Elizabeth Jane Howard’s wonderful series – The Cazalet Chronicles – were some of my favourite books in 2021; intelligently written, perfect comfort reads during a particularly difficult time. Her collaboration with Robert Aickman that produced six ghost stories (three each) in a collection called We Are for the Dark is also well worth reading. I have now embarked on her standalone novels and the first I chose to read was Something in Disguise, a book that I really liked very much.
Something in Disguise is a sad, chilling, darkly funny tale of loneliness within relationships told with Howard’s consummate ease and style.
The book opens with a marriage – Alice, the meek daughter of Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, is to wed a well-to-do conservative man, Leslie Mount, a man who she met on one of her recent holidays.
The Colonel has been married thrice – Alice is his daughter from his first marriage. His third and current wife, May, also has two children from an earlier marriage; adults in their early 20s – Oliver and Elizabeth. Oliver and Elizabeth can’t stand their stepfather – the Colonel is an insufferable bore, one of those dry, old-fashioned men who have a set, unimaginative way of living and thinking, often imposing their demands on women. With May not good at managing the house, that burden always fell on Alice, but now with Alice starting the next chapter in her life, who is going to fill her shoes?
Oliver particularly detests the Colonel, always pouncing on any opportunity to needle him, the brunt of the Colonel’s subsequent anger borne by May, who valiantly attempts to diffuse the situation. Worried that his sister will be expected to take up Alice’s mantle, Oliver immediately convinces Elizabeth to come live with him at their Lincoln street flat in London, a considerably attractive proposition as opposed to being stuck forever at Monk’s Close, a monstrosity of a house in the countryside where the Colonel and May reside. Elizabeth is guilty about abandoning her mother, but the desire to get away from the Colonel is simply too great.
Infact, one gets the impression that Alice also chooses marriage as a means of escape, to get away from the interminable tedium of household chores at Monk’s Close made worse by the Colonel’s irascible, dull personality. Poor May must manage alone. Oliver, meanwhile, is shown to be an erudite, intelligent young man, newly graduated from Oxford, blessed with brains but seriously lacking ambition. With no sense of purpose to guide him, Oliver appears to be aimlessly drifting, unable to settle into any job, and always flitting between girlfriends. He often jokes about marrying a rich girl to save him the indignity of hard work, and what’s more it does seem like he means it.
Elizabeth is nothing like him. She knows that Oliver is fond of her and often wonders why he puts up with her when she is incapable of making intelligent conversation. But she acknowledges the close bond that they share and is happy to play second fiddle to Oliver’s numerous friends and the parties at their place. Once in London, Elizabeth knows she will have to work to earn her living despite the allowance they get from their mother. Displaying a flair for cooking, she begins to professionally cook meals for dinners and parties for her clients – a job that begins on a shaky note but one that she subsequently settles into.
Enmeshed in this set-up is the ghastly house itself, Monk’s Close; a house that the Colonel forces May to buy with her money. He loves it with a zeal that May can’t simply fathom. The house is ugly, cold, airless, with no character whatsoever, and May is faced with the prospect of resigning to her fate, of spending the rest of her life there, dictated by a man who is stingy and a frightful bore. Little wonder then, she seeks refuge in some religious cult meetings her friend Lavinia introduces her to, an organization led by the dubious and opportunistic Dr Sedum. We are given a brief glimpse into May’s first marriage – a seemingly happy union until her husband is killed in the war. Elizabeth often wonders what made her mother marry the Colonel…
Her mother wouldn’t have married Herbert if she’d cared about an intellectual life. She certainly hadn’t married him for money, and at her age sex appeal was out of the question- – so what was it?
As the novel progresses, there’s a love story that unfolds; May becomes increasingly bewildered by the Colonel’s moods and tempers and Alice is forced to admit to herself that her marriage to Leslie may not be the haven she was expecting.
One of the core themes explored in this novel is the loneliness that women feel in a marriage, depicted through the unhappy marriages of both May and Alice. Their thoughts and opinions are not given due weight or agency, often buried under the burden of their husbands’ conventional expectations and infuriatingly patronising attitude. The men in the novel are deeply flawed, some are cowardly even, but when it comes to the unpopularity scale, the Colonel and Leslie take the cake; they simply possess no redeeming qualities.
The most memorable character in the novel is Claude, Alice’s cherished cat, and it is while portraying his demeanour and his utter contempt for humans and their ways that Elizabeth Jane Howard’s flair for wit and dark humour shines through. There is a particularly hilarious scene at the beginning of the novel whether the industrious Claude steals a couple of trout from the larder, which were to be cooked for the Colonel’s dinner…
He (the Colonel) had managed, during the service, to count the guests – roughly, anyway – and on the whole he felt he had been sensible to put away two of the cold salmon trout that the caterers had been laying out. Those fellows always produced too much food because then they could charge you for it. So he had simply taken away two of the dishes and put them in the larder…
Where Claude, who never had very much to do in the mornings, smelt it. He had known for ages how to open the larder door, but had not advertised the fact, largely because there was hardly ever anything there worth eating; but he was extremely fond of fish. He inserted a huge capable paw round the lower edge of the door and heaved for several minutes: when the gap was wide enough he levered it open with his shoulder and part of his head. The fish lay on a silver platter on the marble shelf, skinned and garnished. He knocked pieces of lemon and cucumber contemptuously aside, settled himself into his best eating position and began to feast. He tried both fish – equally delicious – and when he could eat no more, he jumped heavily off the shelf with a prawn in his mouth which he took to the scullery for further examination.
Just like in the Cazalet Chronicles, especially The Light Years, Elizabeth Jane Howard has a striking way of describing food, be they everyday meals or elaborate dinners. She is also terrific at conveying a wonderful sense of place, especially vivid in the chapter set in the south of France whether the languidness of the summer is beautifully evoked. Not to mention she effectively conjures up the atmosphere around Monk’s Close – chilly, dreary and sinister – that so weighs heavy on poor May. Overall there is something magical about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s writing style that is perceptive, intelligent and incredibly immersive.
It was now very hot: their wet heads steamed; cicadas had reached their seemingly endless zenith; the smells of hot thyme, juniper and resin from the pines thickened the hot and dazzling air. They slipped on sharp, slippery stones as they climbed: geckos froze into grace fully heroic attitudes as they approached, and then, when they got too near, disappeared with jerky speed – like odd pieces of silent film pieced together; butterflies loitered, bees zoomed, there were no birds, no fresh water and no shade. ‘A foreign land,’ thought Oliver, watching his sister climbing the path ahead of him.
Something in Disguise, then, is a brilliant tale of ‘domestic horror’ – the palpable feeling of being trapped; signals of impending doom that evoke a mood of creeping dread in the reader. The final pages, particularly, heighten this effect making this a novel that will linger in the mind for a while.