Elizabeth Jane Howard, “Slipstream”

I’m a huge fan of Howard’s The Cazalet Chronicles. I also knew that she’d been married to Kingsley Amis, and that she had been very kind to his son Martin, then a surly teenager. So of course I had to read this memoir which was in many respects fascinating. Probably strongest on the prewar years — will we all remember our childhoods best? There was a special liveliness to her descriptions of people and places that faded as she grew older.

What I found baffling, though, was the narrative about her amorous adventures. Time and again, whether she’s married or not, whether he’s married or not, she has affairs. We’re talking about dozens here. And there seldom seemed to be any sense of compunction about it. So is this a mid-century upper-class British ethos? Am I being hopelessly naive and prudish in an American way? Why couldn’t she see that going on a trip to Europe with an unattached man was going to end only one way? Why couldn’t she put on the brakes when she started falling in love with Cecil Day-Lewis, then married to one of her best friends? Why not say no, ever?

The closest I can get to an answer emerges late in the book once she begins therapy and belatedly grasps the necessity of taking responsibility for her own life and her own choices. Contributing factors were a disapproving mother and a father who made sexual overtures toward her when she reached adolescence. The passivity is probably the key, though, combined with intense generosity which she extends toward most of the characters in the memoir. Endearingly, even at the end of the book she is still trying hard to learn from life.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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6 Responses to Elizabeth Jane Howard, “Slipstream”

  1. Katherine Fuller Mendez says:

    If it hadn’t been for the fact she mined her own life to write the Cazelet books I wouldn’t have believed it was the same author. This memoir was more like a confessional diary. Why couldn’t she ever say no? Plus the constant reference to her beauty seemed unnecessary since she was coveted by every man she ever met.

  2. Nathalie Foy says:

    Have you read any of Jenny Diski’s memoir essays? She, too, had a mum and dad who made sexual overtures, which is what made me make the connection, but, truly, she is an outstanding writer of non-fiction. (I haven’t made it to her fiction yet.) _On Trying to Keep Still_ is one of my favourite books. I read that and then read everything else I could get my hands on. The only one of the bunch to disappoint was Stranger on a Train–lots of stuff about smoking, and I just couldn’t relate.

    And have you read any of C. Day Lewis’s mysteries written under the name Nicholas Blake? I have him on my “must look up” list, but haven’t gotten there yet.

  3. carolwallace says:

    I will look for Jenny Diski, this is a new name for me. I love the title. I did read a few Nicholas Blake mysteries, not knowing that he was CD-L — they were dry and dull and mechanical, in the way that some of those interwar English mysteries are. Sort of not surprising, I thought.

    On the “mystery moonlighting” front, though, Julian Barnes wrote three fun mysteries in the early 1980s, as “Dan Kavanagh.” The protagonist was a gay (quite shocking in those days), guy named Duffy who suffered a number of phobias. Very entertaining but as Barnes later admitted, he had painted himself into a corner with Duffy because there was so much the guy simply could not do because of the phobias.

  4. Pingback: Monica Dickens, “Mariana” « Book Group of One

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  6. Pingback: R.I.P. Elizabeth Jane Howard | Book Group of One

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