I'm not sure if Elizabeth Jane Howard would approve of the reason I chose this book to read: it was because I had read and so much enjoyed Elspeth Huxley's wonderful biography of Peter Scott Peter Scott: Painter and Naturalist and thought it might be interesting to see things from another angle - as EJH was Scott's first, very young wife - she was 19 when they married in 1942.
I commented in my review of that book, that Peter Scott seems to have met everyone, and EJH surpasses him in that. She reels off an astonishing string of famous names from Laurens Van der Post to the Queen Mother and Louis de Bernieres, who were friends, acquaintances, or lovers, including of course her third husband, Kingley Amis. But like Martha Gellhorn whose life and writing stands independently of her husband Ernest Hemingway, EJH's life and writing merit attention in their own right.
The memoir begins with young family life, grandparents, parents, cousins, dogs and horses, a secure, privileged life. In fact one of the aspects of the book I found fascinating was the class awareness, reflecting the assumptions of those born in the 1920's who had servants, and couldn't actually regard the lower classes as being the same species. It is always a generous and benevolent attitude, never snobbish, but the divide is obvious - I chortled frequently at sentences like: "Then Gaia Mostyn-Owen, who had a charming little castle outside Edinburgh, invited the Temple-Muirs and us to lunch." People are always inviting people to stay in far flung places, villas and mansions, for weeks on end, no doubt secure in the knowledge that cleaners and cooks would pick up the slack.
There is a tragic-comic section towards the end when "a man from a council house" professes love to the author in her 70's, and she is almost taken in until discovering he is a con man.
What is wonderful about the book to me, is the description of a progression towards old age. As a young woman EJH was a positive magnet to men, she was continually propositioned and seduced by married men - an idyllic three weeks in Spain with Laurie Lee being an outstanding example - by her definition she faced financial and emotional struggles, and certainly in her old age, the tragedy of declining health is bravely and honestly documented. It seems to me impossible not to finish the book with an absolute admiration of this woman who has been so honest with herself and her readers about her many failings, including her inability to bond with her daughter who was more or less brought up by others - what would nowadays almost certainly be diagnosed as post natal depression.
It is not surprising that the author ended up in long periods of therapy. The absolutely shocking episode with her father, her problems with food and her very young marriage to a man whose mother possessed the strongest of iron wills, would have given the most phlegmatic woman too much to deal with.
Like all good books, or books which we find we enjoy the most, there are phrases that particularly strike a chord with me: "a chief feature of guilt is paralysis," "love seemed to me the most desirable, the most important of human emotions," "there is a great difference between wanting to be a writer and wanting to write," "love is not an ever-fixed mark by arrangement."
There was a time when EJH tried meditation and decided not to pursue it, as she felt that it would result in a detachment from life: whereas its purpose is in fact to make you fully aware of each moment. She says "a disagreeable feature of being unhappy is an incapacity to live in the present" - and meditation addresses that.
In spite of the health problems she has suffered, Elizabeth Jane Howard ends with a positive attitude to ageing and the limitations it has imposed. She is determined to live with curiosity and interest for the rest of her life, and I am sure that she will succeed. She is still a very beautiful woman.
EJH states that a reviewer is there to tell people what they might like to read and why, so probably won't like this one...I should also add one last point, the book is frequently very funny.
Elizabeth Jane Howard is one of my favourite writers and here she gives us, honestly and without dissimulation, the story of her life so far. In her eighties now, she has a lot of life to go over. Her childhood was fraught, her mother cold and quite unashamedly biased towards her sons rather than her awkward but highly intelligent daughter. Her father was a sybarite, loving and charming, but in her adolescence Jane was prey to his inappropriate gropings which understandably soured their relationship. She married Peter Scott, naturalist and navy man, but this was not a particularly successful marriage. Nevertheless they had a daughter; although EJH seemed destined to repeat her own mother's mistakes by palming her off on a nanny.
The matter of class comes to the fore in considering much of EJH's life. Upper-middle and arty, her milieu was one of easy relationships and friendships. She had affairs with Cecil Day Lewis, Arthur Koestler and Laurie Lee, but only the last of these seems to have been sexually rewarding. All this occurred while she was struggling to write her first couple of novels, which were rather indifferently received by the reading public. Her struggles with houses and gardens and money are documented entertainingly, but slightly tainted with her other-worldly social attitudes. She is never without domestic help throughout and unless she has left a great deal out of this account it appears that the natural elements of life, such as one's children, can only be handled at arms length.
Her marriage to Kingsley Amis (her third marriage) is reported without self-justification. EJH takes the blame for much of what happened, though it is clear to the reader that Amis was a drunken misogynist, much happier with his right-wing chums than his hapless family and it is a relief for all when she gives up her martyrdom and leaves him.
The writing throughout this not entirely comfortable tale is faultless and open, with very little vanity or self-consciousness displayed. EJH is a skilful, intelligent and un-showy writer and her story is deeply interesting to those who value insight into the artistic and literary life in England during the last half of the last century.
on 3 March 2003
I was curious, as I'd read Martin Amis' Experience and wanted to learn more about his beautiful and celebrated step-mother, Elizabeth Jane Howard. And, despite not having read any of her books, I was not disappointed. She writes with great candour and, at times, unflinching honesty. She is generous to those she loved, whether or not that love was returned. She writes movingly of her many friends, and of the power of such friendships. She can also be very funny. The book, though succinct, gathers a powerful momentum. I was moved by the unsentimental accounts of the deaths of those closest to her. It's all in the detail. Now I'm looking forward to reading her novels.
on 28 March 2003
I wanted to read this after seeing a serialisation of it in one of the Sunday papers, which concentrated on the relationship between the author and Kingsley Amis. Once dipped in, I was totally immersed. The characters are so finely drawn and I thought the whole thing raised many issues about feminism, art, relationships and psychology without referring to them directly or being very opinionated. I thought the author showed a great deal of humility and generosity to the other characters in her life and many of her experiences struck a chord with me. She made decisions and choices in her life diametrically opposed to what I would do, and yet wrote about it in such a way to keep me sympathetic to her. She has made me want to communicate with her directly.
There is a satisfying wholeness to this autobiography because it encompasses a life of nearly 80 years, taking you through all the phases - not just a crowing of some one who's made it and still has half their life to go.
on 1 September 2003
This is a very honest and moving account of the life of a remarkable lady. I had never heard of Elizabeth Jane howard before I picked up this book, but once I had picked it up I couldn't put it down! It starts off slowly with her early life and the difficult relationship between Elizabeth and her mother, but quickly picks up after moving away from home.
She comes across to start with as very naive when it comes to relationships and speaks very openly about motherhood and her early relationship with her daughter.
Elizabeth Jane Howard has some remarkable friends and all though I had not heard of her before most of her friends, lovers and acquaintances are giants in the literary world. Cecil Day-louis, Arthur Koestler, Louis st Bernieres and of course her third husband Kingsley Amis, to name just a few.
Although her relationship with Kingley Amis lasted over eighteen years it ended badly, and thier differences were not resolved before his death. However Elizabeth Jane Howard speaks about him with great affection regardless.
I enjoyed this book so much that I have now bought a copy of Kingley Amis' boigraphy to hear his side of the story!
This book is a must for fans of biography and literature.
on 31 May 2015
This autobiography comes over as honest and disturbing and fascinating. It is hard to say how much a victim she is or how much she is the author of her own exploitation. She says repeatedly how guilty she feels but does not modify or change her behaviour which shows a complete lack insight into it or the havoc it may reek on others, including so called friends and her own daughter.
I did wonder how many of those named, their partners and children are still living as there is a lot of the "Kiss and Tell" element to this memoir. Throughout I got the picture of a self-centred person, with little or no moral compass who had the right connections, and who was also vunerable to being used and exploited.
It has made want to read more of her work.
on 12 June 2014
I have been a fan of Elizabeth-Jane Howard for many years, and was hoping to enjoy her memoirs in equal measure. However, in spite of an interesting insight into her family life and upbringing, I was left cold by her endless descriptions of her various lovers as well as her justification for the evident upheaval this caused to the wives. Her life seems to have been spent constantly looking for love without ever feeling regret for the damage she caused.
Not what I was hoping for.
Highly recommended for all writers out there, this is inspirational. Not in the sense that she has so many wonderful things to say about writing and technique, but really in that Elizabeth Jane Howard had so many of the ordinary and difficult things going on and yet managed to produce quality writing.
She came from what many would call a privileged background, yet it was so emotionally faulty. She dropped into acting and never really made a success of it, then flitted from job to job. You could say she also flitted from relationship to relationship and the developing story of what a damaged person she was is very touching.
It is true that she was lucky to meet so many people who were famous, useful to her career, or both, but somehow there is always a sadness in the background; she wasn't a user and self-promoter and often felt that she wasn't able to relate to these people as she would ideally have wished.
In some ways she comes across as so very ordinary a person, and that is refreshing. What is deeply saddening is the way she shows herself as being a subject of the men in her life; she came from the time when to be a woman meant to be subject to men, putting them first and leaving your own needs aside.
She draws some beautiful pictures of her contemporaries, but you also realise just how many predatorial men there were out there, and know instinctively that there still are.
The chapters that cover the thirties and forties are worth reading for her depiction of the harsh realities of day to day living. You can't imagine people being able to exist on so little now, or how they might manage to keep a working life going in the places she describes having lived in.
The fifties and sixties and rising affluence takes us into much more middle-class territory and this is really where the "names" come into their own. And as the book progresses, we arrive with the author at a greater understanding of herself.
It's a good read, well worth a few nights staying up late for.
Elizabeth Jane Howard's autobiography 'Slipstream' is a brave, honest and a very straight-talking memoir of a long and full life. Born in 1923 into a comfortably-off family living in Kensington, Elizabeth Jane Howard had a rather difficult relationship with her mother (the daughter of a well-known composer and who gave up a dancing career with the Ballets Russes when she married), but EJH adored her father, an adoration that was tempered with fear and confusion when he began making amorous advances towards her when she reached the age of fifteen. At the age of seventeen, with ambitions of becoming an actress, she persuaded her parents to let her join a student rep company, and at the age of nineteen she married the much-older Peter Scott, the son of the polar explorer, and gave birth to a daughter, Nicola. EJH struggled with motherhood (her daughter was brought up by a succession of nannies - a situation which has caused the author feelings of guilt and lasting regret) and her marriage was soon in trouble after she had an affair with Peter's younger brother, Wayland. After several further affairs (including relationships with Laurie Lee, Arthur Koestler, Romain Gary and [to her lasting shame] Cecil Day-Lewis - the husband of her dear friend, Jill Balcon), a second failed marriage, and the publication of her novels, 'The Beautiful Visit' (which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1951), 'The Long View' and 'The Sea Change', EJH met and fell in love with the writer Kingsley Amis, who was married with three children. Once Amis's divorce came through they married, but after an initial period of married bliss, the marriage encountered difficulties, not least caused by Amis's heavy drinking and, after eighteen years, EJH left him for a life on her own.
There is, of course, a huge amount more to Elizabeth Jane Howard's life than I have mentioned here, including life after Amis and the late arrival into her life of a sociopathic conman whose past history was fortunately discovered before too much harm was done (the relationship between them inspired her to write her marvellous novel 'Falling'). Ms Howard mentions in her preface that she is a slow learner who feels as if she has lived her life in the slipstream of experience, often having to repeat the same disastrous situation several times before getting the message, and she has been very candid in sharing her life experiences with her readers - even those parts of her past history that cast her in a less than attractive light. However, whatever the reader might feel about certain aspects of Ms Howard's past life, it is impossible (for this reader, anyhow) not become caught up in her unflinching, hugely interesting and totally absorbing account. An exquisitely written autobiography and one I find easy to recommend.
on 22 July 2013
Fairly enjoyable, but what a life! Every few pages -oh dear, another married man to have an affair with.
I became exasperated with her.
It didn't make her happy, but she was unable to stop.
She behaved appallingly to her daughter, but judged other parents. She judged others morals, but had none of her own.
A woman with no self knowledge and no sense. However, she made no excuses for herself which allowed me to continue reading.
I don't like her, but she had an interesting life.