Elizabeth Jane Howard: 1923-2014

by Sasha Wilkins on January 2, 2014 · 8 comments

Elizabeth Jane Howard: An Appreciation.

There are some writers who you read in your teens who just become part of the conversation in your head. Phrases they have written pop up uninvited from time to time, ideas they have posited arrive unheralded to be mulled over on tube journeys ten, fifteen years later, or scenes they have described form the mental backdrop to car journeys or sleepless nights.

For me, Elizabeth Jane Howard, who died today, aged ninety, was just one of those writers. In my mid-teens, I devoured her writing with such unseemly haste, I’m surprised that my library tickets didn’t start disintegrating from overuse. The Beautiful Visit (1950), her first book, and winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize led me on to Something in Disguise (1969), a portrait of a marriage in a very particular time, and full of Howard’s always beguiling descriptions of home, food and clothes, that transport you straight to the period, and Odd Girl Out (1972).

Her collected short stories Mr Wrong (1975) became the basis for one of my pieces of GCSE English Literature coursework, somewhat to the surprise of my teacher. (This was far from a set text.) Howard’s short stories are clever, punchy and sometimes frightening. She could be a spare writer, and so one’s imagination was fired in a quite brilliant way whilst reading her books. Above all, she understood the nuances and subtle interactions of both romantic and familial relationships, and her characters are never less than wholly convincing; even the flawed and unlikeable amongst them are compelling studies.

Getting it Right (1982), which I was talking about only on Monday at lunch, remains one of my favourite novels. A gentle book about a gentle man, a suburban hairdresser called Gavin who is looking for love, it nonetheless skewers its more unattractive protagonists so neatly that one suspects she was writing from life. This would not be surprising: Howard, a woman who left both her first husband and daughter behind because she didn’t feel ready for married life, was not known for pulling her punches.

In more recent years, The Cazalet Chronicles, a family saga comprising four doorstep novels, Casting Off, The Light Years, Making Time and Confusion, charted, in what was said to be semi-autobiographical detail, the travails of an upper middle class family from 1937, as the Second World War changed their lives for ever. (The fifth and final instalment, All Change, was published in November last year.)

The books are studies of a world that has disappeared, and are notable not just for their quite astonishing breadth and clever characterisation, but for the way in which she hangs her narrative on major real world events, but shows their effects at a domestic level. In part the Cazalet books hark back to her very first novel, the afore mentioned The Beautiful Visit, set around the First World War, in that Howard is never afraid to tackle issues of class, money, sexuality, female emancipation, and politics. Her talent is that she never hectors, just gently nudges the reader towards her point of view.

Howard had the rare gift of being able to write compelling, beautiful prose whilst still maintaining a cracking narrative drive. Her novels stand multiple re-readings and I urge you to start now, if you haven’t already.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Frankie January 2, 2014 at 22:15

Such a remarkable writer and very sad that she died just a few months after completing her final book.

When I finished All Change I immediately started reading it again, just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.

A very great talent – she will be missed.

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Amy January 2, 2014 at 22:37

You have certainly inspired me to pick up one of her books. Which would you recommend to start with?

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Sally January 2, 2014 at 23:18

The Cazalet Chronicles are among very favourite books – and it was so lovely to have an unexpected fifth and final to add. I’ve been saving it until I can read all the others again first. A complete week of holiday reading of the very best kind. But in the meantime I had downloaded ‘An Awful Lot of Books’, her book reviews from Queen magazine to enjoy.
I haven’t read ‘Getting It Right’ so am now looking forward to adding it to my want-to-read list .
Thank you for posting the sad news and your personal favourites.

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Susan January 2, 2014 at 23:48

One of my favorite writers too- I truly enjoyed her memoir, Slipstream, and hunted down the cookbook she wrote with Fay Maschler simply because I loved her way with words.

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Sue Rosly January 3, 2014 at 08:30

I had no idea that EJH had died. She is a wonderful writer and I believe she was never valued as she should have been. No matter, her books are superb and she will be recognized as one of the foremost writers of the mid 20 century.

A lovely tribute LLG.

Sue

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Anne Wareham January 3, 2014 at 09:25

A brilliant and heart warming review. XXxx

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nappyvalleygirl January 3, 2014 at 10:11

I loved the Cazalet books, and Slipstream – have yet to read the Beautiful Visit but you’ve just inspired me to do so…

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