Searching for a 12-month stretch in the life of Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923–2013) that might illuminate the kind of person she was and the circumstances of her fraught and chaotic career, I settled on the year of 1955. Our heroine, then living in a maisonette flat in Little Venice and reading manuscripts for the publishing firm of Chatto & Windus, was hard at work on her well-received second novel, The Long View (1956). She was also having an affair with Arthur Koestler, who, when they entertained, her biographer tells us, expected her to ‘produce a three-course meal, look demurely beautiful and say as little as possible’.
And so the year winds on. Koestler dazzles her with his volcanic temperament, gets her pregnant and then fixes an abortion. Laurie Lee takes her to Spain, tells her that no one as beautiful as she is could ever be any good at writing and then returns to his wife. With Lee out of the running, the gate gapes invitingly for the French novelist Romain Gary, who squires her off to the south of France, introduces her to Camus and plans to set her up as a high-class geisha. These having fizzled out, she slides into the fervid embrace of the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, who, seeing her in a Russian hat, declares that now he knows what Anna Karenina looked like.
After this, one doesn’t really need to be told that Howard spent most of her long and eventful existence in a state of desperate unhappiness, forever being let down by people from whom she sought affection and struggling to balance her emotional needs with the peace of mind required to write her books. What makes the particulars of this seven-decade-long entanglement with Grub Street even worse, perhaps, is her awareness of the Catch-22 in which she spent most of her working life. If the dalliances with Koestler, Lee et al brought creative energy, then they also reduced the space in which that creative energy could luxuriate. Meanwhile, ‘the less I understood my experiences, the more I repeated them’.
As for the fount of all this misery, Artemis Cooper’s sympathetic biography locates it squarely in the influence, or neglect, of two women. One of them was Howard’s mother, Kit, the wife of a prosperous London timber merchant, who seems to have taken far more interest in her daughter’s younger brother. The other was the redoubtable Kathleen Kennet, her inaugural mother-in-law, whose fixation on her son Peter Scott, the celebrated naturalist, was such that she is supposed to have informed his 19-year-old bride that, ‘If you ever make Peter unhappy I shall want to stab you.’ One should also note the malign effect of a hot-handed father, keen on late-night clinches and suggestive remarks about how fast she was growing up.
All these impediments produced a tall, statuesque young woman who combined paralysing naivety (‘How do I have lunch?’ she enquired of Scott when they were staying in a hotel and he was out for the day) with a chronic inability to judge any of the (mostly) plausible rotters who crossed her path, and an inextinguishable craving for love, admiration and, as she wistfully put it, ‘someone to talk to about books and ideas’. Scott would swiftly be displaced by, successively, his step-brother Wayland, a man named Philip Lee who seduced her on Holyhead mountain (‘thrillingly romantic’) and a literary agent called Robert Aickman. Nicola, the product of her marriage to Scott, was packed off to the care of nannies and relatives, and later remarked that, ‘My mother was very elegant and didn’t really figure in my life.’ In slight mitigation, Howard was punctilious in taking her to the dentist.
The dental visits offer another clue to Howard’s psychological make-up, for the amorous free-falling coincided with, and was occasionally frustrated by, an engrained sense of duty, responsibility and the need to get on with disagreeable tasks without complaint. This, too, may be traced back to Kit, who, as her daughter’s pregnancy advanced, instructed her that, ‘People of our sort never make any fuss or noise when they are having a baby.’ And yet throughout the man-haunted Fifties — there was a second marriage to a character called James Douglas-Henry who told her he didn’t love her even before the honeymoon ended — the one thing the reader earnestly desires of Howard is to do precisely this: kick up a stink, plot her own course through life, and peel off the male leeches who are clinging to her hide.
The biggest leech of all turns out to have been Kingsley Amis, who Howard met at the Cheltenham Literary Festival of 1962, decamped with to Spain and — once Amis had divorced his first wife, Hilly — married in 1965. There is no doubting the depth of Amis’s initial feeling — as his biographer Zachary Leader once pointed out, the love letters he wrote her are unlike anything else in the Amis canon — but the consequence, given that Amis neither drove a car nor took the slightest interest in household management or childcare, was to turn ‘my dearest hoopoe’ into a drudge, masochistically cooking Sunday luncheons for 20 while her husband held court. The really significant statistic to emerge from their 18-year relationship, you infer, is that Amis produced 15 books and his housekeeper a mere four.
All this is — I was going to write ‘entertainingly’ but that is not the mot juste — outlined in A Dangerous Innocence, which makes a convincing case for the merits of Howard’s fiction (early novels such as 1959’s The Sea Change might possibly be ranked ahead of the bestselling Cazalet Chronicles of later years) and an important point about the connection between the turbulence of her life and the knowledgeable patternings of her art. It was as if, Cooper shrewdly writes, ‘she had to turn her experiences into fiction before she could make sense of them’. If Cooper’s touch occasionally deserts her, it is in her dealings with the Amis clan. Amis senior, for example, did not fail his Oxford BLitt degree owing to ‘his undisguised admiration for thrillers and science fiction’, but because he fell out with his supervisor, Lord David Cecil. Neither is Cooper’s retelling of the famous occasion on which long-separated husband and wife came calamitously face-to-face at a party at the Savile Club particularly accurate in its detail.
As to what remains, I was left with an over-riding impression of someone trying to do their best in the face of well-nigh insuperable odds and very often succeeding (see, for example, her mentoring of the teenage Martin Amis, who later thanked her ‘for quite literally getting me into Oxford’). But the primal routines endured, and even in old age, living in stately magnificence in Suffolk, she turns out to have been taken in by a sinister middle-aged con man, who when first whisked up to bed insisted that they needed time to get to know each other. The saddest thing about this non-consummated encounter is that, as she recalled, the remark ‘had never been made to me before’.
D.J. Taylor’s books include a dozen novels, biographies of Thackeray and Orwell, and After the War: the Novel and England since 1945.