The talented beauty with a life stranger than fiction
The author of 'Cazalet Chronicles' gave lessons of her heart through her fiction but her real struggle was kept from view, write Ruth Scurr and Horatia Harrod
Last month, Elizabeth Jane Howard turned 90. At an age when most of us might celebrate with a warm whiskey and warmer slippers, Howard was handing in the manuscript of her 15th novel to her publishers. The next day, she was at her computer promptly at 10.30am, writing a new one.
"Well, it's the thing that makes me get up in the morning," she says. "Otherwise, there's not really an awful lot of point to my life any more -- except very nice friends and things."
She died last Thursday at home in Bungay, Suffolk, "peacefully, after a short illness", her publicist, Jacqui Graham, said.
Howard was best known for the Cazalet Chronicles, her series of books telling of the changing fortunes of an upper-middle-class English family, the Cazalets, before and after the Second World War.
Howard said that she had been inspired to write the books -- which were partly romans-a-clef, absorbing many details from her own life -- by her stepson, Martin Amis. Amis calls her "the most interesting woman writer of her generation" alongside Iris Murdoch. In fact, it was Howard who first introduced a teenage Martin Amis to the delights of reading when she gave him a copy of Pride and Prejudice.
The novels follow the shifting relationships between three generations of the Cazalet family spanning the decade 1937 to 1947. The incomprehension and impatience with which women of the Cazalet family view their daughters reflected an enduring theme in Elizabeth Jane Howard's own life.
As a child, she had had a difficult relationship with her own mother, and as a young woman had walked out on her own three-year-old daughter by her first husband, the naturalist Peter Scott. In the Cazalet novels, her mother is portrayed as the perennially bored Villy Cazalet, who has given up her career to marry, and resents her daughters.
The final book in the series, All Change, was published to glowing reviews at the end of 2013. Together, the Chronicles sold more than a million copies, and were later adapted by the BBC for television and radio. "So long as my books didn't sell, they were very well received," Howard once remarked, "but as soon as they started selling I became instantly unfashionable."
Before the success of the Cazalet Chronicles, Howard's work was typically overshadowed by that of the literary men she was involved with. When she met Evelyn Waugh, he said: "Ah, Miss Howard. And have you anything to do with literature?" "Only spasmodically, Mr Waugh", was her self-effacing reply.
Elizabeth Jane Howard was born in 1923. As a young woman she trained as an actress, and acted in a repertory company with Paul Scofield. She also started writing plays. She published her first novel, The Beautiful Visit, in 1950, a book that won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize the following year. In between she wrote 16 other books, mainly novels. She was also an editor at Chatto & Windus. She never won a major literary prize.
Her publisher, Maria Rejt, said in a statement: "She was unfairly overlooked by the literary establishment, perhaps because her novels are so eminently readable -- but that was also part of her extraordinary gift as a writer: her life's lessons were given lightly and generously through her fiction but the struggle was always kept from view."
Despite her substantial literary achievements, Howard's obituaries are filled with the names of the men she married, or had affairs with. In Slipstream she wrote candidly about her determination to find love and to succeed as a writer, and the tension between these two life purposes. "Love, which still seemed to me the most important thing in the world, had eluded me; I seemed incapable of sustaining, inspiring or receiving it. This reinforced all my secret feelings of being worthless."
She was born in London in 1923. Her father, David, a timber merchant, had gone off to fight with his horse in the First World War when he was only 17. He returned four- and-a-half years later, half gassed, refusing to talk about his experiences, but with a determination to enjoy himself.
Elizabeth Jane's mother, Katharine, the daughter of the composer Arthur Somervell, had danced with Diaghilev's Ballet Russe before giving up her career to marry. The family lived comfortably in Lansdowne Road, Notting Hill, with six servants and a constantly shifting cast of visiting friends and relations.
Elizabeth Jane had a difficult childhood. Her mother was emotionally repressed and her father, though charming, was a serial philanderer. In Slipstream, her memoir, she recounts how her father, would kiss her on the lips and grope her, while her mother, "thought that everything to do with sex was absolutely disgusting".
The frustrations of her marriage and her thwarted ambitions ensured that Elizabeth Jane's mother was continually dissatisfied. She openly preferred her sons and took out her anger on her only daughter, seeming to take pleasure in putting her down in public: "She made me feel a complete failure. I never understood why." Understandably, the girl's self-esteem took a battering. Though hardly unattractive, Elizabeth Jane remembered, aged 16, standing in front of a mirror and saying to herself: "You're so plain, you're going to have to have a career. No one's going to want to marry you."
While her brothers were sent to good schools, Elizabeth Jane's studies were neglected. Her mother taught her to read when she was six. Her subsequent education was intermittent: a mixture of homeschooling and an unsatisfactory day school in London, where she was bullied.
In Slipstream (2002), Howard credited her piano teacher Harold Craxton, a professor at the Royal Academy of Music, with teaching her "how to learn; how to take the trouble and to go on taking it; and above all, how to listen to what I was doing. Although I never emerged as a serious pianist, his lessons have been useful to me in learning to write."
She never passed any exams but by her late teens had developed striking good looks, with long legs, thick, waist-length blonde hair and dreams of becoming an actress. In 1940, she won a place at the London Mask Theatre School.
Within two terms the school closed because of the Blitz, but Eileen Thorndike (sister of Sybil) took a group of young actors down to Devon as a student repertory company. Elizabeth Jane played Katherine to Paul Scofield's Petruchio, then took a job in the winter season at Stratford.
When she became ill from lack of food, she had to return home.
Back in London she volunteered to join the Wrens, but was turned down due to her lack of formal qualifications. Instead, she went to Pitmans to learn to type, but within three weeks, aged 19, had become engaged to Peter Scott.
Scott was then serving with the Royal Navy. At 35, he was 16 years older than his fiancee. They had met when she was at drama school and Scott was on sick leave from his destroyer.
He took her out to the theatre and to dinner and drew her portrait. Still convinced she was unattractive, Elizabeth Jane was flattered by his attention: "I really hadn't the faintest idea what I was in for. He was the first person who noticed me and I was grateful for that."
The night before her wedding her mother asked her whether she knew "anything about the nasty side of married life". Horrified by this sudden threat of intimacy, Elizabeth Jane hastily replied that she did, and no more was said.
By the time she was 21, her daughter Nicola had been born. Three years later she walked out on the marriage and her daughter, taking with her just £10 and a suitcase. "It was a difficult decision," she explained later, "but Peter and I were just incompatible. I was too young. Our lives were never going to mesh, so there was no point in staying. I was left with no money or qualifications, just a half-written novel."
This, The Beautiful Visit, was published in 1950 and won the John Llewellyn Rhys memorial prize, catapulting her into the raffish literary scene.
Howard's second novel, The Long View, took another three years. In part, this was due to her taking on other work to earn immediate money. But she was too honest to pretend that was the full explanation: "Another reason that my novel took so long was my preoccupation with love. Love seemed to me the most desirable, the most important of human emotions. As far as sexual love was concerned, I was older but not much wiser. But every other aspect of love -- intimacy, affection, being first in each other's lives -- I wanted, as much as I wanted to write. The problem of how to combine them was far in the future. I thought that if I could get love right, everything else would follow naturally. I don't write this to imply I was unusual: most women feel the same in varying degrees, I think."
But her broken marriage and growing reputation as a writer did not make Elizabeth Jane Howard any more skillful in her dealings with men. Still extremely beautiful -- she modelled for Vogue during the late 1940s -- but unaware of her own seductive power, she found herself constantly being importuned by members of the opposite sex. "I had a lot of affairs," she later admitted. "I was a tart for affection most of my life."
One lover was the novelist Arthur Koestler. She met him at a party early in 1955. He proposed to her on St Valentine's Day, but she parried his offer of marriage and suggested they might try living together. The arrangement was not a success. Koestler was temperamental and they quarrelled violently. While making love on a canoeing holiday that summer, Koestler refused her request to use a contraceptive and forced himself upon her.
When she became pregnant, Koestler was furious and insisted that she should have an abortion, but refused to help her arrange it. The relationship ended soon afterwards. Koestler asked her to dinner the night before he killed himself, but she had another engagement.
She claimed that she had never infiltrated a happy marriage. There were, however, two brief aberrations: the novelist Laurie Lee and the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, who was married to her best friend Jill Balcon at the time.
"I felt dreadful," she says. "He [Day-Lewis] ended up by being very angry with me because I left and he said, 'You shouldn't have done that, you're a whore' and a lot of rather bitter poems came out."
In the Fifties, she had a love affair with Laurie Lee, which his wife, Cathy, knew all about.
"I was very happy with Laurie, whom I loved dearly. And I never had any -- I want to make this clear, Cathy knew this -- I never had any designs on him. I just took that bit of pleasure as it came and it was wonderful, and we all knew each other and we never had a cross word."
She married Australian writer and broadcaster James Douglas-Henry in 1959 because, by her own account, he thought she had money and she got fed up with people wanting to go to bed with her. The marriage was brief, disastrous, but, due to the fact it was never consummated, fortunately childless.
In 1962, she was invited to run the Cheltenham Literary Festival. She introduced new features, and also persuaded more authors than ever to appear, among them Kingsley Amis, who had been invited to speak on "Sex and Literature".
Amis was then married to his first wife, Hilary Bardwell ("Hilly"), by whom he had three children. He and Elizabeth Jane began a passionate affair and, with cruel timing, eloped to Spain on Hilly's 35th birthday. When Amis returned home, he found Hilly and the children had gone off on holiday without him. They returned to confront him at Elizabeth Jane's flat in London. In 1963, Amis and Hilly were divorced and he married Elizabeth Jane.
Initially it was a great love. "Kingsley is terribly funny and that is the biggest turn on of all, isn't it?" she said. It was a powerful literary and emotional relationship and in the early years of their marriage they influenced and even wrote parts of each other's works. Elizabeth Jane Howard's novels during this time included After Julius (1965), Something in Disguise (1969) and Odd Girl Out (1972).
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Amises were a literary couple of dazzling talents and good looks. They bought Lemmons, an impressive 30-room Georgian house in High Barnet.
The household teemed with intellectual life. "It was a steady eight for supper, rising to 16 at weekends. One Christmas we had 25 people," she recalled. Cecil Day-Lewis was staying at Lemmons on the day he died in 1972, and wrote his last poem, At Lemmons, on her table.
But the marriage was never an equal one. "Jane cooked and Kingsley drank," reported one guest; Amis was demanding and selfish and expected his wife to understand that his work came first and that she had to bring up his three children (who had moved in with them shortly after the marriage), entertain, run the house and huge garden, and keep the accounts. She also looked after her invalid mother for the last six years of her life.
She had little time or energy for her own writing.
By the 1970s, the marriage was in serious trouble. Kingsley was drinking heavily and experiencing sexual problems, for which he reluctantly agreed to have therapy. "I realised over a very long period of time that Kingsley didn't like me," she said later. "It isn't something that washes over you like a clap of thunder; it's a slow realisation, but it's unmistakable."
She walked out of the marriage in 1980, telling him that she would only come back if he gave up drinking, "because I knew that if he didn't, we'd never get anywhere. But he didn't want to." After their divorce in 1983, Elizabeth Jane Howard hoped to get back on friendly terms, but instead she became the victim of his unforgiving malevolence. In an interview three weeks before his death in 1995 he said: "Do I see her? No. It was bad enough being married to her." He mocked her suggestion that they could just be friends.
Though she was intensely hurt, she tried not to respond in kind, though after enduring "years of half-truths, withholdings and downright lies" she wrote to Amis's biographer Eric Jacobs "correcting" matters.
"I always hoped he'd relent," she said in 1995. "When I heard he was ill, I asked Martin to let me know if he wanted to see me, but he didn't, so that was that." As they remained unreconciled, she felt it would be inappropriate to attend his funeral -- though, at Hilly's invitation, she attended his memorial service.
After the break-up, Elizabeth Jane Howard lived in Camden Town, and went through a period of depression and despair, spending many hours in psychotherapy. She later moved to an isolated house near Bungay, Suffolk, where she channelled her passions into writing. But her travails with men were not over. After she appeared on Desert Island Discs in 1995 (luxury item: a piano), a male admirer wrote to her saying he wanted to be her friend. Slowly, he charmed his way into Howard's life.
At the age of 72, she embarked on an affair with him. She lent him money and he was with her through her treatment for cancer. But Howard's daughter, Nicola, became suspicious enough to check up on him. It turned out that the man was an inveterate liar and conman who had inveigled his way into Howard's affections by meticulously researching her life.
Howard was devastated. But, like all good writers, she turned her experiences into one of her most accomplished novels: Falling. When it was published in 1999, the man sent her a chilling postcard from America. He died some years ago, to Howard's intense relief.
"It's very painful, very humiliating," she says of having been taken in. "But it was worth writing."
Howard never pretended literary fame was a substitute for domestic happiness and was frank about her loneliness in old age. She saw it as the inevitable price of the mess she had made of her marriages.
"I don't like being alone," she said in 1995, "but I'm getting much better at it. When you make a lot of mistakes, you always pay for them. Not at the time, not necessarily all at once, but you always do pay. And I pay by having to spend the rest of my life on my own."
She was appointed CBE in 2000.
Elizabeth Jane Howard is survived by her daughter, Nicola.