A Dangerous Innocence by Artemis Cooper
As my life calmed down towards the end of 2016 I was able to start reading some books I’ve been storing up for some time. The first was a recent biography of one of my favourite writers, Elizabeth Jane Howard, whose work I began reading in the late 1950s. My mother had started to introduce me to some of her favourite writers, passing her library books on to me before returning them. Howard’s first novel, The Beautiful Visit, was published in 1950 and I think I must have read it aged 15, in 1959. By that time I’d read many of Mum’s books and had long abandoned novels written for teenage girls.
I was entranced by the story of The Beautiful Visit, which explored the journey of a woman trying to find a place in the world when she had been raised for nothing except marriage. It seemed relevant to my own life and challenged me to think about when I wanted for my future. But I was also fascinated by the novel’s structure, although I couldn’t have articulated that at the time. The story is told in reverse time and recently re-reading it, with some years experience of writing fiction, I still marvel that Howard managed the complexity of that in a first novel.
In the intervening years I’ve read all Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novels and some of her other work, including her autobiography, Slipstream, (2002). In that book I was amazed to discover the many parallels in the fiction and Howard’s own life. Childhood abuse, a stifling early marriage, thwarted ambition, and disastrous relationships with unsuitable men, all find their place in this novelist’s work, making her books involving, credible and so relevant to those of us who can see our own mistakes in her fiction and her life. This latest biography by Artemis Cooper, reinforces and adds to those links and I was once again gasping with recognition at these connections and at Howard’s skill in exploring these aspects of her life through fiction.
I have loved all her books, particularly the The Cazalet Chronicle, a series of five novels of the life of a large and rambling family which begins with The Light Years published in 1990 and commencing the narrative in 1937, and ends with the fifth volume, All Change, published in 2013, the year before Howard’s death aged 90.
Artemis Cooper is a sophisticated and sensitive biographer and in A Dangerous Innocence, she provides a warm and insightful picture of one of England’s best loved novelists of the 20th century, and a woman who battled endlessly with her own demons to find love in her own life and to bring the complexities of love in the lives of her characters to her readers. Don’t be mislead; Elizabeth Jane Howard never wrote trite love stories, but she explores the love of families, couples, children, siblings and, the love of life and the challenges of loss and disappointment and unfulfilled dreams, in truly engrossing fiction, which does not shy from the tough, often brutal realities of the ordinary life. To read this biography and be reminded again of the parallels with her own experience has sent me back to the novels to read them this time with even greater fascination, and satisfaction.
If you’ve never read any of Howard’s work I strongly recommend giving it a go. A Dangerous Innocence, by Artemis Cooper also provides a fascinating insight into upper middle class life, in England in the second half of the 20th century, and the impact of writers such as Laurie Lee, Cecil Day-Lewis, Arthur Kostler and Sybille Bedford in Howard’s life, as well as her tempestuous marriage to Kingsley Amis, and her influence on the young Martin Amis, who claims that it was she who oversaw his education and made him a writer.
I loved this book.