"You have to put writing first,” Elizabeth Jane Howard [1923-2014] mused in one of her final interviews. “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 no suggestion of timewasting when I met Howard, in November last year. It was at a lunch to celebrate ALL CHANGE – the fifth novel in her acclaimed Cazalet series, the semi-autobiographical wartime family saga. It had been published a few months after her 90th birthday; yet the writer, who died last Thursday, was already hard at work on a new book about the seven deadly sins, tentatively entitled Human Error.
Despite a 60-year career; her books selling in the millions; the Duchess of Cornwall and Hilary Mantel being noted fans; and praise as “the most interesting woman writer of her generation” alongside Iris Murdoch, Howard never got the recognition she deserved.
In fact, the lunch at a local restaurant in Bungay, Suffolk, was typical Howard style: charming, excellent quality and unassuming. It started off with the kind of champagne that her more raffish characters love to swill, although, thankfully, with far better food than their wartime soapy Cheddar and grey bread.
Howard, known as Jane to her friends, was frail, in a wheelchair, and complained that her lack of energy meant she could only work for three hours a day. But she was immaculately turned out, down to magnificent gold earrings, her hair tied back to expose still fabulous cheekbones.
Inevitably – and annoyingly for her fans – many of the tributes to Howard focus less on her literary achievements than on the remarkable love life that she details in her 2002 memoir, Slipstream. It included marriages to the naturalist Peter Scott and novelist Sir Kingsley Amis, as well as affairs with Cecil Day-Lewis, Laurie Lee, Cyril Connelly, Kenneth Tynan and Arthur Koestler. In fact Howard, stunningly beautiful in her youth, said she only married her second husband, James Douglas-Henry, because she was “exhausted by people wanting to go to bed with [her] after half an hour”.
Not that she is ashamed of her past. When James Naughtie interviewed her on Radio 4’s Today programme last month and coyly suggested that her love life had been pretty frisky, she shot back: “I wasn’t the only frisker, but frisky was quite popular in those days.”
This fascination with her sex life overlooks the fact that she felt that she succeeded most as a novelist when she was single; most of the Cazalet saga was written in her sixties and seventies. As a woman, she was also consistently underrated. She won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for her first novel, The Beautiful Visit, but Jonathan Cape wouldn’t let her go into paperback in case it affected hardback sales.
Her second novel, The Long View, cleverly tells the story of a marriage backwards, but unlike the acclaim her stepson Martin Amis enjoyed for his book-in-reverse, Time’s Arrow, it was never shortlisted for the Booker; she minded terribly about her exclusion from the literary elite.
Her favourite novelist – indeed she sparked the young Amis’s interest in literature by giving him Pride and Prejudice – was Jane Austen, and like her heroine, Howard has been snootily dismissed as writing about a confined woman’s world. Set aside the fact that she acutely maps the incompetent running of a business in All Change, perhaps the worst charge against her is that she is a “comfort read”. She is anything but. Beneath the affluent, mid-century, middle-class lifestyle of governesses, chauffeurs and country houses, there is pain and tragedy: sexual abuse of a daughter, cancer, shell-shocked soldiers, dementia, mental breakdown, suppressed gay love.
Howard herself didn’t see her books as easy reads: she described her readers as “women and educated men”. What fascinates her are the lies and truths we tell ourselves in external and internal lives.
Her grandmother, model for the Cazalet matriarch the Duchy, would not even permit white lies; while the Duchy’s son Edward lived a life of lies, concealing an affair with his mistress, Diana.
Other kinds of half-truths abound, from Edward’s wife Villy’s inability to see any fault of her own in her empty marriage, to the poignancy of the devoted Sibyl, and Hugh, Edward’s older brother, neither of whom can bring themselves to burden the other with the awful truth that Sibyl is dying.
Howard’s deft touch is seen time and again: when Hugh’s daughter discovers her mother’s illness and runs for comfort to the spinster governess, Miss Milliment, a ravine of loneliness opens in one sentence: “For an ignoble moment, there flashed into Miss Milliment’s mind that when the time came for her there would be no one either to lie to her, or discuss the truth.”
This humanity, even for minor characters, pervades: Howard told Naughtie she put a “premium” on kindness. When Howard exposes the thoughtlessnesses, cruelties, vanities of her characters, she does so in a clear-sighted way. Few are seen as irredeemable; even Diana, the hateful mistress, based on Howard’s awful stepmother, is treated with sympathy; her life with Edward is far from what she would like.
At the lunch, I stuttered about how much I’d loved the Cazalets and what I thought of All Change. Howard was happy to discuss her own books but more curious about what her guests would recommend her to read – she had been re-reading Arnold Bennett. She wanted to know about what it was like to be a working woman today, even which television programmes people watched – while she liked “ghastly” TV, she said she would never stoop to watch Downton Abbey.
The one piece of advice she would give out was this: she never wrote diaries because she saw them as a waste of writing. Even at the age of 90, she still took herself and her writing seriously – as we should too.