Bi­og­ra­phy

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El­iz­a­beth Jane Howard: A Dan­ger­ous In­no­cence

Artemis Cooper (John Mur­ray, £25)

EL­iz­a­beth Jane Howard’s lit­er­ary life was a po­tent cock­tail of writ­ing and sex. Her im­pres­sive ca­reer re­sulted in 15 nov­els—in­clud­ing her pop­u­lar ‘The Caza­let Chron­i­cles’—not to men­tion her work as a jour­nal­ist, an edi­tor for Chatto & Win­dus and artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Chel­tenham Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val. along­side these, and form­ing the meat of this riv­et­ing bi­og­ra­phy, Jane en­gaged in a string of love af­fairs, more of­ten than not with mem­bers of the literati, in­clud­ing arthur Koestler, Ce­cil Day-lewis, Lau­rie Lee and Kings­ley amis, whom she mar­ried.

artemis Cooper’s thor­ough, il­lu­mi­nat­ing ac­count draws on Jane’s own writ­ing—her frank and re­veal­ing mem­oir Slip­stream (2002)—as well as her per­sonal cor­re­spon­dence and pri­vate pa­pers, in­ter­views and journalism. Miss Cooper takes care not to oc­clude Jane’s voice; in­stead, she sets the stage for her sub­ject to speak.

So, in Jane’s own words, we en­joy, for in­stance, the hi­lar­ity of her sex­ual awakening at the skilled hands of (a mar­ried) Lee in Spain be­ing some­what un­der­mined by need­ing the loo: ‘Des­per­ate, i tried a door which re­vealed a mid­dleaged and com­pletely bald man dressed only in a pair of black boots. He was an­gry, and then noth­ing like an­gry enough. i fled down­stairs to the ground floor where there was the din­ing room or res­tau­rant. i was wear­ing a night dress and cardi­gan…

‘The din­ing room was huge, brightly lit and ab­so­lutely full of men eat­ing enor­mous hot din­ners. Si­lence be­gan to fall and in­creased to a breath­less hush as i seized the near­est waiter by his sleeve and whis­pered “toi­letta?” at him. He smiled, em­bar­rassed, but even­tu­ally he got the point and in­di­cated a sort of kiosk nearly in the cen­tre of the room. it was small, vaguely round, and its walls stopped short a good foot from the floor. You could have heard a grain of rice drop as i made my way to­wards this goal, which was in­deed a lava­tory, of a kind.’

Miss Cooper notes that, in Slip­stream, Jane wrote pre­dom­i­nantly about her love af­fairs rather than her nov­els: ‘The ques­tion that ab­sorbs her is why she made so many mis­takes in her re­la­tion­ships.’ The same ques­tion ab­sorbs Miss Cooper. She re­calls in­ter­view­ing her sub­ject: ‘“i think you’re ob­sessed with my sex life,” she said sadly at one point. i blushed fu­ri­ously and changed the sub­ject. i wasn’t ob­sessed re­ally, just fas­ci­nated.’

Fas­ci­nated in­deed—not just for the juicy sto­ries, but for the ques­tion that drives this bi­og­ra­phy: ‘How could this nov­el­ist, who wrote with such in­sight about men and women and what they do to each other, have taken her­self through such bouts of emo­tional tur­moil that in­vari­ably ended in dis­as­ter?’

not­ing the fre­quency with which Jane’s life resur­faces in her nov­els, her bi­og­ra­pher sug­gests, ‘she had to turn her ex­pe­ri­ences into fic­tion be­fore she could make sense of them’. She also draws at­ten­tion to Jane’s re­peated use of ‘the char­ac­ter of the in­génue’, posit­ing: ‘This child­like fig­ure is the self she was so des­per­ate to re­claim, the per­son she felt she had been be­fore her mis­takes had turned her into a glam­orous, dis­con­tented femme fa­tale. if she could find the right man and marry him, she knew the heal­ing process would start at once.’

‘a Dan­ger­ous in­no­cence’, the book’s sub­ti­tle, high­lights the threat posed by this in­génue. Jane’s naïvety when it came to love proved per­ilous, not just for the many men who fell for her (and their wives), but also for her­self. Her ‘in­sa­tiable de­sire for love and af­fec­tion’ left her open to dis­ap­point­ment time and again; even in her sev­en­ties, she was taken in by a con­man. Hers was a dan­ger­ous in­no­cence in­deed, but it makes for a wild ride—and a scin­til­lat­ing read—of a life.

Jane’s naïvety in love proved per­ilous

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