Love All, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Love All is a dreadful title — sounds like the memoirs of a lesbian tennis player — for an elegantly old-fashioned novel. It is set in the late 1960s; but there is little to anchor it to this period: the occasional references to the Beatles, or to Mary Quant, give a temporal specificity so at odds as to seem perversely anachronistic.
This is not because Elizabeth Jane Howard’s settings lack physical specificity. Love All is set partly in Maida Vale (indeed, in the very house, with its marble-floored conservatory, where Howard lived with Kingsley Amis in the Sixties) and partly in a village in the West Country: details of interiors, landscapes, food, clothing, gardens, cats, are as ever evoked with intimate and loving detail. Howard’s sheer personal enjoyment in these particulars is infectious — communicative enjoyment.
The themes that dominate this book are equally personal. In her autobiography Slipstream, Howard wrote perceptively of her own insecurities, which prompted her to sleep with men for whom she felt no desire: the chasms of neediness that arise from ‘a great hunger to love, and to be in love’. Love All explores the forms this hunger can take.
It begins in the aftermath of an affair. Persephone (Percy) Plover has just been dumped by her married lover, and realises, to her chagrin, that it is not only her ex-lover who has been dishonest. She was never more to him than a bit on the side; but she too has been full of ‘craven pretence’. ‘She hadn’t even wanted him very much. She’d wanted other things she thought could be exchanged for sex.’
But Percy’s distorting longing for ‘a romance of heroic proportions’, with accompanying youthful doubts about whether she is capable of ‘true’ love, is only one of the forms of yearning for missing warmth.
The novel is full of characters damaged by neglectful, absent or dead parents (in Slipstream, Howard writes movingly of her own profound guilt at being a ‘bad’ parent, unable to bond with her infant daughter). Percy’s Greek mother and English father had little in common, except their ‘lack of enthusiasm, expressed in different ways, about being parents’.
It is her spinster aunt, Floy, whose own lover had been killed in the war, who fills the gap and repairs the damage. Floy is a garden designer, and takes her niece with her on her latest assignment. She has been hired by Jack Curtis, a self-made divorced millionaire, to restore the gardens of the manor house he has bought in Melton. Jack has no family (he was brought up by foster parents with minimal mutual affection) and only two friends: he plans a local arts festival to stave off loneliness.
The children of the previous owners of Melton House are living as impoverished tenants on his estate. Thomas and Mary Musgrove were abandoned as children by parents who moved to Kenya and were killed in a car crash, by which time ‘grief at being abandoned had long since congealed to resentment’. The children were left in the ‘unremittingly impersonal’ care of their aunt Gertrude, who ‘lived entirely for herself, cocooned by the gratification of her small but exacting requirements’. The children at least have each other: Mary as a child lives for the ‘scraps of careless praise’ thrown her way by her glamorous, generally favoured older brother.
Mary, like Floy, is a coper and carer. Thomas is romantic, feckless and self-absorbed. When he is shattered by the death in another car crash of his glamorous wife, Celia, Mary comes to his rescue and moves in to mother her three-year-old niece, Hatty, whose grief is expressed in tantrums, bedwetting and ‘orgies of destruction’. (All these aunts … perhaps this is what gives the book such a curiously old- fashioned feel. Where are the fictional aunts of yesteryear?) Celia’s brother, Francis, also gravitates towards Mary’s sphere. He is a would-be painter, afraid he will never come to anything, and in shock at the death of his sister, who shielded him from the bullying of his selfish father.
There are, as this synopsis suggests, almost no good parental role models in this novel. Even Admiral Connaught, a neighbour who is one of the carers and who adored his soldier son, was unable to tell him of his love before the boy was killed; he lives with a crippled wife and a pretty but selfish and indolent daughter for whom, guiltily, he feels little love. Favouritism is his secret sin.
Sharp moral judgment is passed on all Howard’s characters: clear, but not simplistic. They are judged, as Howard judged herself in her autobiography, by the extent to which they are ‘spoilt, selfish, needy’; yet she makes it plain that neediness takes many forms, and that unselfishness as well as selfishness may come from that primal ‘hunger for love’.
Occasionally, the themes are so strong that the characterisation becomes a little schematic. Jack Curtis, in particular, remains oddly sketchy (on p. 56 he is given a life-long aversion to whisky; on p. 123 he is sipping his Macallan). Perhaps property developers are not Howard’s forte. Yet the novel is always emotionally intelligent and extremely readable: fine old-fashioned virtues.