The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard is not so much a ‘what happens next’ novel as ‘what has happened in the past to lead to this situation’ story. It is a novel about choices and where they can lead. Howard tells the story, backwards from 1950 to 1926, of the marriage of Antonia and Conrad Fleming. As the story starts, the marriage seems doomed and you cannot help but wonder how these two people ever got married in the first place. In fact, once I finished it I was tempted to read it again from back to front.
The first paragraph is a masterful example of scene setting. It opens with a dinner party to celebrate the engagement of Julian Fleming to June, who has secretly spent the afternoon alone at the cinema. As Antonia considers the complicated marital affairs of her son – and her daughter, Deirdre, who is pregnant by a man who does not love her – I wondered how her own marriage must have shaped her children’s handling of relationships and how hers, in turn, was shaped by her parents. I found Conrad an almost totally unsympathetic character, indeed in the first part he is referred to simply as Mr Fleming. ‘One of his secret pleasures was the loading of social dice against himself. He did not seem for one moment to consider the efforts made by kind or sensitive people to even things up; or if such notions ever occurred to him, he would have observed them with detached amusement, and reloaded more dice.’
This is very much a novel of its time in which middle-class women had limited choices. As a young woman, Antonia lacks the strength to break out. She is timid, feeling she has proved unsatisfactory for both her mother and father. ‘She grew up, therefore, feeling, not precisely a failure so much as an unnecessary appendage.’ Her mother bemoans her lack of interests [Antonia does have interests, simply not those of her mother] and her father her lack of intellect [but without stimulus of career or education]. We see the transition from hopeful, eager young girl experiencing first love, to weary, middle age when the ‘trees ahead so horribly resembled the trees behind, and the undergrowth of their past caught and clung and tore at them as they moved on’.
This is Howard’s second novel. I am most familiar with her later ‘Cazalet Chronicles’ series and there are some key comparisons to be made in the writing style. Sentences in The Long View are longer, paragraphs longer, and the style not as simple and nuanced as the later books. Viewpoint also shifts within paragraphs, a technique she changed for the Cazalets. This is not to say this spoiled my enjoyment of The Long View, it is perhaps an observation for writers rather than readers, but it shows an interesting development in the author’s writing style. And I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Antonia’s horse rides in Sussex, countryside in which the Cazalet’s house, Home Place, is set.
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