A few lines on Elizabeth Jane Howard


I am currently reading the novels of Elizabeth Jane Howard, one after another, on the advice of Hilary Mantel in the Guardian. (Above, a different piece from the Guardian, with Howard at 90: ‘Writing is what gets me up in the morning’.) Mantel has written the introduction to a new edition of The Long View, but the article also mentions After Julius, with the reasons why she gets her students to read them – so naturally I bought both immediately from Abe. (I know I shouldn’t.) The upshot is that I cannot imagine why it’s taken me so long to get to her, unless it’s the mimsy covers. Mantel deals with that; but then so does the interview linked in the photograph above:

In contrast to [Martin] Amis’s glittering literary career, Howard has for years been unfairly pigeonholed as someone who writes nice domestic dramas for the middle classes: not intellectual enough to be a Murdoch or Woolf or sufficiently populist to get to the top of the Amazon bestseller lists.

Being a woman of a certain era was no help either. “I seriously think women are at a disadvantage,” she says…

So let me tell you this: Elizabeth Jane Howard is terrifying. She says things you thought no one could say , and shows you things you thought no one even knew – anatomising marriage and love and loneliness, and ageing, and youth, and self-delusion, and even time. Here’s a paragraph from one of them, After Julius:

She followed him upstairs, thinking: ‘This is the last time I ever do anything like this again. In my life. The last time. Never again.’ The stairs were very steep and covered with linoleum designed to look like marble chips. The landing lights were as dim as electric lights could possibly be. Felix was carrying their luggage, and had given her the key, but when they came to the room she resented being the one to open the door, and handed the key to him. The room was adequate. There was a wash basin and a small double bed covered by a maize-coloured slippery counterpane. The walls were porridge with a frieze of what looked like tinned fruit. The curtains were not drawn; he drew them, and a curtain hook fell down. There were two chairs and a dressing table with some face powder spilled on it.There was a gas fire that needed shillings in a meter. There was a picture of two puppies tugging a ball of wool over the mantelpiece. She could no longer avoid looking at him.

(I have to say, the bit about the tinned fruit made me laugh out loud; I had to put the book down for a minute. The train of thought inevitably included the realisation that I would never have thought of that – I suppose partly because, I realise, now, it’s years since I even saw any tinned fruit, out of its can I mean.) And here is some of what Mantel says about Howard – the bit that really brings it out for me:

In her novels Howard described delusion and self-delusion. She totted up the price of lies and the price of truth. She saw damage inflicted, damage reflected or absorbed. She had learned more from Austen than from her mother. Comedy is not generated by a writer who sails to her desk saying, “Now I will be funny”. It comes from someone who crawls to her desk, leaking shame and despair, and begins to describe faithfully how things are. In that fidelity to the details of misery, one feels relish. The grimmer it is, the better it is: slowly, reluctantly, comedy seeps through.


The anxiety is about resources. Have I enough? Enough money in my purse? Enough credit with the world? … money flows in from mysterious sources. But her characters do not command those sources, nor comprehend them. Emotionally, financially, her vulnerable heroines live from hand to mouth. Even if they have enough, they do not know enough.

Jane wanted love, sexual and every kind; she said so all her life, and she was bold in saying so, because it is always taken as a confession of weakness.

This illuminates her characters – many of them it seems either lack the courage she herself had, or lack her self-knowledge, or they married men who also lack the courage or self-knowledge. Howard earned her self-knowledge the hard way, by leaving her first husband and her daughter and going to live alone and write. In the end she had to leave Kingsley Amis too. It’s not easy.

The end of After Julius is profoundly disturbing – the fugue of stories comes to a close on one after another of them and one after another they send a chill – but a chill with a ray of hope – if only she can learn… listen to herself.. figure it out… Why was everyone talking about Martin Amis all those years and not about this glorious writer who was married to – and under the shadow of – and then, in the end, never forgiven by – his father?

Aside from anything else, her prose style is wonderful. She is direct, powerful, aphoristic – not in a bad way, but in the sense of a sudden moment of realisation. She puts some realisations into the minds of her characters at frankly eviscerating moments, and withholds others completely. Her sentences are almost perfect. You can really see that Mantel has been reading her. And, you know, Martin Amis says nice things about her prose style but when he calls her an ‘instinctivist’ (in direct relation to being a woman!) he shows himself up: it’s faint praise.

The great critic Northrop Frye, in a discussion of Milton’s elegy Lycidas, made the distinction between real sincerity and literary sincerity. When told of the death of a friend, the poet can burst into tears, but he cannot burst into song. I would very cautiously suggest that there is more ‘song’ in women’s fiction – more real sincerity, and less tradition-conscious artifice. This is certainly true of Elizabeth Jane Howard. She was an instinctivist, with a freakishly metaphorical eye and a sure ear for rhythmically fast-moving prose.

While we’re on the subject there’s this quote from an interview Howard did with the books blog, Bookanista. The book she refers to obliquely is The Long View, her second (I think) novel, which begins killingly in 1951 at a catastrophic moment in a woman’s life, and section by section works painfully back to 1926, and her first love affair:

“Everybody told me I couldn’t write a book backwards. Many years later Martin writes a book called Time’s Arrow and everybody says ‘Goodness, a book written backwards – it’s a new idea!’”

Anyway, there’s a lot going on. And in the middle of it all I’m having my year of reading novels. I’ve got the Cazalet series to go yet (her best-known work, I’m told, the latest, but I’d not even heard of them) – and I really feel I’m interested in all the others… and she wrote a memoir…

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