Good Writer, Bad Picker
Elizabeth Jane Howard showed deep emotional insights as a writer, but could not apply them to her own life
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.
The Scott marriage ended after she had an affair with his half-brother. And she was introduced to Day-Lewis by his wife, the actress Jill Balcon, who was, at the time, Howard’s best friend. But, in this case, there was a partial redemption that shows the best side of Howard. When Day-Lewis was dying of cancer in 1972, and Balcon was struggling to cope with caring for him, Howard welcomed the whole family, including the couple’s children Tamasin and Daniel, into the home she shared with Amis. She tirelessly cooked and cossetted and comforted them in their hour of need.
Artemis Cooper has already proved herself an outstanding biographer in her lives of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Elizabeth David. She is neither too intrusive, nor too absent. When she does step into the narrative, she speaks with authority, commonsense and an affection for Howard that never blinds her to her faults.
She also provides a plausible explanation for why Howard couldn’t in life follow her own advice in print when it came to relationships. (Such an answer was notably missing in Howard’s own 2002 memoir, Slipstream.) While men wanted her — correspondence Cooper quotes from Amis, for example, shows that the combination of her mind and a tall, rangy beauty could make men fall head over heels for her in a single meeting — she needed them. And so acute was that need in her that her judgment went out of the window.
In part, Cooper puts it down to her upbringing, in a home where praise was never given, especially to girls, where her father knew no sexual boundaries, and where she was always made to feel a failure next to her brothers. After Howard had nursed her mother devotedly when she was dying, she discovered a cache of letters. Her mother had kept every one sent by Howard’s brothers, but thrown her daughter’s away.
And in part, it was about timing. Howard married too young, when still a teenager, to the much older Scott who hurried her into having a baby. Most of the adults around her knew it was a mistake, but did nothing to dissuade her. As a young divorcée, when that marriage inevitably failed, and one moreover who had left her young daughter behind with her ex-husband, she found that most of the “suitable” men may have wanted her, but did not consider her marriage material.
Even those who did were rather put off by her wish to have a career that might eclipse theirs. Formidable as she later proved herself to be as a homemaker and nurturer, Howard wanted more. In that sense she was ahead of her times.
All of which gives her fiction an edge. The Cazalet Chronicles now have a cult following, having been adapted for both TV and radio. More generally, her novels are enjoying something of a minor renaissance. Cooper points out that if you go into a bookshop today you are more likely to find Howard’s books than any by Kingsley Amis. This impeccable biography will and should accentuate that trend.