Elizabeth Jane Howard: jade perfection and complete dedication

Many writers can fire a literary ambition. Elizabeth Jane Howard quenched mine. When I read The Long View, at the age of 23 or so, I realised that I would never write anything of such subtlety and penetration: there was no point in even hoping to write a novel if this was the standard of excellence. Later, I came to understand that there are many books worth writing that are not as good as hers. Later still, I met her in the course of writing a profile of her for this paper.

What had first attracted me to Howard’s books was the jade perfection of the style. Consider the last sentence of the first paragraph of The Long View:

She was old then, already, still beautiful, with exquisite manners: she cooked me a sole for lunch.

The manners were one way of approaching Howard’s excellence as a writer. It was built on close attention. I was of interest primarily as someone who could help her to sell books – and she did send me a treasured note after the piece was published – but there was a sense in which her interest was not entirely instrumental. She wanted to know about people because they mattered.

It was the sort of unoriginal thought expected of Mrs Fleming and she duly sank to the occasion.

The point is not so much the elegant inversion of sinking to an occasion, but the way that it caps the argument of the whole paragraph – in a sense the argument of the whole book. Mrs Fleming is arranging a meal to celebrate her daughter’s engagement. She knows the fiance is the wrong man and that the results will be disastrous. She can look back – the long view – at the way her own life has been almost extinguished by the bullying and lack of attention to the quiddities of the heart that conventions make possible. Yet still she moves with the dreadful dance and hands her daughter along to the next partner.

To write this book, Howard had left her first husband and her daughter, from whom she was estranged for decades as a result. But The Long View is not a flamboyant rebellion. It is full of an unsparing kindness.

Two large chub lurked under the wooden footbridge. She fed a widower swan which approached us very slowly up the narrow stream. She knew, of course, the bird’s past history. The apple and willow trees that overhang the stream often hid the body of the swan in its journey, so we could only see the reflection float slowly towards us, upside down.

Its feathers were the purest white that I have ever seen. Normally swans have a dirty, aggressive yellow tinge to them close up. But this one was almost luminous.

I had gone to see her because she had published an autobiography. I didn’t, and don’t think that her life was as interesting as her books: her characters are more vivid than her lovers, which is how a writer should be. But it made for easy copy. She had been married to Kingsley Amis, wonderfully to start with, and horribly at the end. I remember the most admiring thing she said about him – that he never made excuses for anyone, including himself.

The best part of the day came after the formal interview. We walked in her wonderful garden, which merged into a meadow that ran down past the River Waveney. I made notes that evening:

Like Mann, Howard worked until almost the end and more, even, than her books I will remember the patient, humble, constant dedication to their art that these two friends showed. Because Howard’s books sold well, and perhaps because they dealt largely with the lives of the kind of people who buy books, a certain unfashionability attached to her. But I don’t think I have ever met a writer more simple.