Mesmerizing Books to Read While Traveling: Muriel Spark’s Robinson & Elizabeth Jane Howard’s After Julius


“The Travelling Companions” by Augustus Egg (1862)

No one tells you how dull travel is!  When you’re not looking at art or getting lost in foreign cities, you’re sitting in airports or hotels.  You read and read, which is a good thing, but it must be the perfect book under these circumstances.  It must be short or sassy!

Here’s what I read on a recent trip:

robinson-spark-1201571. Muriel Spark’s Robinson.  The incomparable Spark is bold, witty, and acerbic, one of the most polished stylists of the twentieth century.  I recently discovered her novel Robinson, a modern riff on Robinson Crusoe, which is so blessedly short (178 pages) that I earmarked it for vacation.

The novel opens with the narrator January Marlowe’s memories of her escape from a fiery death in a plane crash.    She was one of three survivors of the crash on a tiny island  owned by a the eccentric, wealthy Robinson, a mystic who rebelled against the dogma of the seminary.  His sidekick, Miguel, is an orphan whose father, a migrant worker, died while picking Robinson’s pomegranates.

Spark wickedly begins this sassy novel:

If you ask me how I remember the island, what it was like to be stranded there by misadventure for nearly three months, I would answer that it was a time and landscape of the mind if I did not have visible signs to summon its materiality:  my journal, the cat, the newspaper-cuttings, the curiosity of my friends; and my sisters–how they always look at me, I think, as one returned from the dead.

robinson-spark-holiday-2012-014The problem with being stranded is not so much the loneliness as the fellowship.  January is a devout Catholic with a sense of humor who often prays with her rosary, while strict Robinson grimly disapproves of religious relics. Suave Jimmie, another survivor, is a charming conversationalist who shares his secret flask of brandy with January and obligingly helps out with chores.  Odd man out is Tom Wells, the survivor we love to hate as he plots to gain ascendancy in the hierarchy on the island.

Robinson suspects Tom is a blackmailer: he accuses Robinson of stealing his important papers, i.e., proofs for a New Age magazine. He also sells lucky charms of dubious provenance.  And, as Robinson disapproves of the rosary, you can imagine what he thinks of lucky charms.

Then  Robinson disappears.  What will happen?  Will Tom take over?  And there is much to consider:  religion, politics, survival, hierarchy…

So much fun to read!

2. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s After Julius.  Howard’s “literary-pop” fiction is gorgeously-written while at the same time her plots sizzle with love affairs and upper-class family drama.  I have enjoyed several of her books, especially the Cazalet Chronicles.


Elizabeth Jane Howard

A new biography of Howard was just published and there seems to be a revival of her work in the UK.

All right, I loved After Julius!  It is perfect vacation reading.

It is a very intriguing women’s novel.  Julius’s widow and two daughters have problems in love. Big problems!  And the memory of steadfast Julius does not help.  He was a  predictable man who worked steadily in the family publishing company,  until one day he quixotically embarked on an amateur rescue in a boat (and he knew nothing of boats) of three soldiers at Dunkirk. (Only two survived the rescue.)

after-julius-elizabeth-jane-howard-9781447211525after-julius-400x0x0What do you do with that kind of loss?  It is a trauma to lose a husband or father, let alone under these cirumstances. Julius’s two daughters shore each other up by sharing a flat in London.  Twenty-seven-year-old Emma, a quiet woman who has carried on the tradition of being an editor in the family publishing company,  spends her weekends reading and washing her hair at her mother’s country home. At work she fumes that she would like just once to see a really good manuscript on her desk instead of all the junk. (And we sympathize!)  She has never had a boyfriend  and does not want a boyfriend, because she as nearly violently date-raped when she was 19.  Though she got away, she has never recovered.

On the other hand, her older sister, Cressy, a widow in her late thirties, is promiscuous.  Widowed after a year of marriage–her husband died in the war–she has since carried on with many married men.  She is also a concert pianist, but knows she isn’t any good. And psychologically she, too, is still wounded by the loss of her father.

howard-after-juliusEsme, Julius’ widow, seems to have the hardest time, though she is the best-adjusted:  she gardens, reads, and does volunteer work, but she is alone.  She was unfaithful to Julius, and then her much younger lover, Felix, dumped her after Julius’ death.  It’s not that she feels guilty about Julius.  She didn’t realize that she was just a fling for a younger man. She didn’t want to marry anyone else. But now Felix, a doctor in early middle age, is back from the Near East and plans to stay in England.  After staying with a doctor friend and his lovely family, he  impulsively asks Esme if he can come for  the weekend and…  What on earth is he doing?

During the novel, the young women do slowly bloom.  There are second chances for young women.  But what about Esme, who is nearly sixty?  The only thing Felix now recognizes about Esme is her legs.  Poor Esme!

Unfortunately, Cressy steals her fire during Felix’s visit.  He can’t get over Cressy’s gorgeousness.

He picked up a copy of Country Life and went and sat in a chair with it.  ‘If I could just get a bit more used to her appearance,’ he thought, staring moodily at a blurred photograph of the Queen presenting a cup to some winner of a jumping competition, ‘then I wouldn’t have to keep trying to remember it when she wasn’t there.’  Perhaps, he thought, finishing his drink without noticing it, it would be easier if she was there.

It’s a literary potboiler!  Howard, the beautiful wife of Kingsley Amis (they divorced!), is as glamorous as Cressy, and probably did have experiences like hers!

I adored this book (though it’s not her best).

2 thoughts on “Mesmerizing Books to Read While Traveling: Muriel Spark’s Robinson & Elizabeth Jane Howard’s After Julius

  1. I have enjoyed what I read by Elizabeth Jane Howard. One kind of book I read while traveling is a travel book! I find the person writes autobiographically, personally and it’s if I have a direct companion and society by someone experiencing something of what I am. It does not have to be the same country.


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