Elizabeth Jane Howard is on the telephone from her home in Suffolk and at "85 and a half" she is a little deaf and there is a fault on the line. This makes for an odd conversation, but it was always going to be. I have known her all her life - despite never having met her. I've been in every house she's lived in; in every one of her beloved gardens. I have read everything she's ever written, and what she writes about is her life.
So, how strange it is speaking to a complete stranger whose life you know so well. "Yes, I do know. I've felt like that too. So I do know exactly what you mean. I'm very flattered that you should feel it about me." There is so much of her in her books. "Well, there has to be. That's what you've got.
You've got your own experience, your perception of other people and, I think, this very thin band of pure imagination which you can sometimes venture into. But it's like a little strip around the moon. It's very dicey." I didn't know what she sounds like, although it would be easy enough to guess that it would always be "telephone" never "phone"; she is posh and from a generation when that meant properly posh. But not snootily so: she is always plain Jane, never the posher Elizabeth.
Still, she has the clipped diction, the syntax as polished as pearls. Rather yellowy, smoky ones: she has been trying to give up cigarettes for decades and now "smokes very little and I can not smoke, except when I'm writing and then I find I simply cannot write a line." You'd think she might give up giving up but she has terrible asthma (and arthritis).
And, as she has spent her life observing what can be changed and what cannot, she hasn't finished trying to change herself just yet. "I was a very slow learner and a very slow person to mature and I started off rather unfortunately... That's why I called my memoir Slipstream. I'm always in the slipstream of my life, trying to catch up with things." Her new book is Love All, and it is about love, and looking for love, about cats and houses and gardens - those things in life that change; what her books, and her life, are always about.
A friend of hers, the painter Sargy Mann, once said that she was always looking for the unattainable. "That's interesting. Ha. I probably was, I think. A lot of people do. Not the holy grail, but the perfect relationship." Which she never found? "No, I don't think so and one of the things you have to recognise when one stops being an adolescent - which by the way is not a finite time, it could be any old time, it could be 60 - one of the things you've got to recognise is that there isn't such a thing.
That there are people or ideas or places as good as it gets, really. And also, things change." There she is on the cover of Slipstream: beautiful, smouldering, sexy. It is a candid memoir. She is well-bred and of a generation that didn't tell the intimate details. She has told all. I know more about her sex life than I know about anyone else's sex life.
The who and when, and whose husband and what their wives thought. She tells all but not in any way which might excite the prurient. Her great love, from a long list? "I suspect the person I loved probably most in the world was Laurie Lee [the writer best known for Cider with Rosie]." But he was married. She would not have inserted that "but". "I was very fond of his wife and she of me and she knew about it and we're still great friends and I'm a godmother to their only child." Goodness.
"Ha. Yes. She's a very unusual and remarkable person." She had an affair with Cecil Day-Lewis, poet laureate, husband of her friend Jill Balcon (who recently said she was still haunted by the affair), father to the actor Daniel Day-Lewis and the food writer, Tamasin - another goddaughter. On her sometimes harrowing honesty:
"Well, I have tried very hard to be honest because I'm sick of people writing autobiographies where they turn out to be so charming and diffident and, you know, terrible things happen to them but they've got a sense of humour about it. I mean, almost nobody's like the main characters in most autobiographies, I don't think."
At 72, she had an affair with a man who she said was very good in bed and who turned out to be a conman. She told about that too. She has always written about love and sex, in an attempt to understand the differences and the similarities. She married a man (her third husband) whose wife (the third husband ended up living his last years out with her and her third husband), on discovering letters between this man and Howard, wrote on the man's back, in lipstick, while he slept on a beach: "One fat Englishman. I f*** anything."
That man, of course, was Kingsley Amis, whose son, Martin, dubbed him the Laureate of the Hangover. He and Howard married in 1965 and in 1980 she left him by going to a health spa. Amis wrote to his great friend the poet Philip Larkin: "Glad to hear you're not entirely off the drink forever... Jane mentions that as her first condition for coming back to me, the second being presumably that I saw off my head and serve it to her with a little hollandaise sauce." In Slipstream, Howard writes, "I began to know that Kingsley no longer loved me... He needed me, but he no longer wanted me". He wanted the drink more. She never went back. In 1989 he wrote to Robert Conquest: "I continue to bear a charmed life and never set eyes on the bag." He wouldn't see her when he was dying.
In Amis' novel, Stanley and the Women, she appears, thinly disguised as, "a f***y nuck case... Ought to be put away".) She says, "Oh, I think about him very often. I miss him. He was always very good to me about my work. I mean, he was helpful and respectful and generally supportive."
A nice story: sometimes they would write a chapter of the other's book, becoming each other's writing personas. "Yes, he bit his nails and stared into space. And I laughed. It's very interesting, that." She bites her nails and is talking to me from "my study which is a room on the ground floor and more or less lined with books. It's got one wall with a lot of pictures. My neighbour is a very, very good painter who has gone blind and he still paints. I collect pictures a bit. Mostly landscapes, some drawings of frogs by a Canadian painter I was very fond of...
Then I've got a rather marvellous picture of Italy by somebody called Graham Giles. I've got an open fireplace with logs that I light at night." There are shelves of novels, ordered alphabetically and travel writing. In the hall are the biographies and "what we always called 'Bell's Letters', Belles Lettres, collection of letters." Does she have Kingsley's? "Yes I have got his letters." It is odd to think of what lurks in those letters, in the hall, in her very English house which houses the memories of her tempestuous, complicated life. And outside is her garden: the climbing roses, the formal lily pond, the box topiary, the urns of geraniums, the 100 trees she's planted.
In Love All, gardens, like love, are about unattainable perfection. "Oh, you've read it. Did you like it? Some people think it's too bleak at the end." That doesn't have to be a criticism. "Well, I'm glad you think that. It doesn't seem to me to be necessarily bleak. I mean, it seemed sad and real. You get so many novels ending with people walking into the sunset and life is very often not like that." Life is like this: just when she thought she could "buy all the trees in the world, just when I was starting to feel a bit rich, I spend most of it on having a housekeeper and a carer and someone to do the garden because I can't manage on my own any more".
Having been in all of her gardens, it would be lovely to see this one. "Well, it's rather a nice garden really. The best thing I have is an island on the river. We have an otter from time to time and a lot of birds, of course, and frogs and newts and a pair of swans nest on the island sometimes. That's the nicest thing I have," she says sounding as happy as a girl, although she was very often unhappy as a girl. She was told she was plain and no good at anything. Her mother didn't like her and she spent much of her life trying to make her like her, and then writing about their relationship. Her next book will be about her mother (most of her books are, to some extent, about her mother.) "She was a very tragic case really. She had a very, very unsatisfactory life. She was a very, very good dancer with the Russian ballet and, of course, in those days she had to choose between marriage and her career and from her point of view, I think most unfortunately, she chose marriage." Oh dear, it sounds like another bleak ending. "Well! Ha! You're quite right. I realised when I was about 60 pages in that you cannot write a book about somebody who goes steadily downhill all her life. The only way you can deal with it is to take it in the wrong chronological order. Otherwise you're in for a very bleak time, yes." Almost nobody's like the main character in most fiction. In Howard's fiction she appears in various guises, but always recognisably as herself.
In The Cazalet Chronicles (four volumes which trace the fortunes, the affairs and the domestic life of a large middle-upper class family through the world wars) there is Louise, the daughter who is disliked by her mother and fancied by her father.
In Slipstream, she appears in various guises: wayward daughter who is disliked by her mother and fancied by her father... Howard's father tried, a number of times, to "french kiss" her; he fondled her breast. She learned to never be alone with him, which saddened more than angered her. This was never talked about. "No, he wouldn't have been up to that. Well, I don't think it was right of him. I completely forgive him. I was very fond of him. I had been very fond of him." She wasn't much prepared for her own first marriage at 19. The only advice Howard's mother had ever given her was "never refuse your husband", and "people of our sort never make any fuss or noise when they are having a baby". Her first husband was Peter Scott, son of the Antarctic explorer, Robert Falcon Scott, and the terrifying K who once told Howard that if she ever hurt Peter she would want to stab her, "I should enjoy doing it".
Howard had an affair with Peter's half-brother, after which Peter bedded her relentlessly every night and K was ghastly to her. Her failure was not so much the affair as the failure to produce a son. They have a daughter, Nicola, whose eldest son, Daniel Asquith, is "being a doctor in New Zealand as we speak". (His paternal grandfather was the 1st Earl of Oxford and British prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith.) I am trying to imagine her family reading her memoir.
Whether they counted the lovers: Arthur Koestler, Romain Gary, Laurie Lee, Cecil Day-Lewis, Kenneth Tynan. Does she think she had a lot of lovers? "I think I had quite a lot of lovers. I think it comes from that era really. I think people did, you know. The war was a very bad time for that, or a good time. You know, your friends are dying and you kept thinking you'd never see them again... so I think that sort of paved the way for a great deal of casual encountering. But, yes, I probably do think I behaved very badly." She was "a tart for affection". You hope she got some joy out of her "casual encountering". "Oh, I think with some people I did. I don't think it was ever boring, my life in that way I did have men who were marvellously good to talk to and interesting and funny.
I think H.G. Wells was quite right about men. He said it didn't matter what a man looked like as long as he could talk. And, I mean, given that he wasn't particularly marvellous..." She was so beautiful when she was young, and she didn't know it, or seem to get much joy out of that. But perhaps she's fed up with people going on about her great beauty. "I suppose I think in retrospect I'm very fed up with that. Because when I thought people minded about me, all they thought was that I was a nice piece of crumpet really, and that's rather depressing."
Now she lives with Ed, the "very old, very beautiful lurcher dog who is sort of cafe creme-coloured, very heraldic looking and deeply affectionate and not terribly bright... She came from a refuge home at, I think, about 16. She was called Ed when she came and I've tried Edwina and Emily but she simply won't take any notice. So I have to call her Ed, which is frightfully unsuitable." She has Ed and her garden and her writing. Not a bleak ending at all.