Elizabeth Jane Howard Centenary: b. 26 March 1923

The Oldie has published a remembrance by Mark McGinness of novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard’s centenary which occurs today. Here’s an excerpt:

Elizabeth Jane Howard would have been 100 on 26 March. Her stepson, Martin Amis, paid tribute to her “penetrating sanity” and pronounced her, with Iris Murdoch, “the most interesting woman writer of her generation. An instinctivist, like Muriel Spark, she has a freakish and poetic eye, and a penetrating sanity.”

Her scholarly champion, Hilary Mantel, wrote of her “she helps us do the necessary thing – open our eyes and our hearts”. The eyes and hearts of the literary firmament were not quite as open and so Elizabeth Jane Howard remains one of the underrated novelists in our post-war history.

As she said herself, late in life, “You have to put writing first. 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 certainly a lot of mooning – and lot of bedding but she still managed to leave behind a formidable canon.

Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy and Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War are seen as wartime classics difficult to match but there is something in the subtlety, astuteness, sense of period and sheer readability of her prose that makes Elizabeth Jane Howard an author of substance…

Howard’s Cazalet Chronicle of novels may not match the war novels of Waugh and Manning (as well as those of Anthony Powell) but come very close. Howard was also involved in literary journalism, as explained by McGinness:

…With [her second husband Kingsley] Amis presiding and Elizabeth Jane providing, they received the literary ton of their time – Somerset Maugham, Bernard Levin, John Betjeman, Anthony and Lady Violet Powell, Iris Murdoch and John Bayley.

When she interviewed Evelyn Waugh for BBC Television in 1964 (see BBC Archives via Facebook) she clearly charmed him. (Apparently, in the intervals he kept asking, “When is Miss Howard going to take off all her clothes?”) [See recent post.] He was certainly kinder to her than he had been when interviewed by John Freeman four years earlier, “Ah, Miss Howard. And have you anything to do with literature?” “Only spasmodically, Mr Waugh,” was her self-effacing and, within a few years, sadly honest reply…

Howard also wrote in her memoirs that Waugh had agreed to appear in the 1964 BBC interview only if he wrote the questions. As described by Howard:

“…The questions were very run-of-the-mill and unlikely to elicit much. I asked some of them and then I decided, when I knew a reel was coming to an end, to put in one of my own…At the end of the second afternoon, I was asked to ‘amuse’ Mr Waugh while they took reaction shots of him. Amuse him! How could I do that? In the end I told him in some detail about my lack of education which he seemed to enjoy, or at any rate remained benign throughout. But the reply that most interested me was when I asked whether he preferred to be anxious or bored. ‘Oh, bored every time is the answer.’… The chief and most arresting feature of Waugh’s face was his beautiful eyes: of a clear blue they  were marvellously alive, seeing eyes that sparkled with intelligence and perception. Even Kingsley, when he did his very funny impersonation of Waugh’s face–even with an apoplectic edge of congested rage–couldn’t manage the eyes…”(E J Howard, Slipstream (2002, pp. 351-3).

The BBC adapted the first two novels in the Cazalet Chronicle for TV in 2001 and all 5 novels for radio in 2012-14. The TV adaptation extends over 5 (PBS) or 6 (BBC) episodes and the radio, over 45 episodes.

A memorial article also appeared in a recent issue of The Times. This is by Susie Goldsborough and opens with this:

Elizabeth Jane Howard was not afraid. She wrote with terrible, icy clarity about sensations that others spend their lives trying to hide from (or failing to capture). Betrayal, guilt and fathomless loneliness. Looking at someone you love and feeling only “frightful, sudden indifference”.

Like Jane Austen, she was a master dramatist of the inner life. Her characters’ emotional epiphanies play out like action sequences: tense, slow-motion, liable to burst out mid-paragraph and catch you by the throat. Someone might look up and intercept a glance across the breakfast table and suddenly feel their hopes disintegrating into the toast crumbs. Her novels are full of silent, unrecognised explosions.

Born 100 years ago next week, Howard is one of our greatest 20th-century novelists. She is also criminally underappreciated. Were it not for The Cazalet Chronicles — her late career, five-book masterpiece about upper-middle-class life in England from the late Thirties to the Fifties — she might be forgotten.

It was through the Cazalets that I encountered Howard as a teenager, staring out of the car window into the rain and half-listening to whatever musty book was being read on Radio 4. Then listening intently. The Cazalet family had sucked me in…



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