Prolific writer who blossomed late in life

Sat, Jan 11, 2014, 00:00

For much of a career spanning more than 60 years, the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard, who has died aged 90, suffered a certain condescension from literary editors as a writer of “women’s novels”. This did not deter her.

She herself described her readers as “women and educated men”, and expressed “puzzlement” when Margaret Drabble left her out of her 1985 edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature.

She achieved a triumph in her 70s with The Cazalet Chronicle, a highly praised tetralogy of novels set in the England of 1937-47. The first two books, The Light Years (1990) and Marking Time (1991), became an acclaimed BBC TV series, The Cazalets, in 2001.

She herself thought her work had improved with age. These novels show her maturity as a compelling storyteller, shrewd and accurate in human observation, with a fine ear for dialogue and an evident pleasure in the English language and in landscape. She was thoroughly at home in their setting, which was just the sort of upper-middle-class English family, London locations and country houses in which her own roots lay.

Like the Cazalets, her background was privileged but not easy. She was born in London. Her father, David, was a timber merchant and her mother a former dancer in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The family lived in a big house in Notting Hill with a tribe of servants; enchanting summers were spent at her grandparents’ country house in Sussex.

A lack of formal education fed her self-doubt, but she showed great self-discipline and dedication in her chosen profession. Her output was prolific and her books achieved popularity and recognition. Her first novel, The Beautiful Visit (1950), won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize. She went on to write short stories, articles, television plays, film scripts and a book on food. Her other contributions to literary life included organising the Cheltenham and Salisbury festivals. She was made a CBE in 2000.

Her abiding belief that her mother did not like her was to make her, she said, “a tart for affection” for most of her life. Her striking looks, intelligence and varied talents brought her many admirers.

As a young woman she acted and modelled, and later she broadcast, cooked, sewed, gardened and decorated houses with flair and skill. But looking back, she declared that she had made a hash of her life.

She was a bit of a bolter, as she was the first to admit: she married three times. The first, in 1942, was to Peter Scott, later a world-renowned naturalist and at that time a naval officer and war hero. Unhappy in her marriage and feeling unable to give her daughter as good a life as her distinguished husband could, she left them both, an abandonment that brought deep difficulties between mother and daughter for many years, although they found resolution.

Her second marriage, to James Douglas-Henry in 1959, was a disaster of which she could barely speak. Her 18-year relationship with Kingsley Amis, whom she married in 1965, made a gut-wrenching but fascinating public story. For eight years the couple held court to friends and colleagues in a beautiful house in Barnet. But Howard was constrained to take on both housekeeping and nurturing roles, leaving her writing aside. Amis’s two adolescent sons, her brother and mother and a painter friend lived with them.

Years later it pleased her greatly when her stepson Martin Amis expressed gratitude for her contribution to his life as a writer. It was she who spotted ability and ambition in the teenage layabout. She got him reading (Jane Austen was the breakthrough), and thence to Oxford.

After she left the household Amis senior never spoke to her again. His undisguised animosity figured in his late novels, and resurfaced in letters and biographies published after his death. The cruelty, subtlety and sharpness of this drama also proved worthy of her own pen, and the relationship and its protagonists appear several times in her fiction.

In 1990 Howard moved out of London and finally settled in a lovely old house in Suffolk, with some land, a riverbank and an island. There, she wrote, read, gardened, did her beautiful patchwork and tapestry, cherished her dog and her plants, and welcomed her friends, godchildren and family at weekends. Her frank and detailed autobiography, Slipstream (2002), revealed how closely the Cazalet family was modelled on her own.

In her later years she seemed blessed with a peace and pleasure that had hitherto eluded her. She was alone, and made it clear that she would have preferred not to be. But reconciliation had ended the years of estrangement from Nicola, the daughter of her first marriage, and she basked in the affection of her daughter, four grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, all of whom survive her.

She once admitted that writing was the most “frightening” thing she did, and that she did not enjoy it and had once tried to stop but couldn’t. “When you write something which comes off, it’s a feeling like no other,” she said. “It’s like being visited by something outside yourself.”