Imposing Presence, Emotional Mess

The Evening Standard (London, England), September 22, 2016 | Go to article overview

Imposing Presence, Emotional Mess


Byline: CLAIRE HARMAN

ELIZABETH JANE HOWARD: A DANGEROUS INNOCENCE by Artemis Cooper (John Murray, PS25) "YOU are a bottomless pit of neediness," a therapist remarked on meeting the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, though few would have guessed so from her public persona: majestically tall, golden-haired and with a bird-of-prey stare, Howard seemed a positively intimidating figure. When Julian Barnes met her at a party in the Seventies he felt frozen out, only to discover years later that she was "utterly terrified" by literary parties.

Giving out and getting wrong signals is a constant theme in this sympathetic biography by Artemis Cooper, the first since Howard's death in 2014. Brought up posh and privileged, she was expected to marry well and bagged Peter Scott, only child of the Antarctic hero, whose formidable mother joined them for part of the honeymoon. "People of our sort never make any fuss or noise when they are having a baby," ma-in-law warned, but more disappointments were to come the baby was a girl. No wonder Howard failed to bond, either with the baby or her husband. She began a series of affairs (one with her brother-in-law) and took to writing.

She left Scott in 1947, aged 23, and three years later her first novel, The Beautiful Visit, got an excited welcome by critics who were bowled over by her combination of talent and startling good looks. Everyone harped on her beauty. When she was chosen to interview Evelyn Waugh on television (because he had asked for 'a pretty woman who was familiar with his novels'), he wondered aloud when she was going to take her clothes off.

She strove to prove her allure was irrelevant (while milking it, obviously), and her second novel, The Long View, was more ambitious than any of her mentors expected or could cope with.

She carried on turning heads and turning out much better books than necessary all through the Fifties, to the accompaniment of high-octane affairs with Ken Tynan, Arthur Koestler, Cecil Day-Lewis (whose wife, Jill Balcon, had been Howard's closest friend) and Laurie Lee, among others. …

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