Wednesday, July 27, 2016

ELAINE HOWIS, Two more novels and a story collection

This post has gotten bumped and bumped again in the past couple of months, and it's really high time I put it out there if I'm ever going to. I actually read these books ages ago, but then I had publishing announcements to make and other posts to share, and I kept putting this one off. So, it's now or never!

As most of you know if you've been following this blog for a while, my reading tends to be rather random and schizophrenic. I've talked before about how long it takes me to get through all of an author's books, even if I'm a big fan. For me, it's sort of like having a lot of friends that you enjoy spending time with now and then for varying reasons. You don't, after all, just move in with one friend at a time and spend every second together until you've completely exhausted everything you could possibly say to each other!

But I don't know what has happened to me in the past year or so that I seem to be tending toward doing just that. Last year, I got obsessed with the wonderful Elizabeth Fair, who was such an exciting find since neither I nor just about anyone else had ever heard of her and she turned out to be great fun. This year, I've already been writing quite a lot about Rachel Ferguson and my obsessive pursuit of all twelve of her novels (for reasons which are now more obvious). And now, having randomly selected an Elaine Howis novel to sample a while back, I've managed, with some difficulty, to get my hands on all of her other books.

Jacket blurb from
All I Want

With limited results, I have to say, but also rather intriguing ones. She wrote only four novels and one story collection in all, and they're all relatively short, so it hasn't been nearly the epic undertaking that my Ferguson reading has been, and I do still have one, her final novel, Demand Me Nothing (1960), left to read, but here's what I've covered so far.

I can safely say that The Lily Pond remains the cream of the crop for me, but perhaps that's just because I read it first. After that, I went back to her debut, All I Want (1956), which is a bit lighter and more humorous, though still undoubtedly with darker undercurrents. It's about an egomaniacal widower who thoroughly believes in his fantasies of himself—which in fact bear little resemblance to the reality—who moves, with his sister and teenage daughter, to an English village in abidance with his fantasy of someday becoming a country gentleman:

Jonathan was determined to be liked. He was quite sure he would be. Loving the human race as a whole, he yet had little experience of it in the piece; and that little had been wasted. For Jonathan was of those who would not listen, who refused to listen, denying the still, small voice of fact and clinging to the louder and clearer one of theory; and his love of humanity had been largely fostered by the private means which had given him the power to get away from it.

Jonathan is an intriguing, exasperating, and often funny character, but in fact it's really the women around him who stand out in this novel, especially Selina, his beleaguered sister.

Selina, sorting books, continued to breathe shortly and evenly, but a little more shortly and evenly than usual. She considered herself to be a restraining influence on her brother. She never had influenced or restrained him, but the influence and restraint were there, ready to be used, to drag him down from the high places and pull him up from the low ones.

If he wanted another drink she would suggest that he had had enough, and ifhe did not want another one she would say that a good stiff peg would be the very thing for him.

There are a dozen or more standout passages about Selina that I could share, and more about the women of the village and about Emma, Jonathan's tortured, artistic daughter, whose feelings about her pedantic and harassing father are problematic to say the least:

Emma knew of the friendship, and she thought it a strange thing, a fantastic thing, that anyone should want to be with Jonathan. She herself, if she were buried under the grass on which his feet trod, would burrow deeper in the concealment and comfort of the kindly earth that asked no questions and cared not whether she knew wheat from barley.

Wow. Not just your typical teenage angst, that.

There are many such striking images and entertaining passages in All I Want, and the kinds of turns of phrase Howis would use so brilliantly in The Lily Pond are to be found here too, but it ultimately felt that Howis was attempting more here than she achieved (or than I was able to grasp, which could well be the case). For instance, there's a central image of a row of treasured poplars that dominate one edge of Jonathan's property, which come to be a source of conflict between him and the villagers, but what exactly the poplars are meant to represent or suggest rather escaped me.

And that same sense of meanings not quite fully conveyed continued through my reading of some of the stories in Dazzle the Native and of Howis's third novel, Almost an Island. There are seventeen stories in Dazzle the Native, most of them quite short and making full use of Howis's striking turns of phrase and catchy metaphors, but also, sadly, most of them strangely unsatisfying. Indeed, some are outright bewildering.

She seems to have a particular fixation on girls and women who stumble into perilous situations (or, in some cases, perhaps just imagine themselves in peril) with understatedly threatening men. There are four stories here with that theme, and a couple more that vary the theme only slightly. She also takes particular pleasure in leaving her stories' endings ambiguous. Now, generally I have a high tolerance for ambiguous endings—I can gleefully interpret endings to mean three different things, and if I can stretch it to four then I'm ecstatic—but I have to say that in all cases here I found the ambiguity merely puzzling and unsatisfying, rather than ripe for interpretation. Here, to show off my own ignorance, are my notes on one such story, "Meet Me at Five":

Young woman meeting a tardy friend at an empty boarding-house, encounters the caretaker's brother, who has (or she thinks he has) a knife. Imagines she will be murdered, but caretaker shows up, steadfastly denying that his brother has a knife and accusing her of overreacting. Then there is an earlier flashback to the woman's childhood, when her governess apparently went mad and was carried off. Thoroughly bewildering.

Even the stories that aren't structured around some central malevolence often felt somehow incomplete to me, but I should hasten to say that there are some surprising high points. My favorite story here (and I am now fantasizing about the possibility of publishing a collection of excellent stories by "lost" authors, because even lesser authors are often able to muster a really excellent story or two, but alas I imagine getting the rights for a whole slew of stories is a headache I'm not quite ready to tackle yet) was "Man and Boy," in which an old gardener attends the estate sale of Miss Marsham, his former employer, who left a legacy to his wife, also a servant, but left nothing to him. He encounters (or thinks he does) the ghost of Miss Marsham, who helps to make up for her oversight. Humor turns up here quite effectively, and it's all done extremely well.

Humor also greatly strengthens "The Artist," which makes light of the artistic sensibility (perhaps some shades of the sophisticates in The Lily Pond here). Miss Patterson has always fancied herself an artist, and finally has a chance to prove it when an aunt dies and leaves her enough money for a cottage in a village called Artists' Paradise. She begins to paint and is condescended to by her fellow artists, who nevertheless take advantage of her hospitality. In the end, due to a misunderstanding, she is awarded first prize at the annual exhibition for her dreadful-sounding painting "Shrimps at Play." The description of the village and the local squire paints a vivid picture:

There were plenty of them, and all, or nearly all, brethren of the brush, for the village took itself and its name in extreme seriousness. The bearded, fringed and sandalled wore these emblems of their calling with exaggeration, and a slight anxiety lest they should be mistaken for the appendages of lesser men. They held annually an exhibition of their own works at which the squire, deceived for half a lifetime by his wife into thinking himself an admirer of the arts, awarded the title of Best Picture of the Year.

And "Poona" is also a high point, the tale of a super-efficient secretary, Miss Summers, who takes an interest in the exotic feel and décor of a house she passes on her way to work. She discovers it is inhabited by a woman, Mrs. Robinson, who has never been to India but is obsessed by all things India and pretends to have an exotic Indian life even while living in south England. The secretary seizes an opportunity to arrange for Mrs. Robinson to go to India as a companion to a friend of the secretary's aunt, and Mrs. Robinson's reaction is extreme and unexpected. The story is striking for its view of colonialism and colonial fantasies, and also features some of Howis's highly effective metaphors.

It's too bad there aren't more stories of the same quality in this collection. Some readers might be fonder of her eerie or ghostly stories than I am, but as for me, I'll stick with re-reading her lighter-hearted tales.

I was optimistic, then, when I approached her third novel, Almost an Island (1958), which promised, from its description, to be Howis at her light-hearted best. Consider the opening lines, which sound rather like the novel could be a charming update of Enchanted April:

'What a ridiculous advertisement,' Henry said. He spoke with Olympian calm, for how was he to know he would have anything to do with it?

The Daily Telegraph, folded neatly, precisely, lay before him; marmalade at one side, coffee at the other. His glance, arrested for a moment, skimmed down the personal column. But he had finished with the paper. There was a train to catch. He handed it to Julia; and immediately its folded neatness, its precision, swelled, became unmanageable. Sheets loosened, drooped, were gathered up, burst asunder, one drifting to the floor and another sprawling, caught by a mere fragment. She hit it smartly in the middle, reducing that part she had all along decided she would read to uneasy submission.

Here it was: 'Wanted for Summer Months, perhaps longer, three people to share an Enchanted House. Almost an Island.'

'Almost an Island?' repeated Henry, in the irritated voice of an accurate man confronted with a grave misstatement. 'Either it is an island or it is not an island. There can be no "almost" about it.'

Julia is a basically contented but rather stifled wife, and the decision to go to the almost-island for a three month holiday while her husband is on a business trip is a half-hearted rebellion again her husband's chilly orderliness. Julia's arrival at the Villa Rose, and her acquaintance with the main tenant, Mamie, and her other renters, also seem promising, as in these thoughts about two of the other guests:

It was not so much that unhappiness dogged Lisa, as that Lisa dogged unhappiness. Encountering the airy stuff of which husbands are not made, the bogus counts, the splendid cads, the disinherited younger sons, Lisa instantly fell in love. Misunderstandings followed. Switzerland, the Highlands, the South of France followed. Followed the Villa Rose.

Lisa was small and appealing and weak. God save me from weak women, Carl had cried. He might have added: and from designing women, and beautiful women, and foolish women—for God saved him from them all; leading him to a small hut at the bottom of the garden where he lived in peace and unhappiness.

Mamie's distinguishing feature is a tremendous narcissism, tied in with a superficial bohemianism and a constant reworking of slights and insults, real and imagined, as a result of which she frequently rearranges prized pieces of furniture and décor—especially a somewhat shopworn hammock, which is moved from one guest's balcony to another's based on who has offended her most and most recently.

In this novel, too, there's a central image that seems intended to evoke deeper meanings than it succeeds in evoking (again, at least for this reader). A goat suddenly appears on the almost-island, having apparently swum across the small lake that surrounds the house. The Italian gardener and handyman sees it as an ominous portent, Mamie prides herself on the fact that the goat won't leave her side, and its sudden disappearance causes Julia sleepless nights of worry about where it has gone. None of which seemed to add very much to the Howis's eccentric plot.

Alas, all the authors listed on the back
cover of Almost an Island are men, but
some of them do sound intriguing

If only the author had allowed herself to use her considerable skills at humor a bit more frequently and toned down the attempts to be literary and profound, I have a feeling I would be enthusiastically raving about her work right now. As it is, her wonderful sense of humor crops up only infrequently, and too much angst and psychologizing overwhelms the novel. To leave it on a high note, however, here's one more lovely example of Howis at her best, from a dramatic scene near the end of the novel in which some of the characters have lost their treasured, measured cool:

They had been reared in the code of the understatement, the playing down of emotion, and Mamie's rebuke at their agitation wounded their pride as much as if they had been caught screaming in a lifeboat or trampling children in the panic of escape. Worse, there was a vulgarity in it, and they set themselves to calmness and a bland ignoring of what they knew to be there.

I may yet get around to reading Howis's fourth and final novel, Demand Me Nothing (1960), but I have to admit it's not at the very top of my list. Alas, not every author I run across can be a giddy discovery, but this is one time when I wish an author were more readily available in order to be able to see what other readers—possibly more in tune with what Howis was trying to do than I apparently am—would make of her. If anyone has read anything of hers, or does in the future, do let me know what you think!


  1. A certain blogger said that a Fair book she read in Feb was a dud and posted it under a small section of duds she had read.Very honest of was A WINTER AWAYI have ever read (even as – especially as? – it pokes fun at hipsters).

    A Winter Away by Elizabeth Fair – Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow loved this and hooked me with a comparison to Angela Thirkell. Unfortunately, I did not see the resemblance. It’s a simple story of a young woman who comes to stay with a relative and her companion while working as a secretary for a crotchety older gentleman. As you do in books published in 1957. There are two eligible young men floating around and a very pale secondary romance. Told without humour or any literary competence, it is utterly and completely forgettable.

    1. Haha! Thanks for sharing that, Tina, I hadn't noticed it. Well, I stand by my recommendation and my comparison with Thirkell, and am happy to say eight or ten other people have commented or emailed me since the Elizabeth Fair post to say they tracked down one of more of her novels and enjoyed them as well. Different strokes for different folks, as they say!

  2. To quote it seems like you have "damned Howis with faint praise".Unsure who said that first.


    1. Definitely not my intent. Howis is not exactly my cup of tea, but I do think some readers might enjoy her work. I like to point out things other readers might enjoy, even if I don't--unlike some bloggers, perhaps? :-)

  3. Well, Scott, I agree wholeheatedly about Elizabeth Fair, and am now the proud possessor of several titles (alas, tot he tune of many dollars) although a couple remain elusive......
    SO - who KNOWS what this latest bout may make me do/spend???????
    But I love finding out about the "new" authors!

    1. Thanks, Tom, for your perfectly timed comment about Fair (which, I should note, you left without benefit of seeing Tina's, since I hadn't got round to moderating comments until a little while ago)! But sorry for helping to drain your book budget! Perhaps someone will publish more affordable editions of her other books someday...

    2. Well, and now, I will add that "A Winter Away" is one I have yet to locate, so who knows what I might think THEN!

  4. The plot of "A winter away "is possibly common one for the 1950s.I read a terrible book called COUNTRY COUSIN by Winifred Mantle about a student girl who had 2 boyfriends and was pally with a professor.It was a muddle .And the comment about a hipster may be a mistake as i cut and paste very erratically.



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