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Elizabeth Jane Howard at 100 - Mark McGinness

Blog | By Mark McGinness | Mar 24, 2023

Elizabeth Jane Howard would have been 100 on 26 March. Her stepson, Martin Amis, paid tribute to her “penetrating sanity” and pronounced her, with Iris Murdoch, “the most interesting woman writer of her generation. An instinctivist, like Muriel Spark, she has a freakish and poetic eye, and a penetrating sanity."

Her scholarly champion, Hilary Mantel, wrote of her “she helps us do the necessary thing – open our eyes and our hearts”. The eyes and hearts of the literary firmament were not quite as open and so Elizabeth Jane Howard remains one of the underrated novelists in our post-war history.

As she said herself, late in life, “You have to put writing first. If I was mooning after someone… I wouldn’t be focused. I wasted a lot of my life on men, but I think a lot of women novelists have.” There was certainly a lot of mooning - and lot of bedding but she still managed to leave behind a formidable canon.

Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy and Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War are seen as wartime classics difficult to match but there is something in the subtlety, astuteness, sense of period and sheer readability of her prose that makes Elizabeth Jane Howard an author of substance.

She was charged with being a “comfort read.” The new Queen promoted The Cazalet Chronicles as an escape during the Pandemic. And there was certainly a cosiness in her upper-middle class country house world of governess, chauffeur, cook and maid. But it was the sort of cosiness that Agatha Christie recreated. But as the Queen of Crime uncovers bodies in the library and corpses in the copse, Howard exposes tragedy and pain, cancer, shell-shocked veterans, dementia, mental breakdown, suppressed love. She did not see her books as easy reads and would describe her readers as “women and educated men.”

The Howards were wealthy timber merchants living comfortably but not happily in Notting Hill. Her amorous war-damaged father sought to French-kiss his blossoming 14-year-old daughter while her chilly mother, Kit, a former Diaghilev dancer and daughter of composer Sir Arthur Somervell (he wrote the music for “Come Into the garden, Maud”) remained distant and disapproving. She preferred Jane’s two younger brothers. Bullied at school (Francis Holland), she returned home and another governess was engaged.

At 19 she escaped and wed painter and later naturalist, Peter Scott, son of the doomed Antarctic hero. His formidable widow, Kathleen Kennet, wanted a grandchild and Peter did his duty, doggedly. Their daughter Nicola was born just before her 20th birthday.

He apparently talked about guns and boats the whole time and went away to war, where she was convinced he would die, so she fell in love with his half-brother and slept with him. Peter was to go to live at his wildfowl sanctuary at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire. “I’d not learned to appreciate wild geese, and it was miles from anywhere.”

In 1947, she walked out on Peter and Nicola, taking her clothes and her unfinished novel. To Nicola through the fifties, her mother “was just a very beautiful stranger who would visit from time to time.”

That unfinished novel became A Beautiful Visit and won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize in 1951. Her father promised to buy six copies but he did not promise that he would read them. Her mother had said years before, when she had mentioned wanting to become a novelist, “What on earth makes you think that anyone would ever publish anything that you wrote?”

The Howards’ large houses and furniture were sold and dispersed. About the only thing to survive her privileged childhood was a Somervell heirloom, a lock of Mozart's hair.

Still needy for love and attention and at the height of her arresting beauty, she took lovers - Cecil Day-Lewis, Cyril Connolly, Romain Gary, Arthur Koestler, Laurie Lee and Kenneth Tynan. As Hilary Mantel put it, they “were among her conquests; though of course, the world thought they had conquered her.” Her favourite? Laurie Lee – despite the fact that Kathy was a friend. Years later he sent her a message, “I think of you with rapture.” She treasured it.

Yet for all those she slept there were those she refused. Malcolm Sargent, Jonathan Cape (who brought a twist to the term ‘publisher’s advance’), one of her psychiatrists; even journalist Nancy Spain, who suggested: “Oh come on, darling. Just pop into bed with me and let’s see how we feel…..Well, it doesn’t seem to be any good. Never mind.”

Her biographer Artemis Cooper noted that she wrote very slowly: describing it to her as “like trying to get condensed milk out of a tin with two holes in it.” Her second novel, The Long View (1956), a study of a marriage told backwards in time is generally viewed to be her masterpiece. The novelist Angela Lambert has said, “Why The Long View isn't recognised as one of the great novels of the 20th century I will never know. I don't think anyone has expressed so delicately the way that young beauty has been dominated and exploited. She has amazing intelligence - subtle, and painful.”

Two years later, Elizabeth Jane married James Douglas Henry, British-Australian writer and broadcaster. (He happened to be my paternal aunt’s brother-in-law, which allowed me to say that Elizabeth Jane Howard and my aunt married brothers.) Jim is variously described by Jane’s biographers as “a charming chancer” and “a man with a picaresque past”. He was a man of much energy and great charm with a romantic life as crowded as Jane’s (though one that ended happily) but she would never speak of him; other than suggesting he married her for her money. She said they never slept together after they wed and, although the marriage in a formal sense lasted for five years, the union was brief.

During this time, she wrote The Sea Change (1959) about a rich old couple redeemed from long-held unhappiness. This was not among her best books. She also began work on After Julius, which was finally published in 1965.

As artistic director of the 1962 Cheltenham Festival she convened a panel on Literature and Sex where she met Kingsley Amis. They moved in together in 1963, and after his divorce from Hilary Bardwell, mother of Philip, Martin and Sally, they married in 1965. They settled in a vast 30-room Georgian house, Lemmons, near Barnet in Hertfordshire, with three acres of garden.

She was expected not only to be a Sex Goddess but a Domestic one too. She kept house for up to 15 relatives, artists, writers and students - her brother Colin and her invalid mother, Kit; long-term guests like Peregrine Worsthorne and the painter, Sargy Mann; Cecil Day-Lewis and the author Elizabeth Taylor, both of whom were dying. She also took in her step-sons, Philip, briefly, and Martin.

With Amis presiding and Elizabeth Jane providing, they received the literary ton of their time - Somerset Maugham, Bernard Levin, John Betjeman, Anthony and Lady Violet Powell, Iris Murdoch and John Bayley.

When she interviewed Evelyn Waugh for BBC Television in 1964 (see BBC Archives via Facebook) she clearly charmed him. (Apparently, in the intervals he kept asking, "When is Miss Howard going to take off all her clothes?”) He was certainly kinder to her than he had been when interviewed by John Freeman four years earlier, “Ah, Miss Howard. And have you anything to do with literature?” “Only spasmodically, Mr Waugh,” was her self-effacing and, within a few years, sadly honest reply.

There was so much to do. “It didn't occur to him that it was difficult to cook for eight people and do the shopping and all the driving and the accounts and write the letters and write. He got up and wrote. Then he ate lunch, had a walk or a sleep, and then he wrote again." Gully Wells, Martin’s then girlfriend recalled of Jane, “… whatever she made — ethereal blanquette de veau, sublime risotto of wild mushrooms . . . Kingsley’s plate was always piled high with his palate-annihilating pickles”

After about five years, Amis became increasingly pickled, he stopped wanting sex and began to dislike her. In 1975, the household at Lemmons broke up, and the Amises moved to Hampstead, where, as Andrew Brown put it, “there was no room for the extended household; it was also too small for their burgeoning resentments.”

While she was taking Valium, she was remonstrating with her stepsons’ drug-taking. Philip soon left but with Martin, she saw promise. She gave him Pride and Prejudice to read and sent him to be tutored. He got a place at Oxford. As he wrote in his memoirs, “Jane was my wicked stepmother. She was generous, affectionate, and resourceful; she salvaged my schooling and I owe her an unknowable debt for that.” (It was Martin who, at Kingsley’s memorial service, insisted that she sit in the front row with him)

She finally left Kingsley in 1980, unloved and exhausted. Hating to be alone and afraid of the dark, Kingsley’s bitterness endured and he never spoke to her again. He died in 1990. For her, there were hints of Nancy Mitford’s fiction, “I felt I’d be alone for the rest of my life. Nobody wants a ‘Bolter’ of 56.”

In the time she was with Amis he wrote 15 books; she somehow managed four: After Julius (1965), Something in Disguise (1969), Odd Girl Out(1972), and Mr Wrong (1975).

Then, on the advice of Martin, she embarked on the Cazalet Chronicle, the quintet that made her not only popular but rich. She drew on her own childhood and family life in London and Sussex during and after the Second World War. The Light Years (1990), Marking Time (1991), Confusion (1993), and Casting Off (1995) taking us from 1937 to 1947. All Change (2013) jumps forward to 1956 and ends in 1958.

The setting for the chronicle was very much her own. She even took the name of her grandparents’ house, Home Place, a comfortable, rambling 17th century gentleman’s residence in Sussex, where William Cazalet, ‘The Brig’ and his wife, Kitty, ‘The Duchy’ live with their unmarried daughter Rachel, receiving the families of their three West London-based sons on weekends, holidays and at Christmas. The family timber business - hardwoods from parts of the world the sons never seem to visit - had made them prosperous; and idle.

Dominic Green put it well in New Criterion where he observed the increasingly blind Brig collecting samples for his encyclopaedia of tropical hardwoods as his sons drift into reliance on bank loans. Half-blind and obsessed with his book, the old patriarch “is unable to see the trees for the wood” yet, “when the sequence opens in 1937, the Cazalets are as substantial as brown furniture.”

Although ‘The Brig’ was never a brigadier (he just liked to give orders), his two elder sons, Hugh and Edward, had served in the Great War and returned damaged in different ways. While Edward and his first wife, Villy, are recreations of David and Kit Howard, the abiding focus is on three of the cousins, Hugh’s Polly, Edward’s Louise, and Rupert’s Clary, who share the real-life tribulations of the author.

Their descent from Edwardian comfort to 1950s sell-off is acutely charted - along with duty and decorum comes suppressed emotions and forbidden passion, adultery, divorce, death. Through it all a stiff drink and stiff-upper lip, “They Say War Is Coming, Darling. Pity.”

Like the Howards, the Cazalets are upper-middle class - more Forsytes than the aristocratic Bellamys and Crawleys. Interestingly Elizabeth Jane had written scripts for Upstairs, Downstairs (It is somehow comforting to know that Jacqueline Tong who played housemaid Daisy Peel at 165 Eaton Square (in 1973) for the Bellamys had finally, by 2001 and its adaptation, been promoted to cook, Mrs Cripps, at Home Place for the Cazalets). And while Elizabeth Jane is perhaps better upstairs than down, as Tessa Hadley has said in the London Review of Books, the Chronicle is “like a hymn to house management.”

Memories of the war and those years at Lemmons serving Kingsley and the literati served her well. The detail is vividly displayed - the quality declining as the war endures - boiled foul and boiled mutton, lukewarm rissoles and greasy croquettes, blancmange, turkey made to last for days, Indian tea for the servants, China for the family; tepid baths and chamber pots.

Having settled, at last, in a beautiful old house on the River Waveney at Bungay in Suffolk with Darcy, her beloved Cavalier King Charles spaniel, her tumultuous love life was not quite done. A fan wrote to her from Scotland having heard her on Desert Island Discs. Flattered in her mid-seventies by the attention of this younger man who was not only a good lover but seemed to know so much about her, they commenced an affair. Until her daughter, Nicola, now well-reconciled and close, discovered he was a con-man with a disturbing past. Never one to waste a life experience, this last affaire inspired her final novel, Falling (1999).

In 2000 she was honoured with a CBE. The following year the well-received BBC adaptation of the first two Cazalet novels brought her work an even greater following. In 2002, she wrote her memoir Slipstream dedicating it to Nicola. (“I feel as if I have lived most of my life in the slipstream of experience”) It revealed not just an unerring self-perception and resilience but how much of her life appeared in her fiction. Artemis Cooper’s brilliant biography sub-titled A Dangerous Innocence (2016) confirmed this but also, while making a powerful case for Elizabeth Jane’s place in literature, could not but remind us of the beautiful, unconscious enchantress who captivated a writhe of writers.

To the delight of many, eighteen years after the last, a fifth and final volume of the chronicles appeared, All Change, opening in 1956 with the death of The Duchy. As one reviewer put it, “the era of hardwood furniture and aspirant wood veneers had all but gone”, and so, it seemed, would the firm - and Home Place. Some fans may have found it all too grim and wished they had left it at Casting Off but it showed that Elizabeth Jane, even in her 90th year, had lost none of her insight, acuity, characterisation or mastery of detail.

Within a few months, Elizabeth Jane died peacefully in her own bed, having taken a nap after lunch. One of her obituaries quoted her, “The important things in life cannot be taught. But life is so organised that you get the hang of things just when you’re on the way out. It seems frightfully unfair.”

And yet, we can be grateful for the lightly fictionalised record she left as she got the hang of things.

Mark McGinness

24 March 2023