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.