Elizabeth Jane Howard died yesterday, aged ninety. She’s had obituaries in many papers, including The Telegraph and Guardian. Her most famous novels, the Cazalet chronicles, have been talked about all over the place, and I’m not going to add to that here. I read them a long time ago, and loved them (though they have left me with a fear of cleaning behind fridges, which no doubt puts me in the ‘slut’ category of UKIP.)*
I’m also going to leave aside the horribly prevalent phrase going around of her being one of the great ‘women writers’ of her generation. That way leads to ranty blogposts. Not today.
I want to talk about my favourite novel of hers: Getting It Right. Published in 1982, it is darkly and wickedly observant. I hooted at some of her phrases, not seeing them coming, embedded as they are in her prose like trip-wires of humour. She couldn’t describe people and bore you if she tried.
Getting It Right is all about Gavin, a thirty-one-year-old hairdresser who lives with his parents in New Barnet in a house built by his uncle. We first meet Gavin in the salon, where within the first two pages she introduces eight characters, seven of whom are named. I like a writer who can break rules with such assurance. The instant immersion into Gavin’s multi-tasking world is deliciously astute: Howard takes no prisoners.
He was combing out Lady Blackwater … now he was folding the surface hair over the puffed sub-strata – merging the tufts into three, main diagonal sweeps; Lady Blackwater evolved from looking like a very old negro child, to someone amusingly surprised in bed in an eighteenth-century print, and then – and this was what Lady Blackwater paid for – to some distinguished old dyke – a Fellow of the Royal Society – famous for some esoteric service to the Arts or Sciences.
Mrs Buckmaster, a tweedy and commanding lady, rose from the white leather chesterfield.
“Ah – Gavin, I thought, before I made an appointment for her, that you might give us a teeny bit of advice. Cynthia!”
Mrs Whittington was not pleased … Mandy was listlessly removing rollers, and the client’s hair was emerging as sausages the colour of custard.
Gavin’s mother, Mrs Lamb, is a woman of stern views and dangerously adventurous culinary experiments. She is given the best line about Brazil nuts in food I’ve ever read:
Chicken Mole … proved, gastronomically speaking, to be a hurdle that not even the combined efforts of his father and himself were able either to circumnavigate or to overcome. Mrs Lamb was in a fine state of nerves about it; partly because she had never cooked it before, and partly (or also) because, being a foreign dish, her confidence in the recipe had proved to be less even than usual …
“What’s this, Mum?” Gavin had unearthed what looked like a hippo’s tooth.
“That? That is a Brazil nut, I should imagine. The recipe said to use that nasty, unsweetened chocolate, but I paid no regard to that; there’s half a pound of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut in there.”
Getting It Right follows Gavin for a fortnight as he finds himself at a party and meets an extraordinary girl. I won’t spoil it for you. If you feel like an acutely observed story of how sad and trapped and funny people are, it could be for you. Elizabeth Jane Howard was a clever writer who made me smile.
* I could have made that up. I remember one character is electrocuted by feeling behind her fridge for something, but since I read them so long ago and never owned copies, and can’t get the internet to tell me, that could be a fib.**
** My brain woke me at 3am to say this episode is from AS Byatt’s Frederica Potter quartet: in Still Life, Stephanie is killed by an unearthed fridge. Thank you nocturnal brain. As you were.