11 minute read

Elizabeth Jane Howard Biography

Elizabeth Jane Howard comments:

Nationality: British. Born: London, 1923. Educated privately; trained as an actress at the London Mask Theatre School and with the Scott Thorndike Student Repertory; acted in Stratford-on-Avon, and in repertory theatre in Devon. Military Service: Served as an air raid warden in London during World War II. Career: Worked as a model, and in radio and television broadcasting, 1939-46; secretary, Inland Waterways Association, London, 1947-50; editor, Chatto and Windus Ltd., London, 1953-56, and Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd., London, 1957; book critic, Queen magazine, London, 1957-60. Honorary artistic director, Cheltenham Literary Festival, 1962; co-artistic director, Salisbury Festival, 1973. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature. Lives in Suffolk. Awards: Rhys Memorial prize, 1951; Yorkshire Post award, 1983. Agent: Jonathan Clowes Ltd., Iron Bridge House, Bridge Approach, London NW1 8BD, England.



The Beautiful Visit. London, Cape, and New York, Random House, 1950.

The Long View. London, Cape, and New York, Reynal, 1956.

The Sea Change. London, Cape, 1959; New York, Harper, 1960.

After Julius. London, Cape, 1965; New York, Viking Press, 1966.

Something in Disguise. London, Cape, 1969; New York, VikingPress, 1970.

Odd Girl Out. London, Cape, and New York, Viking Press, 1972.

Getting It Right. London, Hamish Hamilton, and New York, VikingPress, 1982.

The Light Years. London, Macmillan, and New York, Pocket Books, 1990.

Making Time. London, Macmillan, and New York, Pocket Books, 1991.

Confusion. London, Macmillan, and New York, Pocket Books, 1993.

Anemones. Memphis, Tennessee, Grandmother Earth Creations, 1998.

Short Stories

We Are for the Dark: Six Ghost Stories with Robert Aickman. London, Cape, 1951.

Mr. Wrong. London, Cape, 1975; New York, Viking Press, 1976.



The Very Edge, 1963; Getting It Right, 1989.

Television Plays:

The Glorious Dead (Upstairs, Downstairs series), 1974; Skittles (Victorian Scandals series), 1976; Sight Unseen (She series), 1977; After Julius, from her own novel, 1979; Something in Disguise, from her own novel, 1980.


Bettina: A Portrait, with Arthur Helps. London, Chatto and Windus, and New York, Reynal, 1957.

Howard and Maschler on Food, with Fay Maschler. London, Joseph, 1987.

Cooking for Occasion, with Fay Macshler. London, Macmillan, 1994.

Editor, The Lover's Companion: The Pleasure, Joys, and Anguish of Love. Newton Abbot, Devon, David and Charles, 1978.

Editor, Green Shades: An Anthology of Plants, Gardens, and Gardeners. London, Aurum Press, 1990.


I consider myself to be in the straight tradition of English novelists. I do not write about "social issues or values"—I write simply about people, by themselves and in relation to one another. The first aim of a novel should be readability. I do not write (consciously, at least) about people whom I know or have met.

My methods are to be able to write in one sentence what my novel is to be about, to test this idea for several months, and then to invent situations that will fit the theme. I make the people last—to suit the situations. I write only one draught and rarely make any alterations to it. Occasional cutting has sometimes seemed necessary. I write about 300 words a day with luck and when I am free to do so. I do it chiefly because it is the most difficult thing that I have ever tried to do.

I began by writing plays when I was 14. Before that I wrote 400 immensely dull pages (since destroyed) about a horse. I have also written a film script of The Sea Change with Peter Yates, but this has not yet been produced. I would very much like to write a good play, and, indeed, come to that, a first rate novel.

* * *

Elizabeth Jane Howard's novels are distinguished by sharp and sensitive perceptions about people—their loves, their guilts, the damage they wittingly or unwittingly do to others. Sometimes, the perceptions are worked into satirical set pieces, like the treatment of a group of feckless post-Oxford young people sponging in London in Something in Disguise. Often the satire is more gentle and generous, like that of the patriotic major in After Julius who combines long, boring speeches about the past with silent sensitivity to the human dramas around him. Howard's protagonists, often simple, gentle young girls from a variety of backgrounds, are treated with a great deal of sympathy, with respect for their quiet intelligence and their capacity to feel for others. Any tendency toward the mawkish or sentimental is carefully controlled by a prose that works on sharp and often comic juxtapositions of images: the heavy-handed Colonel, trying to appear sympathetic to others in Something in Disguise, is "about as jocular and useless as the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Lion," in The Sea Change a young actress tries desperately to impress a playwright by showing a knowledge of his plays, "broadcasting her innocuous opinions like weed killer on a well kept lawn," the repressed and deferential hairdresser who is the central character in Getting It Right begins by noticing a wealthy and demanding client whose face has the "apoplectic bloom of unpeeled beetroot" and eyes "the shade of well-used washing-up water," and then proceeds, in a moment of personal conflict, to discover his mind like a "partially disused branch railway line."

The careful control visible in Howard's prose is also apparent in the structure of her novels. Sometimes, as in all of The Sea Change and most of After Julius, the novel consists of alternate narrations from the point of view of a small number of closely connected characters. Each episode is seen from at least two points of view, started by one character, taken up by the next who then moves the narrative on a little further until a third character takes it up. In After Julius the action of the novel is confined to a three-day week-end, although most of the characters are engaged in sorting out casual connections of current problems to the heroic death of Julius at Dunkerque twenty years earlier. Something in Disguise compresses action into three segments: April, August, and December of a single year. The Long View begins with a marriage breaking up in 1950 and its consequences for the couple's children, then traces the marriage back, through several precisely dated stages of problem and uneasy reconciliation, to its desperate origin in 1926. The past invariably leads to the present in Howard's fictional world, and the structural control often indicates both a working out of causation in human affairs and a kind of moral control, an insistence on a combination of awareness, responsibility, and refusal to hurt others in order to end the painful isolation of contemporary dilemmas.

More tightly controlled, and showing characters able to resolve their dilemmas more positively than do some other novels, After Julius depends, to some extent, on a rather striking coincidence. A young woman, visiting her mother for the week-end, finds her London lover, whom she had thought in Rome, arriving, with his wife, for dinner, and the affair explodes in a scene where fireworks are literal as well as symbolic. The structured plot shapes a novel in which moral or immoral actions eventually reveal themselves, in which moral judgment insists that characters take publicly visible responsibility for their actions. Similarly, in Odd Girl Out the young girl, amoral from a conventional point of view, who visits a young couple who have established a self-sufficient "island" in ten years of marriage and, in turn, sleeps with each of the partners, refuses to lie and insists on confronting both together to try to establish the "truth" of a three-way love that could nourish a child. Although the ménage à trois, full of ironic parallels and other forms of structural compression, cannot work for these three characters, the young girl who proposes it is seen as more moral, more willing to face the consequences of her actions and her emotions, than is the superficially more respectable couple. Virtue, in Howard's world, is not fragmented or buried, never the private gesture of an alienated sensibility; rather, actions have consequences, visible and direct, on the people closest to one.

Knowing and facing the past allows all three of the central women in After Julius some kind of resolution of their current dilemmas, but Howard's endings are not always so positive. In The Sea Change an aging playwright, who has longed for a renewal of youth in loving a young girl brought up in a village parsonage, and his wife, who has lost her only child, can understand and forgive each other in an acknowledgment of mutual pain and loss. The acknowledgment, the assumption of responsibility, allows them to survive, although it is far from a triumphant resolution. In Something in Disguise the resolution is melodramatic. The mother, a war widow who has raised her children alone, finally marries a retired army colonel to whom both her children object. Underneath the colonel's blunt, dull, insensitive exterior, the author slowly reveals, is the criminal heart of a man who tries gradually to poison his wife for her money, as he has poisoned two previous wives. And the daughter, who unpredictably marries a man who is both exciting and considerate, both a successful man of the world and a paragon of simple understanding and virtue, is desolate when the man is killed in an auto accident, having been sent on a fool's errand by one of the inconsiderate. Although moral judgment on each of the characters is clear enough, the plot punishes with an intensity that seems, somewhat sensationally, to detract from the emphasis on moral choice in some of the other novels. In Getting it Right melodrama and sensationalism recede into the background, useful for the hairdresser's discovery of sex, but not finally relevant to his moral choices that require the careful adjustment of both his concern for others' pain and his need to establish a satisfying life for himself.

Howard's carefully shaped moral tales are also dense with descriptions and references that convey the social texture of the times. The Long View is skillful in recreating both the sense of the wealthy English in southern France between the wars and the austerely genteel dinner party of 1950. The Sea Change contrasts the conventional life in the village parsonage with that of the 1950s playwright conveying a young girl to London, New York, and a Greek island. After Julius is brilliant with settings: the tiny attic office of the editorial staff of an old, respectable publishing firm; the spacious, chintzy Tudor of the mother's house in Sussex; the cheerful chaos of a young doctor's and his family's crowded flat. Something in Disguise contains a terrifying portrait of daily life in the pseudo-Spanish surroundings of the "distinguished" house on a new suburban housing estate. Within these tartly observed and wholly recognizable environments, certain types appear in novel after novel. The apparently dull retired Army officer, either basically sensitive and kindly or basically cruel and criminal, represents an older England, an irrelevant survival. The confident man of the world, playwright in The Sea Change, doctor in After Julius, international businessman in Something in Disguise (though quickly parodied in Getting It Right), generally has not allowed charm, success, or the modern world to distort his basically simple sense of responsibility. But all these men are seen from the point of view of women, and the novels reiterate a constant sense that women are more responsible, more affectionate, more genuinely concerned with others than men are. After the dinner party that opens The Long View, the men rejoin the women "having discussed the fundamentals as superficially as the women in the drawing room discussed the superficialities fundamentally." Getting It Right switches the emphasis to the young lower-middle class male hairdresser discovering his need for risking conflict and responsibility, his recognition that one "can't take out a kind of emotional insurance policy with people." The three principal women in the novel have known this all along.

Howard's intelligent and sensitive heroines are, however, far from independent. They often regret or seek to rediscover the wise father lost. The benign and revered village parson father in The Sea Change is killed in a bicycle accident; fathers in other novels are killed in World War II; still other fathers, like the one in The Long View, are remote and indifferent or, like the actor who deserts his family in a melodramatic sub-plot in Odd Girl Out, completely irresponsible. The heroines seek protection, look for the man who might replace the absent father and make smoothly decisive all the hard and complex edges of a difficult world. They want to be safe and cosseted, a desire that can lead to the aridity of The Long View, the self-discovery of After Julius, or the impossible fantasies of Something in Disguise and Odd Girl Out. The complexities of the search for protection are stated explicitly near the end of Odd Girl Out, when the couple turns the amoral young girl who proposed it into a scapegoat who can be exorcised. Yet they cannot return to their "island": "Each thought of what he had to do to sustain life for the other; each considered his efforts and translated them into nobility and unselfish determination." The roles are not equivalent, for, a few pages later, at the very end of the novel, the wife realizes that she, who had thought herself protected originally, must now become the principal protector. And they will not have a child.

Howard's Cazalet Chronicle, published in the 1990s, begins with The Light Years. The latter is set in 1937 and 1938, and depicts three generations of a wealthy Sussex family as they become entangled in problems of class, sexuality, and politics—each of them experienced on a deeply personal level. Marking Time takes up their saga in 1939, with the outbreak of the war, and provides a particularly compelling portrait of the three young Cazalet girls, Louise, Polly, and Clary. The series concludes with Confusion, which carries the three into adulthood amid the mayhem of wartime. Polly suffers from the loss of her mother, but even more painful is Clare's longing for her father, missing since the Normandy invasion of 1944. In Howard's fictional world sympathetic and competent mothers, who abound, are not enough. Heroines need the wisdom, the control, and the safety of the responsible and caring father, a safety dimly seen, always lost, and invariably over-compensated for. Looking for safety, always precarious in a world of airplanes and betrayals, requires a great deal of risk, sensitivity, and control. Howard's great distinction is that the search for safety is presented with such rare and intelligent discrimination.

—James Gindin

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: James Heneghan (1930-) Biography - Personal to Rick Jacobson Biography - Personal