Monday, 6 January 2014

Elizabeth Jane Howard, RIP

When a successful author dies, there are widespread tributes. Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923-2014) was undeniably successful thanks to her many mainstream literary novels, notably the the series that became the Cazalet Chronicles. Howard's short stories are, of course, a relatively minor part of her total output. But it's worth noting that it was as a collaborator with Robert Aickman in the collection We Are For the Dark that her work first saw print.

The complex relationship between Aickman and Howard, while interesting, is of debatable significance when considering either's work. But I can't help feeling the often disastrous interaction between Aickman's male characters and beautiful women must owe something to his affair with the undeniably beautiful Elizabeth. It's also at least possible that - given Aickman's propensity for basing his stories on dreams - a few of his characters are Howard-like. By this I mean they are 'well-bred' girls, the sort Aickman undoubtedly considered to be above the common ruck.

For instance, the tall and lovely Clarinda Hartley in 'Bind Your Hair' is described as having: 'very fair, very fine, very abundant hair, to which she plainly gave much attention; her face had interesting planes (for those who could appreciate them), but also soft curves, which went with her hair. She had a memorable voice: high-pitched, but gentle.'

Almost every picture I've been able to unearth of the young Elizabeth Jane Howard shows her as having in some way 'bound' her hair, which was indeed fair and abundant, as the above picture shows. Here she is with the young Kingsley Amis.

Amis and Howard married in the summer of 1965, but they began an affair in 1962, when Amis was still married to his first wife. It's not impossible that Aickman knew of this, and it was often said that Amis and Howard were not an obvious match. In 'Bind Your Hair' (1964) Aickman has Clarinda become engaged to a Dudley Carstairs, and everyone - Dudley included - is surprised to find her settling for him. And that's enough idle speculation.

It is of course for 'Three Miles Up' that Howard is best known to lovers of supernatural fiction. It is a very 'Aickmanesque' story, and indeed if you read Howard's fiction alongside Aickman's it seems clear that their styles are not too different. They are both detached, somewhat ironic, and rarely use emotive terms to describe the most intense or violent incidents. Who influenced who - if it's possible to be sure of such things - is of course a moot point.

Australian author Martin Cosby has his own tribute to Howard here. It was reading this that triggered my somewhat random thoughts above.

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