ELIZABETH JANE HOWARD who died on January 2—‘Jane’ to all who knew her—was an English writer of great originality and honesty. Only at the end of her long life did she receive the recognition she deserved. “I feel like I’ve been playing second fiddle my whole life,” she told me a few weeks before her death. “Now I’m playing first violin and I quite like it.”
by Richard Walker
Her life was a blend of privilege and hardship. She was born into a well-off London family with unusually complex connections. Their social circle featured composers and businessmen, gentlemen of leisure and hard-working professionals, but it was hardly bohemian. Later Jane Howard wrote that her childhood was played out in “a bourgeois state of punctuality and hygiene”. Home life was marked by an odd discomfort, difficult to pin down and pervasive.
Part of the problem was her mismatched parents. Her father who had won a Military Cross in the first world war was handsome, charismatic and sad. Her mother, a ballet dancer who had abandoned her career and increasingly regretted the decision, was remote. Jane Howard sensed the fracture in her parents’ marriage, but it was not until her father attempted to seduce her (she fought him off) that she began to realise how deep-seated the problem was.
This mismatch was lodged in her imagination, and played out in her life. Her books teem with relationships that operate at cross-purposes, with characters who struggle at “getting it right” (the title of a 1982 novel) and frequently get it wrong. In her 1999 novel “Falling”, her most succinct and darkest work, a middle-aged woman writer of great perceptiveness falls unreservedly in love with a consummate con-man, and is the last to apprehend the truth. The story was essentially a true one, and the woman was Jane Howard—but in the novel it is the man who is drawn most vividly, drawn with the wry coldness of the undeceived.
But the Jane Howard who published her first book in 1950 was yet to be undeceived. Not long married to the naturalist Peter Scott, photographs confirm that she had a beauty that caused powerful disturbance wherever she went. Men frequently demanded that she immediately went to bed with them, or else married them, or both. The effect was universal, and cut across every boundary—her victims might include Arthur Koestler (“I have decided that we should get married darling,” he said on their second meeting), as well as the deaf and dumb shoemaker who wrote on his slate “You lovely girl like princess me like marry you.”
Marriage did not suit Jane Howard. She once said that she tended to get married (which she did three times, lastly to the novelist Kingsley Amis) because she was fed up with being propositioned. Her gift was for friendship, and her range of lifelong friends was extraordinary: she dealt with Charlie Chaplin and her local butcher with equal grace. But her passion was reserved for writing.
Jane Howard was for most of her career a moderately successful novelist. It was not until her 80s, when the “Cazalet Chronicle” (a series of coolly observed family portraits moving through several decades) was dramatised for television and radio, that she suddenly found herself a literary celebrity. The plain, undemonstrative style of her writing has tended to hide its originality. Yet there is not only an originality of tone, but also of form: for example in her 1956 novel “The Long View” she pioneers the backwards-running narrative later used by Harold Pinter in “Betrayal” and again by her stepson Martin Amis in “Time’s Arrow”.
Jane Howard was above all a novelist of emotional atmosphere, a distinct atmosphere one gets nowhere else in literature. Her characters are powerfully linked yet not in tune with each other, as titles like “Odd Girl Out”, “Mr Wrong” and “Confusion” suggest. The setting may be conventional, the storyline free of plot devices, yet a disjointed, out-of-time, out-of-phase quality makes the prose shimmer. Here is a world that could go right, the reader seems to be told, that could be fit to relax in… but not just yet.
As a child Jane Howard watched a man and woman of her acquaintance arguing quietly with each other, and she was suddenly struck by how “nobody said what they meant, but one knew what they meant by the way they said it.” As a novelist, she devoted her long career to re-imagining that moment.
First published here.