lonely young woman called Meg; it turns out to be haunted by a gruesome murderer and his victim – who starts to come after the callow, vulnerable new owner. The narrative and the story’s  title subvert with grim relish the trite social assumption that all a reserved young woman like Meg wants or needs from life is ‘Mr Right’.

‘Three Miles Up’ is like a nightmare version of those cosy tv programmes in which minor celebrities chug along picturesque canals in narrowboats. The two men in a boat invite a mysterious young woman to join them – they find her apparently asleep by a tree on the canal bank. Things then take a decidedly spooky and sinister turn as they decide to explore an overgrown branch canal that’s not on any of their maps.

After a bit of searching online I discovered that EJH had worked as a secretary for the Inland Waterways Association. This was a charity devoted to the conservation and promotion of Britain’s canals and waterways that was co-founded by Robert Aickman, the writer of supernatural ‘strange stories’, and with whom she had an affair. This liaison also led to her contributing these two stories and one other to the collection We Are for the Dark (1951), to which Aickman himself added another three. Interesting that she should create such vastly different genres of fiction.

Although none of the other seven stories in Mr Wrong have a supernatural element, several are quite acrid in their depiction of disastrous marriages and other relationships. Spouses have affairs and fight with their partners; parents neglect their children. ‘The Whip Hand’ has a monstrous controlling mother of a child performer who shows signs at the end of becoming nastier than her mother.

In ‘Child’s Play’ a spoilt 18-year-old newlywed returns home after a row with her husband to seek solace from her doting father, who turns out to be a serial philanderer. Father and daughter treat the mother, Kate, with contempt.

This story has a nice vignette of the family’s appropriately sociopathic cat bringing a mouse into the kitchen, and ‘forcing’ Kate ‘to meet her glassy, insolent gaze’. It then ‘began to crunch it up like a club sandwich’:

She liked Kate, in a limited way, to share in her triumphs. In ten seconds the mouse was gone, she had drunk a saucer of milk, and was polishing her spotless paws. She kept herself in a gleaming state of perpetual readiness – like a fire engine.

Even the cat has an agenda in this twisted family drama.

Only one story, ‘Summer Picnic’, has a gentler tone, and it provides a welcome respite from this sequence of stories about edgy, tainted lives and loves.

I found some of the perceptions of and assumptions about sexual relations in After Julius disturbing, and these misgivings recurred in reading some of the stories in Mr Wrong. In ‘Toutes Directions’, set in the south of France, there’s a sex scene in which the reader seems to be expected to find the young woman’s submission to a man she’s just met as a kind of epiphanic liberation. Maybe I’m misreading, but I thought it not far removed from rape.

Although the stories are technically quite good, I didn’t much care for the author’s attitudes to her characters and their world of tension. The amorality and caustic misanthropy are depressing and borderline morbid.

First magnolias of springI’ll lighten the mood with a picture taken the other day in a local park – the first magnolias there this spring. My tree is still in bud.

12 thoughts on “Elizabeth Jane Howard, Mr Wrong

  1. Just skimming this for the mo as it’s an EJH I’ve yet to read. That said, I do recognise the caustic tone you mention in your closing comments. It’s something I recall from The Long View, which is probably her most highly regraded standalone work…

    • Just looked back at your posts on EJH. we seem to own the same package of stand alone novels (ie not the Cazalets). They are: Odd Girl Out, Something in Disguise, and Getting it Right. I was put off a little by After Julius, but am more inclined to give her another try in the current climate. You seem to favour OGO of those three, would you recommend trying that next?

  2. First, lovely magnolias! You are most definitely ahead of us here in Washington DC.

    I have not read any of these stories, but am a huge fan of Robert Aikman. I love some of the adjectives you use here, “acrid,” “morbid,” etc. Your reaction reminds me a bit of my own to Muriel Spark (I think I commented on this before). She is dark and can be hilarious, but brrrrrrr! So COLD! Can only handle it in small doses. Am more of a Barbara Pym or Penelope Fitzgerald enthusiaste.

    Curious to read these at some point and compare how they “hit” to your excellent discussion. Take care, Simon, and regards to Mrs. TD and the whole TD family.

    • Unfortunately some magnolias were subsequently scorched by frost – but there’s still a good display. Might post more pics soon from a local garden visit. Thanks for the good wishes – and the same to you.

  3. I agree with you about the chilling, claustrophic story of the otherwise well-constructed ‘Mr Wrong’ with its depressing implications for female vulnerability. I have always felt guilty for having, many years ago, told an English class of young teenagers that story in an English lesson as a demonstration of dramatic structure and handling of tension in the psychological horror genre, as it naturally enough gave at least one girl nightmares!

    • I had a few guilty moments like that in my career as an English teacher/lecturer. When I worked in a school, briefly, a 14-year-old student, a precocious, bright young man, who was considering reading English at university, asked for recommendations to broaden his reading. He later became a good friend, and told me years later that I’d emotionally scarred him for recommending Kafka at an age when he wasn’t maybe quite ready. In college, a student told me she’d been traumatised by my classes on Capote’s In Cold Blood – the one about the murder of a Kansas family by a couple of young drifters.

  4. Good Lord. I just read Mr Wrong (the story, not the entire collection). And was I disappointed!

    I see there’s a few English teachers here (not my first language). Could anyone please explain some stuff to me? I just don’t get it:

    Why put a supernatural spin on it if the supernatural is not used in the ending? I would get it if it was something only mistaken for supernatural, with the natural explanation being far more horrific and sinister. But there are genuine supernatural incidences in the story that just falls flat at the end. I mean why would the auburn girl appear with the man? I felt lied to.

    Why would she go into so much detail about characters that brings little or nothing to the story? The carsalesman. The flatmates. The parents. I understand if she is trying to create a sense of isolation for the main character – but why then go on about the sakesman’s teeth? The father’s imagined illnesses? Why do I have to read about a whole week of NOT selling the car? Why do I have to know the boyfriends’ names? Why do I have to climb in the psyci of the roommate by hearing about her magnifying mirror? There are literally pages that could be cut without affecting the story. Is it just fluff that she uses to try and lengthen the story, or am I not getting it? (which is a very real possibility – and probably the likely one at that).

    How could he recognise a car in the dark in a different color? What does the mother’s carpet have to do with anything? Why do I need to k ow what her boss does on weekends?

    I read through allot of crap, but I powered through it because I put my faith in this writer to bring everything together in the end. And she didn’t deliver.

    OR I just don’t get it. Which is why I’m asking someone to PLEASE explain it to me? I would greatly appreciate it!

    • Antonie: thanks for stopping by. I don’t think you’re ‘not getting it’. I agree that this story has flaws. The details you mention are, I think, all intended to add to the spooky atmosphere. The mundane trivia of ‘normal’ life and characters are there to highlight by contrast the supernatural element. As with Stephen King stories, the boringly normal setting serves to heighten the horror beneath the surface – or that’s the intention, I think. But I also think you’ve identified some of the weaknesses in the story; they’re valid questions that you raise, and my suggested answer is admittedly vague and unsatisfactory. I think too that Howard is trying to make the car – a symbol of bourgeois, everyday functionality – into something much more sinister. As if there’s a terrifying level of horror in everything in our lives, but we ignore or don’t just see it. Anyway, I daresay that’s far from conclusive, but I hope it begins to give you some sort of response. Thanks for taking the trouble to raise your questions.

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