Book Review: Slipstream by Elizabeth Jane Howard

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Slipstream is the candid and revealing memoir of Elizabeth Jane Howard. Howard was born in 1923, into privileged society. There were servants, different houses and all that was afforded in a comfortable Edwardian-influenced upbringing.

My sister said that I should read Slipstream, so I did. It didn’t make sense to me why she had been so insistent until later in the book. The early part of the book was like a condensed version of the Cazalet Chronicles – a saga that I thoroughly enjoyed. However, I rather wanted something more from Slipstream. As an avid reader of the Cazalet Chronicles, there were several ‘ah ha’ moments in the stories of her characters in those chronicles, which made for interesting reflection without seeming to add anything new. In Howard’s defence, in her introduction she described writing as a ‘way of communication with myself,’ and therefore one must assume that in writing both the Chronicles and Slipstream, she was making sense of her own experiences. For me, it was as she departed from the shadows of her childhood and first marriage (to Peter Scott) that the book became more enticing.

I was hungry for her own reflections on writing, and being a writer. She seemed to tease by dropping in odd lines like “I hadn’t learned discipline,” and “there’s a great difference between being a writer and wanting to write”. It was her marriage to Kingsley Amis that gave her the discipline and the distinction. However, this wasn’t the aim of Howard’s book, to write a book about writing. Her interest was on people and their relationships rather than her work.

In that, I believe we can learn a lot from Howard. She was brutally honest, and often not kind to herself, and I admire her honesty. Here is a woman that was unloved by her mother, groped by her father, married too young and neglectful of her daughter. Howard had three unhappy marriages and a string of lovers. Sadly, she never seemed to me to be happy.

Perhaps she did find a kind of contentment in later life when she was single. There was one episode with a con-man, which she did not really elaborate on, saying it was the subject of a novel (perhaps Fallen?). The latter years were a series of house moves and house guests, where her narrative faded out.

Overall Slipstream was an enchanting read, and I admire Elizabeth Jane Howard even more. Goodness only knows why she was pilloried in life for her writing, in which she gave so much of herself.

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