Elizabeth Jane Howard: After Julius (1965)

After Julius

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?

 

30 thoughts on “Elizabeth Jane Howard: After Julius (1965)

  1. I have this on the shelf–still unread. I first came across her name as the (third) wife of Kingsley Amis, and she only died a year ago. I read an article in which Martin Amis credited her, his stepmother, for encouraging him to write.

  2. The characterisation sounds wonderful, and I think I would enjoy this book very much especially as you’ve likened Cressy to Lily Bart (I loved House of Mirth). Thanks for reviewing this as I hadn’t heard of it, only the Cazalets.

    • I loved it. Cressy is such an interesting character. Her story is different from Lily Bart but there’s a similarity. The misery in this book is not as acute though.
      I’d love to hear what you think of it.

  3. What a wonderful review, Caroline. I picked this up on impulse in a second hand bookstore but gave up on it after a few pages. The tone of the novel seemed very different to me, the kind of story that requires patience and a more thorough involvement so to speak. I think I was not ready for it at the time but your review makes me want to give it another try. I’m glad I did not give it away like I intended to. And it’s such a short book, too.

  4. Beautiful review, Caroline! I love what you said about the descriptions in the book – how they help us understand a character better or how they enhance the mood. I also loved your description of Esme – “Her only occupations are her garden, answering letters, planning meals and instructing the housekeeper.” I would have found that a boring life, once upon a time, but when I read that line now, I feel her life is beautiful, almost with a zen-like calm. It makes me think of Voltaire’s last line in ‘Candide’“We must cultivate our garden”.

    • Thanks, Vishy.
      It’s a really wonderful book. I loved her writing style.
      It’s true what you say about ESme and that’s why it’s so tragic. Before that Saturday she was content and then it all changed. It does sound like a rather good life. Free of any financial worries. A beautiful house and garden, friends . . . But she hasn’t really lived her life,. She put it on hold. So her life isn’t something she moved towards but someting she was stuck in since she was much younger.

  5. It must be a couple of decades since I read After Julius but somewhere in my house I do still have the copy. It’s definitely a book you want to keep and your review made me want to re-read mine. I was fairly young when I read it and I remember being surprised by how real the characters seemed and also shocked by how they seemed to have allowed their lives to take wrong turns. Weren’t adults suppsed to have their lives sorted out?

    • The stories are all messy. And eveyone is hidning something or chosing the wrong thing to do.
      I don’t think it’s a book for a very young reader. At least I think it would have been to quite for me in my twenties.
      I imagien it gets better when you re-read it.

  6. I myself was surprised when you mentioned the year that this was written. Up until that point in your commentary I assumed that was a more recent publication. Sometimes we make incorrect assumptions about the past.

    I am liking books that emphasize character over plot more and more these days. This sounds like really good one.

    • The character studies here are all amazing.
      It’s funny how we always think that we’re so much more liberated than those who lived before us.
      This book was so honest and open on some things. I think you can hardly find a handful of authors writing like that.

  7. Well, I love character studies, so I think I’d really like this book.
    The “Sexual Revolution” was in the 60s here, but I also tend to think we’re more open now. Just about anything goes these days.

  8. I’ve only read EJH’s autobiography, and that was mainly because she was Martin Amis’ stepmother. Shame on me, I know. I really should read her novels because they sound right up my street. I’m glad you liked this so much. Maybe there should be an EJH week?🙂

    • I’m pretyt sure you’ll like her. At least this book. I suppose the Cazalet Chronicles is great too but it’s so long.
      A EJH week is a great idea. I’m currently collecting ideas. A children’s fiction week is one thing I want to do but I’d also like to choose one author.

  9. Isn’t she wonderful? I have only read the Cazalet books and was in the midst of rereading them (in anticipation of reading the last one she only recently wrote before she passed away) but then got distracted. I also have read her memoir, Slipstream which was excellent and I highly recommend. She led such an interesting life! I have this one on my shelf–may have to pull it out to read…. I love the sound of it!

    • She’s so wonderful I wasn’t even prepared for how wonderful she is.
      I think you’ll enjoy this very much. Thanks for mentioning the memoir. I’d forgotten about it. Yes, it sounds like a rather interesting life.

  10. Your post prompted me to go grab two of her books that my library owns–still sitting on my desk at work–a collection of short stories and one called Something in Disguise. (Also a copy of High Fidelity)….as if I have even more time for starting more books to read–which is why I left them at work for now-can at least look them over on my break. So glad you like her, too!

    • I’m very interested to hear about her other books. The Cazalet Chronicles sound like a bit of committment as they are rather long.
      I try to be really hard these days and not to start new books.

  11. Caroline, thank you for this review. Our bookclub is discussing After Julius tonight so I was looking through some comments by others as I read it quite some while ago. Her characters are so real…and her descriptions are luscious. I highly recommend The Cazalet Chronicles. Believe me once you read the first one you won’t be able to wait for the second. Also, since you are a reader, check out my website: http://www.havebookswilltravel.net

    • Thanks for stopping by, Kate. I’m glad the review was of some help.
      She’s amazing. Thanks for leaving the link. I’ll visit shortly.
      I know I should read The Cazalet Chronicles. I’ve heard so many good things about it.
      I’m sure the discussion of After Julius will be interesting.

  12. Pingback: Best Novels of 2015 | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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