I first encountered Elizabeth Jane Howard when I found a new edition of her early novel, The Long View, at a small independent bookstore in San Francisco in 1991. The book instantly soared to my top five all time favorites list and has remained there ever since.
A brilliant study of a marriage, the book turned the usual romantic love story, which ends at the altar with a “happy ever after” implication, upside down. The story begins on the day their divorce is finalized and walks you backward through the scenes of their marriage to the hopeful wedding day you already know was doomed. I found it some of the most exquisite writing I’d ever encountered.
I began slowly working my way through the entire catalog of her work, winding up with her most famous series, The Cazalet Chronicles. I read most of it via the library, but I bought a couple of the Cazalet series and, after watching the PBS version of it, I decided I’d like to purchase the set. This was only a few years after the publication of the last one (at the time) and I was stunned to discover at the bookstore that the entire series was already out of print. [A gander at Amazon revealed most of her books have been recently reissued; head to your favorite independent bookseller soon and help save them from going out of print again]
Eventually I quit looking for more of her works in the library catalog as she appeared to have stopped writing. Last week I saw a reference to the Cazalets and looked her up, discovering she published a final piece of the series in 2013 and died shortly thereafter. I immediately went to the Lexington Public Library site to put a hold on the book, only to discover they not only don’t have the latest one, but Elizabeth Jane Howard has disappeared from the catalog altogether!
The literary world, which seems to prefer violence and nihilism, has apparently always undervalued her because her themes are more appreciated by women. She’s not the only fine author who’s been relegated to the realm of “chick lit” and dismissed. There are women who write for women with great grace and beauty and insight into human nature and I wish we could honor such writing as being equally worthy to the darker works the critics prefer.
In my opinion she’s one of the finest under sung and under appreciated authors of the 20th century. While I didn’t find the rest of her work to be quite as exquisite as the first one I read, I enjoyed every one and found her writing beautiful in every case. I realize publishing of both music and literature has become a game about selling mainstream drivel by the millions, but have we really sunk so low as to allow a writer of this caliber to be lost to obscurity?