It is twenty years since Julius died, but his last heroic action still affects the lives of the people he left behind. Emma, his youngest daughter, twenty-seven years old afraid of men. Cressida, her sister, a war widow, blindly searching for love in her affairs with married men. Esme, Julius’s widow, still attractive at fifty-eight, but aimlessly lost in the routine of her perfect home. Felix, Esme’s old lover, who left her when Julius died and who is still plagued by guilt for his action. And Dan, an outsider. Throughout a disastrous – and revelatory – weekend in Sussex, the influence of the dead Julius slowly emerges.
Elizabeth Jane Howard is best known for her Cazalet Chronicles, which I haven’t read yet. I don’t know where I came across After Julius, I only know I liked the premise. I’m drawn to stories that deal with the aftermath of an action. While After Julius is more complex than that, all the characters are affected by Julius’ last heroic action, which took place during WWII, twenty years before this story begins.
After Julius is divided into three parts; each part is subdivided into several chapters, each of which is told by another narrator. In lesser hands this might have turned into a fractured story, but Elizabeth Jane Howard is a very skilful writer and, while each chapter is told in a distinct voice, the whole feels seamless.
The narrators are Esme, Julius’ fifty-eight-year-old widow, Cressy, her older daughter, Emma, her younger daughter, Dan, Emma’s friend and Felix, Esme’s former lover. These five people, plus a married couple and an old Major meet for a dinner at Esme’s house in the country.
In the first part we see them all get ready for the weekend. Cressy and Emma live together in a dingy flat in London. Emma works in her late father’s publishing house, while Cressy struggles as a pianist. Like her mother, Cressy’s been a widow since the last war. She’s a great beauty, one of those that make whole rooms go quiet when she enters. A bit like Lily Bart. And, like Lily Bart, her beauty isn’t doing her any good. She attracts many, mostly married men, and all of her affairs end in drama and tears. When we meet her first she’s crying and thinking of ending it with her current lover Dick. Esme lives luxuriously in a big house in the country. Her only occupations are her garden, answering letters, planning meals and instructing the housekeeper. Dan’s a struggling poet and Felix is a doctor, who has spent most of his life abroad.
The dinner turns into a disaster for many reasons. Felix, who is Cressy’s age, was once her mother’s lover. He left her when Julius died and they haven’t seen each other in twenty years. Cressy’s lover is the husband of the woman, Esme invited for the dinner. The friend Emma brings along is an eccentric poet that she’s met only a few hours ago and invited spontaneously.
The last part of the novel shows each character after the disastrous meal.
The plot isn’t the most important thing in this book. What is amazing is how true to life these characters are. How we get to see their vulnerabilities, their disappointments, their hidden motivations. It’s a very outspoken book. Whether it lays bare the hopes of the protagonists, their sexual desires, or their life choices, it’s so honest, it’s occasionally painful to read. We forget that these are characters on paper and think we’re actually looking into someone’s soul.
It’s a beautiful book and a tragic one. We can’t help but wonder—when did things start to go wrong? While Julius’ death sets things in motion, it’s not the real beginning of the drama.
Esme is by far the most tragic character. She’s looking forward to seeing Felix again. Although he’s fourteen years younger, she hopes that there could finally be a future for them. She never assumes that he may have come for other reasons.
I found it hard to believe at times that this book was written in 1965. The open discussion of abortion and sexuality seemed far more modern. It made me wonder if we’re not living in more prudish times now.
Before ending this post I have to mention Elizabeth Jane Howard’s descriptions. They are stunning. When she describes a room, a scene, clothes, anything, she makes full use of these descriptions. It’s never just a random description but it always contributes to the understanding of a character, enhances the mood, sets the tone.
It’s still early but I wouldn’t be surprised if this book would be among my best of this year. Since she reminded me of many writers I absolutely love —Elizabeth Taylor, Rosamond Lehmann, Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Bowen — I know I’ll be reading more of her.
Do you have a favourite Elizabeth Jane Howard novel?