Forgotten Authors No 58: Elizabeth Jane Howard

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Good authors get a few bites at the apple of fame; once for their debut novel, again when they're at the top of their game, and hopefully for a grand reprise when they're rediscovered by a new generation. Elizabeth Jane Howard's time is definitely back.

Born in the 1920s, she grew up in a rather bohemian family (her father composed the music to "Come into the Garden, Maud...") and became a model, then an actress, and married Sir Peter Scott, the son of the explorer, at 19. Settling as a writer, she produced The Beautiful Visit, which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1951, but only after a randy Jonathan Cape had brought a new meaning to the term "publisher's advances". It was followed by another six novels, short stories and a saga.

Those are the bare facts, but to get a true flavour of this time I'd recommend her racy and rather moving memoir Slipstream, a volume that proves that the life of a writer – especially a beautiful one – can be far from dull and sexless.

Moving within literary circles, herthird marriage was to Kingsley Amis, which says a lot about where the pursuit of love gets you. But she thought that if she got it right, everything else would follow.

One thing she did get right was the writing. (She's a better prose stylist than Amis.) Although it was fiction, her work drew heavily on biographical details. Her quartet of novels about a wartime family was filmed for TV in 2001 as The Cazalets, but now her shorter pieces are enjoying a revival. The final haunting image of Three Miles Up has stayed with me for years, and shows Howard's terrific storytelling strength. This and the eerie novella Perfect Love, about a tormented opera diva, have recently been republished in her collection from Tartarus Press.

Howard's late novel Falling is an unnerving account of a sociopathic con artist and his new prey, an ageing, vulnerable novelist to whom he craftily makes himself mentally and physically indispensable, and there's a temptation to read this as a bit of a roman à clef.

Howard knows that there are mysterious pools of darkness in human nature, and leaves them in her elegant prose. These gaps allow room for argument and return you to her fiction. Now she has stepped out from behind the lights of male authors to encourage fresh readers to her own individual work.