Endurance is all: a letter from Elizabeth Jane Howard
Once, while trying to heal a cruel wound, I wrote to Howard. The reply came as a shock
Elizabeth Jane Howard: her intellect was the kind you don’t have to notice, not until that shaft of identification, of knowingness, of unuttered empathy or wisdom slides through the words
This is not an obituary. It is only a memory, but of an experience that briefly linked my life to that of the English writer Elizabeth Jane Howard, who died on January 2nd. I had written one of those letters you post with your eyes shut, as if disbelieving the act of posting it, let alone the writing of it. Remembering it now, something of that despair at my own inability to help heal a cruel wound to someone I love still seems to lurk; at that time it sent me to the pen, the paper, and the words for Elizabeth Jane Howard. Apart from her novels, she was a complete a stranger to me. All I knew of her was through her books; somehow that seemed sufficient excuse to assault her with my anguish.
The only thing I might have reasonably expected would be a polite publisher’s acknowledgement. Instead, she replied to me. She wrote as if recognising the sadness and confusion in my letter and offered no easy solution; endurance was all.
That was years ago. Her letter is now safe in the emotional archives of my dear sufferer, and we have moved on to brighter times.
Intense human insight
Reading some of the appreciations that followed Howard’s death, I noticed how few seemed to grasp the intense human insight that illuminated her work. Even at her comic best, as in Getting It Right, that quality gleams like a slow radiance through her prose. Her intellect was the kind you don’t have to notice, not until that shaft of identification, of knowingness, of unuttered empathy or wisdom slides through the words and seals them.
I had been under her spell since reading of The Sea Change. Her memoir Slipstream indicates a well-read life and a more than nodding acquaintance with music, theatre and many of its practitioners.
In love, she consistently made disastrous choices out of what might be called a sense of obligation, as if she had to be nice to the men who courted her. Her first wedding was at 19, to Peter Scott, son of Scott of the Antarctic and a celebrity in his own right. A career of impulsive and sometimes adulterous relationships began with the slow dissolution of this marriage, which was relieved by occasional visits from luminaries such as EM Forster and GB Shaw.
Her unhappy mother had convinced her she was inadequate at everything, but she was determined nevertheless to finish her first novel (The Beautiful Visit) and to make an independent life for herself, even though this meant also leaving her small daughter.
To read her words on her life from then on is to feel a breathless desire to tell her to slow down, to stop and think. Perhaps people did, but she didn’t hear them. “Another reason that my novel [The Long View] took so long was my pre-occupation with love. Love seemed to me the most desirable, the most important of human emotions . . . My instincts were cowardly and I seized opportunities with a lack of discrimination, a kind of reckless bravado that, if I’d been less ashamed of my timidity, I would have ignored.”
Roll call of husbands
So on she went, to Arthur Koestler (“I was a small incident in his life”), Laurie Lee, Cecil Day-Lewis (“One of the worst things I did in my life”), her brief second marriage to the indefinable Jim Douglas-Henry, which was succeeded by the much longer one to Kingsley Amis. Those, at last, were halcyon days, despite the initial hostility of his children and his final dismissive newspaper comment that the worst thing to happen to him was meeting her.
In Slipstream there is a photograph of Kingsley Amis in his study at Lemmons, one of the houses in which Howard had made her several homes. It is a writer’s study, lined with books, littered with pages and papers, but it is Amis’s study, not Howard’s. And to the side near the window stands the cluster of bottles that contributed to the downfall of the 16-year marriage from which Howard escaped in 1980.
There is a consistent if submerged theme through this book. Howard had an intense working life of novels, journalism, television and script-writing. One proposal included lunch with Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mother to test Howard’s interest in writing the royal biography; the queen didn’t make the cut. Another was to provide scripts for a television series on the lives of Somerville and Ross, which involved visits to Castletownshend in Co Cork. Yet despite all this, Howard was not considered an important writer. Not, at least, until her popular Cazalet Chronicles hit the bookshops. The final book of this family saga is All Change, published last November.
Hearing of her departure, I remember the letter. It seems to me when I think of it that both the successes and failures of her life were influenced by her desire to give. She was always grateful to be chosen, she always wanted to give thanks. And so do I.