Remembering Elizabeth Jane Howard

Remembering Elizabeth Jane Howard

It was a great honour to be at the memorial service for Elizabeth Jane Howard yesterday, which was hosted by her publishers, Macmillan at The Saville Club. I expected to feel moved, which of course I was, but it was also a very entertaining affair. John Julius Norwich spoke of her charm – "it was the beauty, first," he admitted - and her talent for friendship. His daughter Artemis Cooper, who will author the biography, read an appreciation written by Hilary Mantel.

Julian Barnes was next up to give voice to reflections from Martin Amis. "If you could imagine for a few moments that I’m Martin Amis," he said, with the hint of an eyebrow raise, "difficult but doable", to a warm ripple of amusement from the room.

Joanna Lumley read from The Light Years, the first of the Cazalet chronicles, capturing the voices perfectly and breathing even more joy into a novel that I didn’t think I could admire more.

I discovered the Cazalet Chronicles when I worked at Hatchards and fell immediately in love with the gloriously vibrant characters who are so very good at making mistakes. The Cazalet women, so creative and adventurous, so often end up in thrall to the wrong type of man. "She was a disastrous chooser of men" said Amis via Barnes. "My father – by any standards a mixed blessing – was probably the pick of the bunch, standing out from a ghastly galère of frauds, bullies and scoundrels."

This is not new information. EJH’s autobiography, Slipstream, is a candid journey through her years of bolting from one unsatisfactory romantic situation to another. It’s a fascinating book in so many ways and a must for anyone interesting in writing and publishing as EJH was propositioned by and so often said yes to so many writers. Among all the excitement of her being chased around the table by Jonathan Cape, and popping off to Spain with Laurie Lee, a picture emerges of an unconfident woman, a woman whose mother didn’t love her and whose father loved her in the wrong way. She wasn’t very good at saying no, and then she wasn’t very good at not letting herself be bossed around.

All this ends up to great effect in her novels and perhaps it is this emphasis on love - looking for it, finding it, screwing it up - that means her books are less feted than they should be as the literary establishment has a tendency to turn its nose up at domestic settings. Or could it simply that she is a woman? Laurie Lee told her that no one as pretty as she was would be able to write well. Arthur Koestler liked her to shut up and eat her dinner. Kingsley Amis, when he eventually got around to reading one of her novels was relieved and surprised to find that it was any good.

There’s a trap I know I‘m falling into about it being impossible to write about EJH without concentrating on all the men in her life and yes, it irks me that she gets much less airtime in the life of Kingsley Amis than he gets in hers, but it is difficult to divorce her from her biographical context.

And to a certain extent, why should we? Only because there is this undercurrent that books written by women about falling in and out of love can’t be much good. Is this because we all think falling in and out of love is a bit childish and we should be doing something more worthy? Are there really things more significant to discuss than the hopes and frailties of the human heart?

She makes writing look easy and she makes reading a pleasure. Hilary Mantel says: "She makes me reflect on the whole issue of readability and what it means. To me it means that the reader is thinking, I’m in good hands, this author is firmly in charge, I can relax, this author is smart but is not trying to outsmart me."

Smart is a good word to describe EJH’s novels, which brim with an unusual astute kindness. Above all, there is a searching in her work, and a willingness to share whatever she finds which is highly appealing. "I write to find things out about myself" she said. I’m glad she did. She certainly cheered me up a lot when I was mooning around Hatchards obsessing about my own disastrous love affairs. I always think of EJH when reading Nora Ephron’s essays. "Everything is copy" Ephron said, as she turned her husband leaving her when she was seven months pregnant into a comic novel. "You lay the autobiographical stuff down like wine," said EJH. She lived a richly eventful life that was full of love and then wrote about it for our pleasure and edification. What could possibly be better than that?