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).

Summer Reading: Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Odd Girl Out

Elizabeth Jane Howard, her husband Kingsley Amis, and a cat.

Elizabeth Jane Howard and  Kingsley Amis (her husband) and a cat!

Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923-2014), best known for the Cazalet Chronicle, a five-volume literary family saga, seems to be having a revival.

In January Hilary Mantel wrote in The Guardian that Howard’s books are underrated.  She especially likes The Long View.

But the real reason the books are underestimated – let’s be blunt – is that they are by a woman. Until very recently there was a category of books “by women, for women”. This category was unofficial, because indefensible. Alongside genre products with little chance of survival, it included works written with great skill but in a minor key, novels that dealt with private, not public, life. Such novels seldom try to startle or provoke the reader; on the contrary, though the narrative may unfold ingeniously, every art is employed to make the reader at ease within it.

Fortunately, Open Road Media has recently reissued all of Howard’s books as e-books.  And several bloggers have reviewed them, including  The Bookbinder’s Daughter, The Homebody, and Dovegreyreader.

I discovered Howard in the ’90s and started with the Cazalet Chronicle.  Over the years, I have tracked down the rest of her books and loved them. In the mood for some fast summer reading, I rummaged through my bookcase and recently picked Howard’s  Odd Girl Out (1972).

odd girl out howard 194348 Odd Girl Out is, as you might guess, the story of a triangle. It is  deftly written, bold, and curiously modern,  though it is not Howard’s best book.  It is, however, a compelling summer read, with the frankness and eroticism  of so many women’s novels of the late twentieth century.

It begins with an idyllic scene:  Anne and Edmund Cornhill, a sexy married couple, are eating breakfast in bed in their lovely country house.  They are discussing the imminent visit of Arabella, the daughter of Clara, Edmund’s stepmother during a very brief marriage to his  father.

Anne is very easygoing about the visit.

“Of course I don’t mind, my darling.  Of course I don’t.” She wore the top half of his pajamas and was putting cherry jam on a piece of toast.  She thought for a moment, and then added, “It will be lovely for me to have someone to talk to while you’re in London.”

This happy couple, who have fabulous sex every night, do not anticipate disruption.  Edmund works in London as an estate agent; Anne is a housewife who enjoys gardening, cooking, and Elizabeth Taylor’s novels.

Howard is a master of third-person point-of-view narrative and, in short segments, shows us perspectives of several characters.   Before we meet Arabella, we are introduced to her rich mother Clara and the latest in a string of husbands (this one is a prince), who are planning a Caribbean cruise and plotting to marry the problematic Arabella off to a rich old man; and Janet, a penniless housewife and mother of two whose actor husband, Harry, whom she no longer loves, has deserted her for another woman (Arabella).

We meet Arabella while she is having an abortion, lying on a “high, hard, humiliatingly uncomfortable table.” Afterwards, she spends the day in pain sitting on benches at the zoo and visiting her favorite gorilla:  she has no home, because she has walked out on Janet’s husband, Harry, and is waiting to  take the evening train to Henley, because the Cornhills are the only people left for her to visit. Ann and Edmund somehow mistake her for a child:  she has very good manners and demands very little.

But, yes, she wedges her way into their life.  She has been neglected by her rich mother and feels she has never been loved. She adores the atmosphere of the Cornhills’ home and and wants to be a part of it.   Edmund seduces her, but she has known it would happen and has bought a new outfit for the occasion, and afterwards she asks him happily if he loves her more and says that’s why she slept with him. Then, while he is away in Greece for weeks on business, she seduces Ann.  Of course Anne and Edmund have no idea Arabella is so promiscuous.

Arabella is the link between every character in the novel, and she wreaks havoc. She is not an entirely unsympathetic character:  she is simply so rich and has been brought up so badly she doesn’t know how to have relationships.   She stays with various people for short periods of time and then she leaves.   But the Cornhills are a real couple, and she wants what they have.

Howard can see all points of view. During their idyllic affair, Arabella and Ann have long conversations about whether women are nicer than men.  (The bisexual Arabella favors women.) Edmund is the least sympathetic character, self-centered and insensitive.  But Arabella’s unwitting effect on Janet, the wife of Harry, her  last boyfriend, turns out to be so dire that we can’t overlook it.