Magazine article The Spectator

'Elizabeth Jane Howard: A Dangerous Innocence', by Artemis Cooper - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Elizabeth Jane Howard: A Dangerous Innocence', by Artemis Cooper - Review

Article excerpt

D.J. Taylor welcomes a sympathetic and comprehensive new biography of the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard

Searching for a 12-month stretch in the life of Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923-2013) that might illuminate the kind of person she was and the circumstances of her fraught and chaotic career, I settled on the year of 1955. Our heroine, then living in a maisonette flat in Little Venice and reading manuscripts for the publishing firm of Chatto & Windus, was hard at work on her well-received second novel, The Long View (1956). She was also having an affair with Arthur Koestler, who, when they entertained, her biographer tells us, expected her to 'produce a three-course meal, look demurely beautiful and say as little as possible'.

And so the year winds on. Koestler dazzles her with his volcanic temperament, gets her pregnant and then fixes an abortion. Laurie Lee takes her to Spain, tells her that no one as beautiful as she is could ever be any good at writing and then returns to his wife. With Lee out of the running, the gate gapes invitingly for the French novelist Romain Gary, who squires her off to the south of France, introduces her to Camus and plans to set her up as a high-class geisha. These having fizzled out, she slides into the fervid embrace of the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, who, seeing her in a Russian hat, declares that now he knows what Anna Karenina looked like.

After this, one doesn't really need to be told that Howard spent most of her long and eventful existence in a state of desperate unhappiness, forever being let down by people from whom she sought affection and struggling to balance her emotional needs with the peace of mind required to write her books. What makes the particulars of this seven-decade-long entanglement with Grub Street even worse, perhaps, is her awareness of the Catch-22 in which she spent most of her working life. If the dalliances with Koestler, Lee et al brought creative energy, then they also reduced the space in which that creative energy could luxuriate. Meanwhile, 'the less I understood my experiences, the more I repeated them'.

As for the fount of all this misery, Artemis Cooper's sympathetic biography locates it squarely in the influence, or neglect, of two women. One of them was Howard's mother, Kit, the wife of a prosperous London timber merchant, who seems to have taken far more interest in her daughter's younger brother. The other was the redoubtable Kathleen Kennet, her inaugural mother-in-law, whose fixation on her son Peter Scott, the celebrated naturalist, was such that she is supposed to have informed his 19-year-old bride that, 'If you ever make Peter unhappy I shall want to stab you.' One should also note the malign effect of a hot-handed father, keen on late-night clinches and suggestive remarks about how fast she was growing up.

All these impediments produced a tall, statuesque young woman who combined paralysing naivety ('How do I have lunch?' she enquired of Scott when they were staying in a hotel and he was out for the day) with a chronic inability to judge any of the (mostly) plausible rotters who crossed her path, and an inextinguishable craving for love, admiration and, as she wistfully put it, 'someone to talk to about books and ideas'. Scott would swiftly be displaced by, successively, his step-brother Wayland, a man named Philip Lee who seduced her on Holyhead mountain ('thrillingly romantic') and a literary agent called Robert Aickman. Nicola, the product of her marriage to Scott, was packed off to the care of nannies and relatives, and later remarked that, 'My mother was very elegant and didn't really figure in my life. …

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