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.