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Elizabeth Jane Howard


A Memoir

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
This book was published in 2002, when its author was nearly eighty, so it spans most of her life. She gives her reasons for writing in a preface.
Why write about one's life? Because of the times one has lived through, the people met and known and loved? To show how interesting, virtuous, or entertaining one has been or become? Or to trace one's inward journey -- whatever kind of evolution there has been between the wrinkled howling baby and the wrinkled old crone?
She explains the choice of her title like this.
Speaking as a very slow learner, I feel I have lived most of my life in the slipstream of experience. Often I have had to repeat the same disastrous situation several times before I got the message. That is still happening. I do not write this book as a wise, mature, finished person who has learned all the answers, but rather as someone who even at this late stage of seventy-nine years is still trying to change, to find things out and do a bit better with them.
This is actually a pretty fair description of the book, much of which is concerned with Howard's numerous romantic involvements, mostly with married men. She herself was married three times, first to Peter Scott, the son of 'Scott of the Antarctic', when she was 19. They had a daughter, Nicola, with whom Howard was to have a difficult relationship for many years. Her marriage ran into problems, especially after she fell in love with Peter's brother, Wayland, and they were divorced nine years later. She married Jim Douglas-Henry in 1958 but the marriage was brief. In 1965 she married Kingsley Amis; they were divorced in 1983.

Howard is probably best known today for her connection with Amis. They were evidently much in love at the beginning but Amis fell out of love and behaved cruelly to her later, matters being made worse by his increasingly heavy drinking. Her account of this is honest and lacking in self-pity but all the more poignant for that.

Howard was beautiful and immensely attractive to men, as is evident from her many relationships as well as her photographs. Among the other writers and poets she was involved with were Robert Aickman, with whom she wrote We Are for the Dark, Arthur Koestler, Laurie Lee, and Cecil Day-Lewis. In all these affairs she was driven less by sexual desire than by the wish to love and be loved fully and completely, and her recurrent failures to achieve this enhanced her perpetual tendency to self-doubt.

There is a good deal of unhappiness in this book but no self-pity and the general effect is not depressing. And there are lighter moments, not to say farce. Sir Malcolm Sargent came for a drink; while Hardy was out of the room for a moment he removed his trousers. Finding him in this state on her return, Howard told him that anything like that was out of the question. "Unabashed, he put on his trousers again. He did hope I hadn't misunderstood him, he said as he left. I wondered what he meant."

A similar encounter occurred with Jonathan Cape, who invited her to lunch but implied that his acceptance of her first novel might not be unconditional. "'Of course, I could change my mind,' he said, as he pursued me round the table. Fortunately it had sharp corners that I was more agile at negotiating than he. In the end he gave up gracefully, the waters closed over the incident, and it was never repeated."

For a time in the 1950s Howard was a member of the Ouspensky Society, an esoteric group founded by P.D. Ouspensky and based on the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff. It was at one of their meetings that she encountered Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement. She became actively involved in TM but eventually she stopped meditating because she decided it was leading towards detachment from life and this she did not want.

Howard has a gift for bringing scenes to life with a word or two. Particularly in the early chapters she often tells us what things smelled like, which implies a remarkably vivid memory. And I loved some of her idiosyncratic descriptive touches, as when on a visit to Massachusetts she was taken to see the beavers. "Presently a beaver swam from his island nest and drifted slowly along the dam. He was testing it for leaks, Bob said. The beaver's expression implied that a leak was unlikely."

In her final years Howard settled in Suffolk, where she suffered several illnesses, including cancer and arthritis. But she continued to write novels almost up to her death at the age of 90. One of these, Falling, is based on her own experience of being taken in by a conman, a trap from which she was saved by her family and friends who researched the man's background. She established a nature reserve at her Suffolk home.

The book includes an index, which is useful, and a 'Cast of Characters', which is less so.


%T Slipstream
%S A Memoir
%A Howard, Elizabeth Jane
%I Macmillan
%C London
%D 2002
%G ISBN 0-333-90349-8
%P xxvi+491pp
%K autobiography
%O hardback, illustrated`

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