I had worried that meeting Elizabeth Jane Howard might be a slightly melancholy experience. Whilst her novels have sold in their millions and she counts Hilary Mantel among her fans, she has never quite received the acclaim she deserves. In spite of this and the fact that at 90 she is now quite frail, there is nothing remotely melancholy about Jane, as everyone calls her. Her mind is as sharp as a tack as we talk in her lovely bright blue house in Bungay, Suffolk.
“It’s in its second edition, you know,” she says of her latest novel All Change, the fifth book in her much-loved Cazalet Chronicles series. It was only published the previous week. She says of finishing a novel, “It’s a very short time of euphoria, when you feel you’ve done something that’s worked. It’s a lovely feeling, it’s probably one of the best feelings in the world. It’s probably one of the reasons why lots of people write… I’m very frightened of writing. You’ve got to be pretty nervous about the challenge, the blank page – anything could be on it, it could be crap or it could be wonderful.”
She wrote All Change in a year and says, “I had a steady regime, which is what I wanted. I’ve been looking after other people all my life, as women do…”
I say that I think that’s changing.
“It will take a very, very long time,” she counters. “We all need to be much more aware and aggressive about smug politicians saying equality reigns. It doesn’t at all – it doesn’t really in terms of equal pay and they’ve been saying that since 1945, equal pay for equal work, and it’s an absolute nonsense, we don’t have that. And women are expected to cope with a household and go to work.”
We talk about the women in her novels, who often seem to have a rotten time. I mention the character Louise Cazalet who is shunned by her stepmother in All Change.
“That happened to me, with my stepmother,” she declares. “She’s dead now. I wish she could read it! She was jealous of me because my father loved me. ‘My two favourite women,’ he kept saying, tactlessly… and I think my father was a very enthusiastic though very bad lover. I don’t think he was awfully good at satisfying women. I don’t think it entered his head. I think she thought she was going to have a rich life with servants and she thought she was going to have an exciting time in bed which she didn’t get.”
I suggest this is quite a generous insight about such a direct antagonist.
“It isn’t generous of me, it’s the novelist in me,” she insists. “You can’t be a novelist if you can’t see both sides. You have to have a very open view of both people’s state of mind.”
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!’”
We talk about some of her own lovers. She says that her third husband Kingsley Amis and Cecil Day-Lewis, with whom she had an affair, were the only people she could talk to about writing: “You have to have enormous trust in the person and they have to be on your wavelength.” She adds that another partner, Arthur Koestler, the writer of Darkness at Noon, “had a terrifying energy, a fizzing energy. He stopped the French being Communist and after that he slept with a gun by his bed. He was very brave, he had been in three prisons: the French was the worst, the Spanish was pretty bad – he was told he was going to be shot every day – and then when he got to prison in England he said it was like being in the Ritz, it was so nice!”
She has said that she didn’t feel she could write books and be in love at the same time. I ask if she thinks a man could. “Yes”, she says and quotes from Byron’s Don Juan: “‘Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart, ’Tis woman’s whole existence.’ You have to put writing first and I can now, there’s no earthly reason why I shouldn’t. But if I was mooning after someone and waiting for their letter I wouldn’t be focused. I wasted a lot of my life on men but I think a lot of women novelists have. I think of Charlotte and Mr Héger, she wasted a lot of angst on that. And Anne with her curate, George Eliot and her Lewes.”
In Howard’s case it seems she was ill-equipped to deal with her own beauty. Alongside this, she has been exceptionally unlucky with some of the men she has met: an early boyfriend stubbed out cigarettes on her body; Kingsley Amis said that meeting her was the worst thing that ever happened to him; and one would-be suitor removed his trousers whilst they were having a friendly drink. Worse than all of this to my mind is the psychiatrist who she had started to open up to in her early twenties who then assaulted her. She does not downplay the memory of this appalling betrayal today, saying, “The worst thing was that there was no one I could tell, it was very frightening, like a bad dream. I don’t think my generation was very well equipped to deal with life and this was compounded by the war, which started when I was sixteen. There were enormous numbers of sex-starved troops all over the place. We were rather thrown to the wolves and we had a sort of gay time which was very punctuated by friends dying which happened all the time. I wasn’t grown-up, I was a very slow learner.”
In spite of this, it’s clear that she has a great appetite for fun. She tells me that Philip Amis, Martin’s elder brother is “very funny, much funnier than Kingsley. He was a brilliant mimic. Kingsley was too, he once made a man on a motorbike jolt back quickly because he made a noise like it starting up!” She also says of her brother Colin, known as Monkey, “He was frightfully naughty. He was caught dancing naked on the billiard table and before anyone could say anything he said ‘Ha ha, what next will I do?!’ And he hated wearing clothes, he’d be crossly putting them on and saying ‘my loathsome clothes…’”
Of being a stepmother to Philip and Martin, she admits, “I was in a no-win situation. I wasn’t up to it, I made mistakes, I got it wrong. I should have been stronger with Kingsley about backing me up but he never did. I was the person nagging them. Philip always hated me, I think he hated all his family at one point.”
She encouraged Martin to become a writer but today wryly says, “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!’”
I ask her about writers she doesn’t like. She mentions sotto voce a Booker Prize winner I promise not to name. I admit that I didn’t finish one of his lavishly-praised novels on my first attempt. “Yes, there’s a Page Six Society for that!” she laughs. “He’s not for me… V.S. Naipaul however is a good writer. He is a filthy man, I hate him, but he’s a good writer and one has to say that. But he is a nasty bit of work.”
She tells me she loves Rohinton Mistry and that I must read his novels. I feel as though I would take Elizabeth Jane Howard’s advice on almost anything: she is the most honest and clear-sighted person imaginable. As she talks about other writers she has met, I say that her ability to see through other people seems matched by her ability to see through herself. I can’t conceive of how difficult this is or that it might be something I can try until she says, “Well I’ve spent thirty years trying to do that and it’s very useful. I don’t think you can help other people until you’ve helped yourself, which is what I started to realise when I was about 40. If you hate yourself, you judge everybody in order to make them as awful as you.”
Elizabeth Jane Howard is the author of twelve acclaimed novels and the memoir Slipstream (2002). Her previous Cazalet Chronicles, Casting Off, The Light Years, Making Time and Confusion were adapted for TV by the BBC as The Cazalets, and most recently by BBC Radio 4. The novels are all published by Mantle, and the memoir by Pan. Read more.
Alex Peake-Tomkinson is a contributing editor at Bookanista and writes book reviews and features for the Mail on Sunday, the TLS and the Daily Telegraph.
Listen to an extract from the All Change audiobook, read by Penelope Wilton: