Reviewed by Anne Henderson

Elizabeth Jane Howard – A Dangerous Innocence By Artemis Cooper,

  • Publisher: John Murray 2016
  • ISBN: 978 1 84854 927 2
  • Ebook ISBN: 978 1 84854 928 9
  • RRP $ 49.99 (hb)

In an article written in memory of novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, in January 2014 just after her death at the age of 90, writer Martin Amis recalls his first glimpse of her at his father Kingsley’s London bachelor flat, as a thirteen year old and some months after his mother Hilly had left his father and taken their three children for an extended stay in Majorca:

Tall, calm, fine-boned, and with the queenly bearing of the fashion model she once was, in a spotless white bathrobe and with a yard of rich blonde hair extending to her waist, Jane straightforwardly introduced herself and set about making us bacon and eggs.

It was Elizabeth Jane Howard who, as Kingsley Amis’ wife after 1965, brought the fifteen year-old Martin to the world of books as he approached his O-levels. A rip of a lad, she mocked his professed aim to be a writer by suggesting he needed to read a few books before he even tried. Starting with a copy of Pride and Prejudice, Jane transformed Martin Amis from curmudgeonly ignorant youth to a reader of the classics and eventually the writer he would become. A transformation Martin Amis would always credit her with.

Born on 26 March 1923, Elizabeth Jane Howard (always known as Jane) was brought up in a wealthy family by a mother who had given up a short career in ballet for a husband who was a director of a successful timber business with offices overlooking the Tower of London. Jane’s father went to work each day in the chauffeur driven family Bentley. While Jane’s younger brothers went to well chosen schools, Jane was tutored at home. Her mother, who showed a distinct preference for her two sons, and her father, who began to make sexual advances to her in her mid teens, left her feeling isolated and unprotected. Her only escape from the family came with a chance to enrol in a live-in young ladies domestic science course at age 16.

Elizabeth Jane Howard came to writing through the stage after she took to amateur acting and as she gained a more worldly confidence after marriage to Peter Scott, a painter and naval officer and son of the arctic explorer Robert Scott. Jane and Peter’s mothers were friends and the young couple went from family visits to young marriage seamlessly. Marriage broadened Jane’s horizons while offering the boredom of trailing after an adventurous navy husband.  By the time the couple separated in 1947, Jane had enjoyed a number of lovers, one of whom had been Peter’s younger brother Wayland.  Life experience for the future woman novelist was building apace.

In Artemis Cooper’s new biography of Howard, Elizabeth Jane Howard – A Dangerous Innocence, a strikingly accomplished woman emerges, but one who never seems as confident as she should be with so many talents and natural attributes. Cooper sees this as the result of her childhood emotional neglect from both parents and to some extent her constant need for the affirmation of being loved: “Jane was one of those people in whom self-doubt rises too fast and stays too long.” Add to this Howard’s own assessment that she saw her troubles as “due to impulses which seem too strong to admit … at the time”. As Howard’s therapist Jenner Roth described her, Jane was “a bottomless pit of neediness”.

Cooper’s portrait of Howard is a faithful rendering of both writer and individual, capturing the personal plight for talented women entering male intellectual domains as feminists were taking on established male milieux. As Cooper describes it:

…by the time Jane’s third marriage was over [to Kingsley Amis], the relationship between the sexes had changed dramatically. Men like Kingsley Amis bitterly resented having to share their world with women who could be doctors and judges, who had power and autonomy, who could enter a pub without a male escort and join institutions that had hitherto been their exclusive preserve.

Interviewing Evelyn Waugh – a most reluctant interviewee – for the BBC in 1964, Howard coaxed Waugh to relax, even reveal parts of himself beyond his set of fixed questions. Yet, much in the mode of Michael Parkinson’s TV interview with Helen Mirren in 1975, Waugh took the wind out of Howard’s professional sails by asking during a reel change, “When is Miss Howard going to take off all her clothes?”

In the case of Kingsley Amis, his belittling and bitterness towards Jane for leaving him – by then an alcoholic, sexually indifferent if not impotent, and terrified of having to organise his routines for himself – carried till his last days when he refused to see her as he was dying.

Cooper is fair to both sides but, in recording Jane Howard’s experiences as a woman in love with such icons of the literary establishment as Kingsley Amis, Laurie Lee and Arthur Koestler, she is able to throw light on the fallibilities – if not plain male selfishness – of some of the best. Worst of all, Jane’s numerous affairs made her a target for criticism that she was an easy catch. Cooper writes that Jane “always found it hard to resist the advances of a confident and attentive man and seldom did.” None of which was helped by her having affairs with the husbands of at least two of her friends – Cecil Day Lewis and Robert Aickman.

There is then no surprise that Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote delicious novels that chart the domestic eras she lived through. From her first novel The Beautiful Visit, which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, to the best known of her works, the Cazalet Chronicle – a three volume work tracing the fortunes of an extended family and its connections – Howard built a collection of novels that laid bare the world she knew. The Cazalet Chronicle based loosely on her own family, follows the pre and post war world with “abortion, betrayal, illness, incest, death, nervous breakdown, lesbian love … the texture of the days”.

Howard’s characters flow from her life, more often than not with her main character an ingénue carrying the consciousness of Howard herself. An innocence that is watching and not quite part of the action. She explores the complexities of the emerging post war and pre-feminist period, the ordinary person searching for new boundaries, and encountering the psychological and emotional traps in a new freedom, much as Howard herself encountered. Howard claimed that writing was her chief means of communicating with herself – “I write to find things out, as much as, and sometimes more often than, to tell them to other people”.

This doubt about her direction and boundaries left some, such as Martin Amis, reflecting that Howard was “not that clever with people”. Whatever that meant. To Kristen Linklater, a young voice coach who took a room with Jane and her second husband Jim Douglas-Henry and also became Jim’s mistress, Jane had “this very patrician, very cool mask and you didn’t know what was going on behind it”. Perhaps that was because Jane knew what was going on with her husband or perhaps it was the “poshness” that the bitter Kingsley Amis came to loathe. Cooper leaves it to the reader to judge. But Cooper also makes the observation, when describing Jane’s expectations of her hosts to be her companions as she would have been in return, that Jane had been “brought up like the Cazalets, where the tyranny of good manners overrides every other impulse”.

Undoubtedly, the name Elizabeth Jane Howard came into focus for those who were not her readers as a result of her marriage to Kingsley Amis whose career was about to take off when they fell in love and married. The Kingsley Amis output played to a riotous fan club – his satirical novels capturing the follies and foibles of the middle class as they aged at a time when the educated ordinary could be seen to be catching up with educated elites.

In his later works, such as Girl 20, Amis sent up his marriage to Howard to the extent of letting his text record how fed up he was with Howard. In Jake’s Thing, the satirical sex therapy scenes are written from the experience of therapy sessions he went to with Jane to help his failing marriage, leaving her hurt to realise their sessions were merely a way to mock the marriage further.

Howard was at times shunned by parts of the literary establishment after her marriage to Amis ended, but she rode it out. So it is a fitting end for Cooper to note that Elizabeth Jane Howard has stood the test of time more readily than Kingsley Amis. Cooper concludes:

In her lifetime Jane was eclipsed by Kingsley Amis. Her stories about the experience of love and the conflicting demands of a woman’s life could not compete with the raw energy of his voice… Luckily women’s voices have become much stronger since then, and their lives and concerns are taken more seriously. If you go into a bookshop today you are more likely to find more books by Elizabeth Jane Howard than by Kingsley Amis.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History