True to the Chaos of Life; A Novelist Pulls Back from Fiction to Detail the Events That Informed It

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Byline: CLAIRE HARMAN

SLIPSTREAM: A Memoir by Elizabeth Jane Howard (Macmillan, pound sterling20) ELIZABETH Jane Howard admits to being "a very slow learner", perhaps not a learner at all: "often I have had to repeat the same disastrous situation several times before I got the message," she writes. "I feel as though I've lived my life in the slipstream of experience." This sense of being out of step with herself makes her a very congenial memoirist. Perhaps it takes an immensely accomplished novelist to be as true to the chaos of real life as she seems to be here.

The autobiographical basis of Howard's novels, especially the wonderful Cazelet series, becomes clear as she describes her upbringing in a distinguished and lively family in the years between the wars.

A drop-dead handsome father who was a soldier and a musician, her mother, who was a dancer, eccentric grandparents, hordes of cousins, nurses and governesses (one smelling of "weary mushrooms and antique sweat") are the dramatis personae of her youth, vividly recalled.

The overweight nanny who changed every morning inside a dressing gown "from which she emerged immaculate in her close-fitting navy blue with white Peter Pan collar", the children's parties at which the nurses stood like footmen behind the chairs, "while the children ate silently, or wept because they weren't enjoying themselves," her rivalrous feelings towards her brother, confusion about pleasing people and pervasive fears are brilliantly evoked.

She doesn't simply find the right words, but also the form, as in this devastating moment from her sixth or seventh Christmas: " Suddenly after tea, a stroke of doom - a ripple of departure in the room, an acceleration of bonhomie and then the blinding moment when I realised that both my parents were going away, that minute, to a place called Switzerland for a holiday".

Dozens of fabulous photos of the author chart Howard's progress from charming child to ravishing beauty, but the author herself is ambivalent about her own attractiveness.

The dashing dad molested her, and later in life she seems hardly to have been able to meet any man without being lunged at: Malcolm Sarcould-gent decided to get his trousers off as soon as they were alone, Jonathan Cape chased her round a table (" fortunately it had sharp corners"), even the psychiatrist went for her with "a vicelike grip". …