Elizabeth Jane Howard is probably best known for her panoramic CAZALET series, which chronicles the rise and fall of an upper middle class British family before, during, and after WWII. (It was made into a Masterpiece Theater Presentation.)But in this collection of short stories she shows off her versatile range, writing about contemporary (Sixties)English women of privileged backgrounds who sometimes — but not always — find modern life in democratic, post-war Britain both exhilarating and empowering.
MR. WRONG, the title story, is a chilling tale of murder and suspense worthy of Hitchcock at his finest. The heroine is a young woman of means, yet alone in vast and impersonal London she is easy prey for a satanic stalker with almost superhuman powers. The endless agony of suspense is almost worse than the ghastly conclusion. Definitely not for the faint of heart!
But not all the stories in this collection end in sheer horror. In the sensual and tender TOUTES DIRECTIONS, a sheltered English miss engaged to a dull but suitable man takes a short trip to France, with entirely predictable results. The seduction of a prim and proper English girl by a skilled and knowing Frenchman is a concept that goes back centuries, but in this story the romance is fresh and modern and very, very sophisticated.
Though she seems to feel that modern times have debased the arts of courtship and exposed women to many forms of danger, Howard is not afraid to be romantic. CHARITY LOVE is a rollicking tale of a cheeky East End beautician, "a red-headed little nobody" who catches the eye of a jaded London playboy. Harry takes Charity to his country home for the weekend, and the two enjoy an idyllic country walk that ends with sex in the rain. Yet it's Harry's aunt who ultimately forces Harry to propose marriage, after Charity flees back to her little flat in London.
It's interesting that Howard presents most of these women as being modern in the outward sense, smoking and drinking and having casual affairs, yet passive in the moments of real crisis. Charity is cheeky and self-reliant at first, but once Harry has dumped her she wanders aimlessly until his aunt finds her and brings her home. Indeed, the older woman is the true heroine, recognizing love when the two young people think only in terms of sex.
"You've got to face what's inside of you," Lady Beddington says, when she is listening to a distraught Charity in a posh tea room in London. Charity herself seems a bit thick, insisting that she is "through with Harry" even while her eyes are red from crying all night in the train station. Since Charity is a young person with "no fixed values and many small weaknesses" Lady Beddington easily steers her towards her own desires. Falling asleep after tea while riding in a luxurious taxi cab, she awakens to find that Lady Beddington has brought her face to face with Harry — and the rest isn't worth talking about.
Cynical and romantic, tender and scornful, perceptive and bitter, these stories of modern British women — both in love and out — are works to treasure.
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