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The Beautiful Visit
on 17 September 2015
Elizabeth Jane Howard's debut novel, first published in 1950 (and winner of the 1951 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize), focuses on a young girl living in Kensington, the daughter of an unsuccessful composer, who leaves her impoverished and rather dreary home-life and pays a visit to some distant friends of her mother's, the Lancings. Arriving at the Lancings' comfortable country home, filled with new acquaintances and new experiences, our young heroine realises that this visit could be the chance for her to break away from the dreariness of her past life and meet different people and observe an alternative way of living. However, when she returns home, she is dismayed to find that her life falls back into virtually the same old pattern, and it is not until the First World War breaks out that our heroine has the opportunity to change the dull routine of her day-to-day existence. But just when she feels that she has found where, and with whom she belongs, a tragedy occurs which pulls her almost back to where she started, and it is not until the war has ended and she receives an invitation for a return visit to the Lancings' home, that our heroine is finally able to make an attempt to really change her life.
Beautifully written, as one would expect from Elizabeth Jane Howard, this coming-of-age novel, although a fairly slow-moving story and understandably not as accomplished as the author's later novels, is one that improves as the story progresses, and there are some moments of real brilliance. The author's scene setting of her heroine's impoverished home-life where "...the house smelt of dusty carpets and forgotten meals and of grievance and misfortune..." was deftly described, as were the contrasting descriptions of the Lancings' attractive and comfortable country home, with its sweeping drive, green painted shutters and cobbled courtyard. Elizabeth Jane Howard also describes her heroine's period of time spent as a companion to a strange, elderly lady, particularly well, and this is where the story almost slips into Jane Eyre territory and where the author describes some rather unsettling moments, but also some very funny ones at the same time. With themes of adolescent longing, of love, of loss, and of the tragedy of war, this exquisitely written coming-of-age story made for an entertaining and pleasurable read, made all the more enjoyable by my opting for the Kindle Whispersync edition. This meant that I could download the Kindle version and the Audible version (beautifully narrated by Juliet Stevenson) for the price of a new paperback and could switch easily between reading on my Kindle and listening on my iPhone when commuting.