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Lovers and haters: Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard on their wedding day in 1965 (©Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


There are plenty among our leading novelists who believe that in the endlessly fascinating game of enduring literary reputations Elizabeth Jane Howard, who died at the age of 90 in 2014, will eventually come out rather well. Among vocal admirers of her Cazalet Chronicles, a five-part family saga that charts the changing role of women in England before, during and after the Second World War, is Hilary Mantel, who hails Howard as “more adept at switching between time schemes, or from one narrative to another, than any author I can think of”.
 
But there are equally many who will remember her, if at all, as a footnote in the stories of her famous lovers and husbands, including, in the first category, Arthur Koestler, Laurie Lee, Kenneth Tynan, Romain Gary and Cecil Day-Lewis, and in the second the naturalist Peter Scott and Kingsley Amis.

What makes Howard even harder to place is her inconsistency as a writer. She can be very good, as for example, in her still fresh and relevant 1950s novels The Beautiful Visit and The Long View, which reflect on a woman’s place in a male world. And she can be embarrassingly bad, notably in 1972’s Odd Girl Out, written as her marriage to Amis had cascaded down from love to hatred.

But Artemis Cooper correctly identifies the toughest question in evaluating Howard. How could one who on the page showed such emotional insight about human relationships have been so serially hopeless at applying that knowledge in her own life? (The same has often been asked of another great 20th-century writer, Howard’s acquaintance Rosamond Lehmann.)

Howard blundered from one ill-starred relationship to another, apparently learning nothing about herself in the process, or how to spot a rogue. After being used and abused by vain, egotistical men, she simply picked herself up and found a replacement in exactly the same mould, with predictable results.

The disparity between the woman and the writer was never more marked than in her late 1999 novel Falling, where Howard explained how a younger, charming conman insinuated himself into an apparently wise, older woman’s life, bed and bank accounts. It was based on her own experience.

Cooper details a private life (not so private during Howard’s stormy marriage to Amis) that can only be seen as unremittingly tragic. She hated being alone, yet by the choices she made ensured that she was. She left behind her only child, Nicola, when she walked out of her first marriage to Peter Scott. As well as the pain she caused herself, then, there was the agony she caused others. 

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