Like a lot of other early – to mid- 20th-century women’s fiction I’ve read (Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek comes to mind, or Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond, or most of Winifred Holtby’s novels, or Margaret Kennedy’s) Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Beautiful Visit was a disorienting reading experience: I finished it feeling I did not have the right critical apparatus to make interpretive sense of it. Although my interest never flagged, I could not see where it was going or what it was meant to be about: though the experiences related are often emotionally intense, the tone is generally flat, almost affect-less, while the plot is not really a plot so much as a series of random incidents connected only by a general pattern of faint hopes raised and then dashed. Though it tells the story of a young girl’s maturation, it lacks the momentum of a bildungsroman; though it turns out to be a story of artistic development, or at least emergence, it lacks the inspiration of a kunstlerroman. What is its point? Where is it meant to take us, intellectually and imaginatively?
I ended up thinking that its lack of direction and energy was its governing idea. The narrator is stifled by her family life and by the social constraints on her behavior as well as her options: she would like to have a vocation, but she can’t really imagine what it might be. The visit that changes everything by showing her how other people live actually changes very little, at least about how she can live: its effects arise only through the new connections she makes, most of which turn out to be far less consequential than she expects. Even when they do lead to something significant (like a marriage proposal), the promised transformation ultimately has no appeal. The one big change that finally occurs at the novel’s end is so artificial, so unanticipated, that it doesn’t seem to solve or promise anything either, except perhaps that it is the beginning of the real bildungsroman, the real story of her life, which we don’t get because our novel is the story of the stuttering, inchoherent, mostly pathetic existence that preceded it. (Is it also factitious? There’s an odd moment when she frankly remarks her difficulty in figuring out how to end the autobiographical novel she’s writing / we’re reading.)
I can see that the novel is in part a critique of women’s stifled lives, and of the marriage plot they are so relentlessly expected to embrace. The narrator’s mother is a sad example of the error of living for someone else: “Your father believed in music,” she tells her daughter,
and I believed in your father. By the time he died, I don’t think he believed in anything, and now I find it very difficult to believe in him.
The story of beautiful Deb and her disappointments is another striking case in point: “life stops when one is married,” she says as she urges the narrator towards her own engagement, “and one ought to take care that it stops in a very good place.” The narrator (nameless, as befits her unformed identity) doesn’t want to marry, at least not just for the sake of marrying. “What will happen to you, if you don’t marry him?” demands Deb; “You surely do not intend spending the rest of your life doing those dreary jobs, do you?”
This seems a fair enough question, in the circumstances, so there’s something at least potentially heroic about our protagonist’s determination to resist her seemingly inevitable fate. She’s hardly rewarded for choosing independence, though, until she’s rescued improbably with a scheme to travel the world and determine its shape — a symbolic quest, I assume, meant to invoke visions of exploration and discovery, of new horizons both literal and metaphorical. Her previous inability to make any real changes is not really her fault, though it is her tragedy (more even than her sad but almost accidental wartime love affair). Her unexpected savior rightly observes that for all her attempts to escape, she has carried her “family atmosphere” along with her. I wonder why it doesn’t feel more triumphant, then, when she seizes opportunity to do, and be, something else: “On board a great deal of unpacking was necessary,” she reports without excitement; “I was given a cabin to myself with a good small table for writing.”
That she is well-suited to be a writer is often asserted by people she meets, mostly because she is so observant. I suppose The Beautiful Visit does give us some evidence of that: mostly silent herself, the narrator watches those around her with a sharp, if often somewhat puzzled, eye. Her lack of experience limits her insights into others as well as herself, but what she sees, she describes. That her account is so episodic suggests her own lack of direction. Other people find her more interesting than I did: when the young man she met on the initial visit reappears and declares his passionate love for her, I wondered if he had mistaken her for someone else because she seemed such a shadow of an actual person. Is that the necessary quality of a writer, to be self-effacing enough that they elude our attention even as they claim it?
My book club chose The Beautiful Visit in December, as a follow-up to Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up. Not for the first time, we accidentally coincided with the zeitgeist, as just last week a piece by Hilary Mantel championing Howard ran in The Guardian. Mantel skips quickly past The Beautiful Visit (though she notes it was a prize winner) and focuses primarily on the Cazalet Chronicles:
The novels are panoramic, expansive, intriguing as social history and generous in their storytelling. They are the product of a lifetime’s experience, and come from a writer who knew her aim and had the stamina and technical skill to achieve it.
Mantel makes the Cazalet Chronicles sound well worth reading. I’m not sure how convinced I am, however, by her broader argument that Howard is relatively unknown “because she’s a woman” writing what were perceived of as “woman’s books.” “Good books by women,” Mantel rightly notes, “fell out of print and vanished into obscurity: not just because, as in the case of male writers, fashion might turn, but because they had never been properly valued in the first place.” But I’d have to read more of Howard’s novels to see if I think they are as good as Mantel does. “Her virtues are immaculate construction,” she asserts, “impeccable observation, persuasive but inexorable technique.” I didn’t discern these qualities in The Beautiful Visit: nothing about it seems to justify falling into critical rhapsodies. I’m quite prepared to believe I am missing something about it, though — that I could learn to read it better. I’m looking forward to our discussion on the weekend.