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LONDON — She was the stunning, fair-haired stepmother who turned the young Martin Amis on to books — and who later left his father, Kingsley, when he refused to quit drinking. Her many lovers included writers like Arthur Koestler, Cecil Day-Lewis and Laurie Lee. She also wrote 12 novels herself, including four best-selling volumes that make up “The Cazalet Chronicles,” about an upper-middle-class English family living through pre- and post-World War II. Now almost 80, Elizabeth Jane Howard has just published her memoirs in the U.K., “Slipstream” (Macmillan), which recount the trickiness of love, plus instructions on how to put dinner on the table and get a novel finished on time.
“It was a man’s world, and that isn’t over yet,” Howard says one damp afternoon at her 18th-century house in the Suffolk countryside. “If I had been much more successful than Kingsley, I don’t think he would have been able to stand it.”
Although Howard is not exactly a household name in America, in her native Britain she is a highly regarded writer with a devoted following. In his autobiography, “Experience,” Martin Amis writes, “As far as I am concerned [Jane] is, with Iris Murdoch, the most interesting woman writer of her generation.” As an author as well as the consort of well-connected men, Howard met many of the 20th century’s artistic heavyweights, including E.M. Forster, George Bernard Shaw, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, Stephen Spender, Albert Camus and Marc Chagall. But it is her stormy romantic relationships that make “Slipstream” so absorbing.
The eldest of three children, she grew up in genteel surroundings — although, like many girls of her time, she had no formal education. Her father, David, a veteran of World War I, was a suave charmer who loved women, and when his daughter hit puberty, he turned his attentions on her. In “Slipstream,” Howard describes how, when she was 15, he tried to fondle and kiss her. “He had suffered shocks when not much older than I was then, and as a consequence he had never, in some senses, grown up,” she writes. “He loved me, and when I ceased to be a little girl he simply added another dimension to his love. This was irresponsible and selfish, but it wasn’t wicked.”
Howard gives the men in her life the same evenhanded treatment throughout her memoir, revealing their faults but refusing to condemn them. “I don’t really see the point of that,” she says. “It wouldn’t have made me any happier. It wouldn’t have changed them and wouldn’t have changed what already happened. You have to try and learn from your experiences.”
Married at age 19 to the artist and conservationist Peter Scott, Howard soon left him and ran through several more lovers before she met Koestler at a cocktail party. He quickly proposed marriage, but she suggested living together first — a wise move. Their relationship ended after Koestler proved to be a perfectionist and a bully who locked Howard in a freezing drawing room to write while he worked in a warmer room upstairs. When she broke off a brief affair with her friend, the poet Day-Lewis, because she didn’t want to hurt his wife, Jill, he called her a whore. Howard’s two-week fling in Spain with the married writer and poet Laurie Lee was an exception in that it didn’t have a painful ending, and she describes it as one of the happiest times of her life.
“You have to remember that the other side of these people is that they were tremendously good company,” she remembers. “That was my priority — being made to laugh and being with people who were better educated, better read than myself and interested in a great many things. There are much more honorable people who would actually bore you to death and never do anything bad. I sometimes think that if I’d married one of those, I would have been happier, but I don’t think I would have written books.”
The nearest she got to marital bliss was with Amis, whom she met in 1962 at a literary festival. They married three years later — after she divorced her second husband, Jim Douglas-Henry, and Amis his wife, Hilly — and she took on the role of stepmother to Amis’ three children. One day, she recalls in “Slipstream,” she saw Martin, then a hooky-playing teenage Mod, lounging around the house, “boredom seeping from every pore,” and handed him a copy of “Pride and Prejudice.” “That was when he started to read properly — a very good moment for me.” Indeed, it is the younger Amis’ stepmother, not his father, who can claim credit for unleashing the literary beast in him. “We’re still friends, and I’m touched that he still regards me as family,” says Howard.
By the late Sixties, according to “Slipstream,” the elder Amis had begun to drink heavily, and Howard realized that “not only didn’t he love me, but he actually disliked me.” In the end, she concluded that her third husband had little use for women. “He regarded them as intellectually inferior, and often as ‘pests,’ hanging about, getting in the way and interrupting men,” she writes of Amis, renowned when alive for being a bon vivant and for his waspish tongue and pen.
In 1980, when Amis refused to give up alcohol, Howard left him. She didn’t remarry, but continued to write —turning out “Getting It Right,” “Mr. Wrong” and “The Cazalet Chronicles.” And she has not doubt that her next novel, about late 19th- and early 20th-century British society, will be easier to write than “Slipstream.” “It was a painful process,” Howard says. “You have to look back on all of that shoddy, old, bad behavior and inadequacies and mistakes, and one would rather not remember those things.
“But it was useful,” she adds with a smile. “At least, I felt I am marginally nicer than I was when I was 20.”