Book Review: Slipstream: A Memoir by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Foxoles, Going Postal
Elizabeth Jane Howard, CBE, FRSL (26 March 1923 – 2 January 2014)

Elizabeth Jane Howard, known as Jane, was born in 1923. Her name may be familiar to various Puffins because she was briefly married to the famous naturalist and painter Peter Scott (son of Scott of the Antarctic and founder of Slimbridge wildfowl reserve) and also for eighteen years to literary giant Kingsley Amis – as well, of course, as being the author of many well-received novels, including her final very popular family saga, The Cazalet Chronicles, later filmed for television with Joanna Lumley in one of the starring roles (it was put on against Wimbledon, and then pulled citing lack of audience ratings).

Her childhood was spent in a close but slightly bonkers upper middle-class family. Educated at home in the first instance, Jane was an imaginative child encouraged to write by an appreciative governess. Several childhood happenings would probably (and some definitely) get her taken into care today. There was the time a large log set the house on fire while her mother and father were out enjoying oysters and champagne. Then there was the time her grandfather decided to paint his house in camouflage, using blue, green and pink paint. The family, while not wealthy (her father was a wood importer) was comfortable and fairly well-connected. They moved in those expansive yet restricted circles familiar from other accounts of Edwardian and WWII English society. Peregrine Worsthorne was a cousin, Lady Kennet a friend of her mother’s from before the First World War. Later in the book, everyone from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Vaughan Williams to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi puts in an appearance. Jane’s lovers included Arthur Koestler, Laurie Lee and a frankly bewildering procession of minor players. A trained actress, who appeared at Stratford among other places, she was turned down by the Wrens and spent time as a model (discovering that the man who had first promised to photograph her professionally and make her name had simply installed cameras in the changing rooms to watch the girls undress), journalist and an editor.

Slipstream reads a bit like a cross between a Barbara Taylor Bradford and something by one of the Mitfords. Aged eleven, Jane’s beloved Daddy takes her sailing at Cowes, where she is buffeted about on uncertain waves before being fed tinned crab and saying, bursting into tears ‘I don’t like sailing! I hate it!’ . Amused rather than cross, her father said it didn’t matter at all, took her ashore, bought a notebook and other presents to make up for her discomfort, and treated them both to a slap-up afternoon tea. Mother was distant, Daddy always made things better. It was a sharp shock, therefore, when one day he lunged at her, grabbing her breast and forcing on her what she later learned to call a French kiss. An incident just like this appears in book one of the Cazalet chronicles, ‘The Light Years’, and on reading it I thought, ‘I wish she hadn’t put that in. It doesn’t fit with the family at all and has obviously only been included for sensational reasons.’ Well, here it was in real life.

When, as a teenager, she met Peter Scott, he told her he had previously been very much in love with a girl but hadn’t wanted to marry her. They began to go out, and it was clear he was working up to proposing, although he worried that Jane was only nineteen. One evening, he invited her to dinner, clearly distressed but saying he didn’t want to talk. Later, he confessed that someone he had loved for a long time had just got married, and he was devastated – although he felt had no right to be and hadn’t expected to be. Remembering the previous girlfriend, Jane said she entirely understood. Oh no, he said – this was a man. Scott’s rather peculiar mother hovered in the background, triumphantly saying things like, ‘Another heart broken for Peter’, ‘If you hurt him, I should kill you and enjoy doing it’ and ‘You do know he’s only marrying you to get a son?’ Jane’s mother’s only advice, on hearing of the marriage proposal, was ‘You do know about the difficult side of marriage, I suppose?’ Jane didn’t know much, but said she did, and followed Scott as a navy wife, to half-empty coastal hotels and boarding houses where she often did not know when, or indeed if, he would return. She put on theatrical productions featuring sailors and their families to try and keep up morale. On one occasion, back at home after they were married, Lady Kennet (Scott’s mother, who had remarried) opened their bedroom door in the middle of the night and stared at the couple for what seemed like ages. She clearly disapproved. Things became strained between them, despite (or maybe because of) the birth of their daughter Nicola, which Jane coped with single-handed. While Scott was away at sea Jane became closer and closer to Scott’s half-brother Wayland. Eventually they had an affair. The marriage broke down.

This, perhaps, sets the pattern for the relationships in the rest of the book. Naive, generous, almost autistically honest, chronically insecure, Jane is a curious mix of diffident and headstrong. She briefly marries someone called Jim, as a result of their both being involved with some strange sect called the Ouspensky Society (a group for people dedicated to ‘becoming a better person’). Couples have affairs, break up, get back together; alcohol flows freely; intellectuals devote themselves to causes, musicians to self-improvement and artists try to live on next to nothing. In bohemian wartime and post War London, it would seem that anything and everything went. There was an end-of-the-world feeling as the capital struggled to get through and then get back on its feet.

Never thinking much of her looks, brought up to think of herself as gawky and odd, Jane appears nonetheless to have had a devastating effect on the male population. Men seem to pounce on her anywhere and everywhere, including the seventy-year-old actors who chaperoned her home after a performance during the blackout (she chooses instead to take her chance with the dark streets and the Czech soldiers stationed there, who apparently had a fearsome reputation for hanging around in pairs to kidnap girls prior to forcing them to have sex). In one surreal incident, a deaf and dumb cobbler proposes to her in his shop via the slate he uses to communicate, when he has never met her before and she only went in to get her shoes soled and heeled. She writes back in chalk, ‘Cannot marry anyone, must learn typing for the war.’ He shrugs and writes, ‘Don’t get bombed’.

She travels round Spain with Laurie Lee. She begins to be published, to find some success and eventually, in the sixties, arranges the first Cheltenham Literary Festival, which is where she meets Amis. They fall for each other instantly. At last, everything in her private life seems stable (at the expense of Amis’ wife and children, though his marriage is said to be already in trouble when they met). There is a searing moment when, trying to be a good stepmother, she does the whole Christmas bit, including making up Christmas stockings for his two teenage sons only to be told ‘We just want the presents’ (they later apologised). She introduced Kingsley to her agent and her publisher.

Amis himself was a notoriously prickly and difficult individual, by turns charming and impossible, and Jane’s very reasonableness seems at one point to drive him crazy (on being told of some habit she has which annoys him, she says apologetically, ‘I know, I’m trying not to’ and this conciliatory tone drives him into a further paroxysm of bile). He seemed at once to be in awe of what he called her ‘poshness’ and yet despise her for it at the same time. She, however, pegs on; on discovering Amis’s son Martin wanted to become a novelist himself, yet never read anything, she set him reading tasks and arranged his education at a crammer which led to a place at Oxford. When she began by giving Martin Pride and Prejudice to read, he came in later and said ‘You must tell me how it ends’. She explained that the whole point was to read it himself, which confirms my opinion of him as a stupid little tosser with a tremendous sense of entitlement (or, as Anna Ford once said, ‘a whinging little narcissist’). Martin Amis later said that in his opinion it would be impossible to love a stepmother, but he came very close to loving Jane (or, if you want my view, he realised she could be useful to him). She seems in fact to have tried harder with Kingsley’s children than with her own. Gradually, however, Kingsley begins to withdraw emotionally from the marriage and eventually begins to resent her furiously, accusing her for instance of destroying an article he had written on holiday (later found where he had left it, in a little-used zipper compartment of his suitcase) and, hilariously, of ‘driving on the wrong side of the road’ (grabbing the wheel and yanking them round in a circle) when he was too pie-eyed to know the difference on the way home from a party. ‘How I used to love you’, he mused once, putting his arms round her before turning on his heel and leaving the room. He would tell her that everyone might think she was nice, but he knew differently – he knew what she was really like. He accused her of interminable betrayals, including once when a Greek waiter developed an inexplicable crush on her during a cruise. No doubt drink played a part in his paranoia, and guilt about leaving his wife so suddenly as well. Terrified of being on her own, after eighteen years Jane nonetheless picks up the courage to leave and, aided by those modern standbys, psychotherapy and counselling, gets off the merry-go-round and finds a measure of calm and contentment in her final years at her new home in Suffolk, only to be taken in by a confidence trickster posing as a suitor.

Perhaps this book might have been better titled ‘Maelstrom’. Jane comes across as a searingly honest, well-meaning innocent who leaves a trail of wreckage in her wake. It is difficult book to review in many ways because it is so chock-full of incident that any review runs the risk of just being a list of happenings, or alternatively of being a superficial overview which leaves out all the hows and whys. She made some stunningly selfish decisions (choosing writing over her own baby, at one stage, for instance), yet was also tremendously kind, for example inviting a disabled young woman she knew from church to their home for a long holiday, and having Cecil Day Lewis and his wife to live with them when Cecil was dying. It is also a portrait of a world which, whilst long-gone, is still close enough to touch; on that night mentioned above when the house nearly burnt down, and her parents came home to find the children and their nurse wrapped in blankets on the lawn in the dark, followed by her mother stabbing herself badly with a knife (accidentally), her father told a telephone caller: ’Yes, we’re all fine, thank you.’

Howard lived her life believing that love, romantic or otherwise, was the only important thing, yet the pursuit of it always led her into chaos. Her personal life seems incoherent, yet her novels are beautifully-crafted. Maybe, in the end, she was just better at making sense of other people’s lives than of her own. Or maybe it can be read as a warning from an earlier era against trying to live your life on the basis of ‘feelz’.

This has been a bit of a gallop through, and I hope I have done this book justice. I did enjoy it. Her writing is gripping and page-turning throughout. If you like to read about the emotional weirdness of relationships, this is the book for you.

© Foxoles 2019


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