Reading Note:
Love All
16 August 2019

I’ve just read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s last free-standing novel, Love All. She began working on it soon after publishing the fourth, and what she thought would be the last, of the Cazalet novels, Casting Off. Then real life intervened, with the rather horrible episode that she would adapt into Falling. When it resumed, work on Love All was made somewhat more complicated than it might have been by Howard’s first use of the personal computer — like most people, Howard had no sense of the filing protocols that make directories and document titles vitally important to any writer — and the novel did not appear for nearly a decade. (It would be followed in turn by a fifth Cazalet book, set discontinuously in the Fifties — Howard’s last book.) It’s important to locate Love All in the retrospective atmosphere of the Cazalet series, because its setting, in the late sixties, makes it something of a historical document as well. As in the semi-autobiographical family history, Howard is remembering a very different world. While I completely disagree with his implied assessment of one of the novel’s final decisions, I agree with critic Nicholas Clee, who in TLS commented that the novel is set in “almost the last period when she” — Howard — “could show a young woman torn between love and duty.” 

Clee’s observation is quoted in Artemis Cooper’s biography of Howard, A Dangerous Innocence. Cooper herself writes of Love All that “The characters in this novel are incarnations of various states of mind more than they are real people.” I disagree with this, too — even more strongly — and I take issue with her judgment that “The book is filled with distorted, disappointed love.” 

I’ll try not to recount the complicated plot of Love All — you ought to enjoy it fresh. Rather, I’ll concede to Cooper, who suggests something of kind with her “states of mind” crack, that the novel is something of a quadrille, a figured dance in which couples are always changing. Among the many characters, the lovers include three men and two women. One of the men and one of the women are siblings, which means that, out of a possible dozen amorous attitudes, we are confined to ten. One man proposes marriage to both women, one proposes to neither, and one proposes it to the only one whom he is free to love. The women, meanwhile are both attracted to, or at least most comfortable with, the man in the middle, who may have refrained from offering his hand for the simple reason that he is gay, and, times being what they are, hasn’t figured that out yet. One women is dimly aware of this possibility, while the other has actually been advised of it by her brother, who got it from the man’s sister, his late wife. (I’m not trying to make this sound like Ivy Compton-Burnett, but I have been reading a lot her lately.)

We will take it that the marriage-minded men experience disappointment. But whether it is disappointed love is the novel’s unconscious question. Here we have to remember that Howard was an old lady when she wrote this book. She had lived into a time when the question, “Yes, but is it love?,” was becoming insistent. But although she was aware of this, she had not learned to mistrust amorous display — as the awful experience behind Falling makes clear. If a man sincerely believed that he was “in love,” then a woman ought to take that at face value. The possibility that the man might be dishonest was something that Howard had been forced to reckon with, but the possibility that he might be mistaken, in perfectly good faith, still doesn’t seem to have occurred to her. And yet one of her men becomes so impatient about formalizing and publicizing his relationship with the woman who has accepted his offer that he becomes quite unpleasant — more than merely impatient — about what she sees as insurmountable delays. This woman happens to be the sister of the widower. She never quite grasps that her secret fiancé is looking for something other than love, possibly something incompatible with it. When she breaks things off, it is because she concludes that she cannot get married while taking care of her brother. 

This is what Clee meant by putting duty ahead of love, and I have no doubt that Howard would have agreed with him — perhaps reluctantly. But Howard tells a different story. Both of her marriage-minded men, while attractive and good-natured, are still great big babies. They reek of masculine entitlement. (Nothing is made of it, but there is a good deal of explicit reference to the men’s culinary incompetence, which is clearly the consequence of taboo.) What they both say, in effect is this: “I love you, darling, and I’ll always put you first, but” — and this without asking how her day went — “what’s for dinner?”) Neither of the two women passes this judgment on either man, but there is not a shred in their resistance to contradict it.

Why would anyone volunteer to take on such great, lumbering egos? For each of the women is also aware that, although it’s still early days, marriage is not her only option. The sister had a very satisfying job in London while her sister-in-law was alive, while the other, much younger woman, a girl really, wants a career in publishing. And both are drawn to the man who says nothing about love because he is very good company, and unconditionally affectionate. When the novel ends, the older woman has lived in the same house with this fellow for years, while the girl has just taken up sharing a flat with him in Primrose Hill.

If anything is “distorted” about these love stories, it is simply that a gulf has opened up between a changing society and the expectations that it is not longer interested in meeting. Love All marks the beginning of the era in which we still find ourselves, as the changes work their way from metropolitan centers through to the rest of the population. The only difference, I must ruefully note, is that one of Howard’s disappointed men comes to the point of shooting himself, not his girlfriend’s family or a store full of strangers. We must hope that it will not get much worse before it gets better. 

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