The Long View
By Elizabeth Jane Howard
Mrs Fleming has no first name for the first half of the book and the second half of her life. Defined by her wifely title, she struggles to maintain a sense of self – a struggle no doubt undergone by hundreds of women in this era.
This beautifully told narrative is in reverse: starting in 1950 and ending in 1927. By reversing the chronology, Antonia Fleming’s moment of revelation at age nineteen, becomes the conclusion of the book. This rearrangement creates a feel similar to that of a mystery novel: we know what has happened already, but we don’t know how or why. We begin with an intelligent and sophisticated middle-aged woman, living in London, trapped in an unhappy marriage, hosting dinner parties she doesn’t want with guests she doesn’t like. As the decades retreat, the veils are drawn back, we eventually approach her vulnerable 19-year-old self – a girl so capable of love and intelligent thought but drawn towards an unhappy future, almost inevitably.
It is for this reason that Antonia’s revelation makes both a satisfying and bittersweet end to the novel. I feel the urge to re-read the book immediately, but this time starting at the end, so that I can spot the clues and connections that bring the narrative together. The book is intelligently crafted, and such an endeavour would indeed prove fruitful.
It is beautifully written, although occasionally abstruse. The narrative voice is excellently used to create different characters within the text rather than constantly breaking the flow with dialogue. Howard’s ability to create their different voices is a treat. There is also a nod to formalism in its method of description, keeping the imagery far and away from clichéd or boring observation.
The book’s best feature is the way in which Mrs Fleming’s intimate thoughts are communicated fluidly and with such a degree of empathy that they cease to be fictional. Howard’s strength is finding the words and the cadence with which to communicate untold and often unspeakable feminine sensations.There is an innate femininity to many of the feelings and situations addressed by Mrs Fleming’s story. Told with respect and sensitivity, she reveals the humanity¸ not just the femininity, in the process, because they are made to be understood.Rather than diminishing or reducing female emotion to hysteria or irrationality, as is often the case in literature and life, we are given entry into the innermost workings of a feminine mind. Complex, certainly, but ultimately honest.
“She had forgotten these minute inversions of feeling, that with certain kinds of experience shift all the contours of any settled view.”