Book Reviews

The Beautiful Visit by Elizabeth Jane Howard — what’s a girl to do?

Cover of The Beautiful Visit by Elizabeth Jane Howard, her debut novel which follows a young girl trying to find her place in the world

I’ve been tempted many times to read Elizabeth Jane Howard having seen her praised by several other bloggers whose opinions I respect. But the scale of her most notable work, The Cazalet Chronicles always held me back — my slow reading speed these days meant I knew I wouldn’t be able to emulate Marina Sofia at Finding Time To Write who read all five titles in quick succession.

The Beautiful Visit, her first novel, seemed much more manageable. Published in 1950 it depicts life in England in the early years of the twentieth century, a time when young women had few opportunities to fulfil dreams and aspirations for a life beyond marriage and motherhood.

The narrator is one of those who yearns to “do something” or to “be someone” other than a wife in the making though she doesn’t have a clue how to go about achieving either of these ambitions. She’s the youngest of four children whose parents come from different social classes. Her mother’s family was rich but chose to marry a composer beneath her in class. Since he doesn’t earn very much, their home in Kensington is shabby and well-worn and there is little money available for luxuries like new clothes.

Completely and utterly bored with this life, the young girl is thrilled when she hears of an opportunity to work in her local public library. Those hopes are dashed almost as soon as they materialise because her father absolutely refuses to sanction the idea; he may be strapped for cash but he has standards to uphold and there is no way a daughter of his will ever be allowed to do anything as demeaning as work.

A more fitting opportunity arises with an invite for the narrator to spend Christmas with rich family friends who live in a large country house. “The beautiful visit” as she comes to call it, brings new experiences and connections that will have a bearing on her later life.

Life had been distinctly lacking in possibilities – until The Visit. But, ever afterwards, just remembering the smell of the Lancings’ house would enrapture her, taking her back to that very first day when Lucy and Gerald had picked her up from the station . . .

Opportunities That Come to Nothing

The plot (I use the term loosely) meanders along through a series of episodes in which tests different options for her life. They seem to follow a pattern: a new opportunity arises that could show her the path to her place in the world but it quickly fizzles out after the initial excitement and then she’s back to square one.

Those experiments are sometimes comic (frequently involving copious amounts of tears) but are also touching. She is so naive, so unused to the realities of the world that we can’t help but sympathise when she misreads a situation that could have led to unfortunate results.

The main point of the book is to show the limited options for women in the 1910s. Though the prevailing belief is that marriage is their only true vocation and purpose in life, we’re given examples of women who feel stifled by the resulting relationships. Her own mother reflects sadly that she lost her identity through marriage because she lived for someone else: “Your father believed in music … and I believed in your father. By the time he died, I don’t think he believed in anything, and now I find it very difficult to believe in him,” she tells her daughter.

Deb, daughter of the rich country family, is a further example. She made, what her family would consider “a good match” that gives her plenty of material rewards but she is completely dissatisfied with her life.

What she desperately wants is the gaiety of her old life, the excitement of parties and London night life, not the boring life as a mother and the wife of a man who bores her. “Life stops when one is married and one ought to take care that it stops in a very good place, “she advises the narrator. Yet she also recognises that the life of a spinster is just as unappealing.

A Question Without A Solution

Which poses a problem. If marriage isn’t the answer, and neither is spinsterhood, what does Elizabeth Jane Howard think her “heroine” should do?. She’s already tried the role of a paid companion (stultifyingly dull), a piano teacher (short-lived) and a music copyist ( financially unviable). And then, when they don’t work out, she embarks on a career as a writer — so we get to see her scribbling away in a dark, small room in a boarding house.

But that’s not enough for Howard, my character deserves a real adventure, she thinks. And so The Beautiful Visit ends with our narrator setting off to travel the world and investigate whether it is indeed completely spherical.

All very neat. Too neat in fact. And it doesn’t address the central question of the novel — how can women who want more than a domestic life, achieve their desire? They’re not all going to be offered an opportunity for an adventure are they? I didn’t need the book to come to a definitive answer but this solution felt a cop out.

it was such a shame that it ended like this because until then I’d been enjoying this tragi-comedy of an adolescent with big ideas. Nevertheless the limp ending hasn’t put me off reading more fiction by Elizabeth Jane Howard. I loved her acute observation of characters (the mistress of the country house was a wonderful example of a vacuous personality) and way of capturing the spirit of the age. Maybe I’ll just have to take the plunge with The Cazalet Chronicles after all.

The Beautiful Visit by Elizabeth Jane Howard was book number nine from my 20booksofsummer reading list.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

18 thoughts on “The Beautiful Visit by Elizabeth Jane Howard — what’s a girl to do?

  • My partner has, I think, read all EJH’s books but I’ve never tried her fiction, or even watched the TV adaptation of the Cazalet books. But I do like reading social conventions and interactions minutely observed, even if they end up a bit bleak or, as here, a cop-out; and this sounds a bit autofictional in parts too.

    I have, incidentally, a copy of Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose illustrated by Howard’s first husband Peter Scott, in which a painting of the young girl is a barely disguised portrait of her, his then wife.

    • I didn’t know the Cazalet books had been adapted; might be worth looking out for at some point.

      • There was a BBC adaptation in 2001 with Hugh Bonneville and Lesley Manville – Emily has watched the series on DVD, and I believe it has also been streamed in the last couple of years, but I don’t know where.

  • wadholloway

    EJH is an author of whom I had not heard. But there’s plenty of those. Because of my interest in early women writers I can name plenty who went to England in that period as single women to begin careers as writers and or journalists – Miles Franklin, Barbara Baynton, Mary Fullerton, Louise Mack, Nettie Palmer. Alice Henry went to the US to work in the union movement. Daisy Bates went in the opposite direction (Ireland to Australia) and supported herself with journalism while she became an important self-taught anthropologist. Vida Goldstein is the best known of those who stayed here and entered feminist politics. And as Lisa says, many became nurses (or doctors – I have written heaps on Australian and English women who became doctors and served in WWI with Scottish Women’s Hospitals because the British Army wouldn’t have them).

    • I wouldn’t have picked up on her if it hadn’t been for other bloggers. There are so many women writers who have been similarly overlooked and if it wasn’t for publishers like Persephone or Virago they would disappear without trace.

  • I’m a big fan of many of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s standalone novels, although she can be a little variable at times. (The Cazalets are on my shelves, and I’m very much looking forward to them, probably once I’ve worked my way through all her others!) I haven’t read The Beautiful Visit yet, but it’s definitely on my list for the future – and we have to remember that this was her debut novel, so she may have been feeling her way a little. if you’d like to try another standalone, I would highly recommend The Sea Change, Something in Disguise and Falling. (There’s a romantic relationship in Something in Disguise that might seem to be too good to be true, but I think Howard is trying to make a deliberate point about this!)

    • Thanks Jacqui for those recommendations. Despite my problem with the ending (as you say that could just be lack of experience as a writer) I did find a lot to enjoy in the book so am glad to hear there are a few others I can try before the big Cazalet dive

  • Somehow, reading Elizabeth Jane Howard has passed me by. This might be a good place to dip my toe in the water, despite the disappointing ending.

    • Take a look at Jackie’s comment – she makes recommendations for three other titles which might be better starting points

  • I started the Cazelet Chronicles for the same reason that you read this but could not get on with the characters while my partner loved the first one and is intending to read them all. I did persevere with EJH and enjoyed The Long View.

    • Thanks for that suggestion Susan. So now with Jackie’s 3 recommendations I have 4 titles to try before taking the plunge with Cazalet. I shall take a look at what is available in the library I think

  • She could have done what my great (spinster) aunt did: she became a nurse, and travelled the world, ending her career as a matron in India.

    • I half thought she might have gone down that path when we get to the point in the novel when WW1 begins. But it was not to be

  • I enjoyed the first two books in the Cazalet series but still haven’t got round to reading the rest – I must try to continue with them soon! I haven’t explored any of her other books yet either. This one sounds interesting, but I’m sorry it had a disappointing ending.

    • If you leave a long gap between the Cazalet novels, is there a risk of forgetting who is who? I struggle at the best of times to remember character names so am concerned that once I start reading this series I might have to read all of them in a short time frame

  • EJH is an author I’ve still not read, though I do have a book on the TBR. Shame the ending is disappointing though – most women don’t have the opportunity to go off and travel to find themselves…

    • Exactly so Karen. So instead of giving her an opportunity that would be within the reach of many other women, I’m puzzled why she had to go down the extraordinary route.


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