There was a lot more to Elizabeth Jane Howard, who died yesterday aged 90, than the much-loved Cazalet Chronicles. Since her debut book in 1951, the novelist had published half-a-dozen accomplished novels before she set out in the early 1980s on that series of socially astute and emotionally subtle family sagas.
It ended only last November with the fifth volume, All Change. But as early as in 1956 the reversed story of a marriage in The Long View – beginning in the present, then moving backwards – showed a confident control of her back-to-front narrative. Could, just possibly, her stepson Martin Amis have half-remembered that book when he tried the same, in Time’s Arrow?
Amis has often paid warm tribute to Howard’s role in educating the tearaway teenager after her second marriage, to his father Kingsley.
His memoir Experience also salutes the “freakish and poetic eye” and “penetrating sanity” of her fiction. In a way, he paid his debt when he advised her to embark on the story of the Cazalets as they negotiate a society in flux through the years after 1937.
The Cazalet books reflect the eye, and the mind, of a writer who lived a far from sheltered life. She came to fiction after marriage at 19 to the naturalist Peter Scott and stints as an actress and model.
A late novel such as Falling (1999), partly rooted in her own experience, reveals a knack for dissecting manipulative relationships. This is far from comfort reading. Neither are the Cazalet Chronicles, even if – much like their creator – they reveal a robust ability to weather every storm and make a compelling story out of it.