For much of a career spanning more than 60 years, the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard, who has died aged 90, suffered a certain condescension from literary editors as a writer of "women's novels". But it did not deter her. She herself described her readers as "women and educated men", and expressed "puzzlement" when Margaret Drabble left her out of her 1985 edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature.
Jane (as she was always called) achieved a triumph in her 70s with The Cazalet Chronicle, a highly praised tetralogy of novels set in the England of 1937-47. The first two books, The Light Years (1990) and Marking Time (1991), became an acclaimed BBC TV series, The Cazalets, in 2001; though the BBC then cancelled a planned second series of the last two books, Confusion (1993) and Casting Off (1995). Jane bore both triumph and disappointment with the dignity that had already seen her through decades of literary acclaim and disdain.
She herself thought her work had improved with age. These novels show her maturity as a compelling storyteller, shrewd and accurate in human observation, with a fine ear for dialogue and an evident pleasure in the English language and landscape. She was thoroughly at home in their setting, which was just the sort of upper-middle-class English family, London locations and country houses (the main one is called Home Place) in which her own roots lay. In a later novel, Falling (1999), she chiselled a perfect structure for a story that contains many of the torments of love, betrayal and misjudgment that bedevilled her own life.
Like the Cazalets, her background was privileged but not easy. She was born in London. Her father, David, was a timber merchant who had swept her mother, Katharine, off her feet when she was a dancer in Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. The family lived in a big house in Notting Hill with a tribe of servants; there were enchanting childhood summers in her grandparents' country house in Sussex. Her education was typical of her class and time: she had governesses at home while her two younger brothers went away to school.
This lack of formal education fed her self-doubt, but she showed great self-discipline and dedication in her chosen profession. Her output was prolific and her books achieved popularity and recognition. Her first novel, The Beautiful Visit (1950), won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize; as well as further novels she wrote short stories, articles, television plays, film scripts and a book on food with Fay Maschler. She also edited several anthologies. Her contributions to literary life included organising the Cheltenham and Salisbury festivals. She was made a CBE in 2000.
Jane was a very handsome, impressive woman. Though she looked rather grand, she did not use hauteur; there was a disarming candour and even humility in the way she talked about herself. It took her almost a lifetime, years of which she spent in psychotherapy, to come to terms with her relationship with her mother, who – she believed – did not like her. This experience, she said with harsh honesty, had made her "a tart for affection" for most of her life. Her striking looks, intelligence and varied talents brought her many admirers.
As a young woman she acted and modelled, and later she broadcast, cooked, sewed, gardened and decorated houses with flair and skill. But looking back, she declared that she had made a complete hash of her life, admitting and regretting her mistakes.
She was a bit of a bolter, as she was the first to admit: she married three times. The first, in 1942, was to Peter Scott, later a world-renowned naturalist and at that time a naval officer and war hero. She had her only child, Nicola, at 19. When Nicola was three, Jane – unhappy in her marriage and feeling unable to give her daughter as good a life as her distinguished husband could – left them both, an abandonment that brought deep difficulties between mother and daughter for many years, although they found resolution.
The poets Laurie Lee and Cecil Day-Lewis, whose wives were her friends, were among her lovers after her first divorce. Yet if there was duplicity in her makeup there were also qualities that attracted devoted friendship. Both the Lees and both the Day-Lewises wanted her to be godmother to their daughters; she accepted both requests. Day-Lewis wrote his last poem on her table, while staying as a guest in her house in the weeks before his death.
Her second marriage, to James Douglas-Henry in 1959, was for Jane a disaster of which, even in her many frank interviews, she could barely speak. But she indicated that he was unfaithful, did not make love to her, and was only interested in her money, of which she had very little. She left him after five years.
As an innovative director of the Cheltenham literary festival of 1962, she invited her fellow novelist Kingsley Amis to discuss sex and censorship in literature with Carson McCullers and Joseph Heller. The attraction between Amis and herself was powerful enough to end both their marriages. Their 18-year relationship made a gut-wrenching but fascinating public story, which began with romantic passion, high hopes and an elopement to Spain. It looked like a perfect match. One reason why she loved him, she said, was that he made her laugh. They married in 1965.
For eight years the couple held court to their friends and colleagues in a beautiful house on Hadley Common in Barnet. Jane later revealed that under the appearance of effortless glamour, she was single-handedly trying to do everything, from repairing and decorating the house to tending the huge garden. But she was not writing very much. Kingsley did that. His two adolescent sons, her brother and mother and a painter friend lived with them, and she produced regular meals for the household and spectacular ones for weekend guests, while struggling to cope with the idiosyncrasies of her husband. Years later it pleased her greatly when her stepson Martin Amis expressed gratitude for her contribution to his life as a writer. It was Jane who spotted ability and ambition in the teenage layabout. She got him reading (Jane Austen was the first breakthrough), and thence to Oxford. In his memoirs, Martin placed her – as a novelist – in the august company of Iris Murdoch, praising her "poetic eye" and "penetrating sanity".
The collapse of her third marriage was understandable, with its many pressures, but no less painful for that. In its latter years, especially after they moved from Barnet to Hampstead because Kingsley was missing his London life and friends, it became clear to Jane that he had come to dislike her. Nonetheless it was brave of her to leave him in 1980. This was not the first time she had been hurt by a man she had loved, but starting again was now a more daunting prospect. She was 57, and – although she did not seek or receive Amis's financial help – not as well-off as she seemed.
She planned her departure with a stratagem designed to minimise the hurt to Kingsley, which nevertheless outraged him. She went to a health farm for 10 days, thinking it would help him get used to her not being around; then, on the day she was due back, she had a note delivered to the house from her solicitor to say she was not returning. She went to live in Camden Town, in a house facing the traffic of a rat-run.
Kingsley never spoke to her again. His undisguised animosity to Jane figured in his late novels, and resurfaced in letters and biographies published after his death. The cruelty, subtlety and sharpness of this drama as it played out also proved worthy of her own pen, and the relationship and its protagonists appear several times in her fiction.
In 1990 Jane moved out of London and finally settled in a lovely old house in Suffolk, with some land, a riverbank and an island. There, she wrote, read, gardened, did her beautiful patchwork and tapestry, cherished her dog and her plants, and welcomed her friends, godchildren and family at weekends.
Her frank and detailed autobiography, Slipstream (2002), revealed how closely the Cazalet family was modelled on her own and that the roots of her novel Falling were in her own encounter with a conman. In November 2013, a fifth Cazalet novel, All Change, was published, shortly after a long-running dramatisation of the original quartet on BBC Radio 4.
In her later years she seemed blessed with a peace and pleasure that had hitherto eluded her. She was alone, and made it clear that she would have preferred not to be. But reconciliation had ended the years of estrangement with Nicola, and she basked in the affection of her daughter, four grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, who all survive her.
Jane once admitted that writing was the most "frightening" thing she did, and that she did not enjoy it. "I find it much too anxious a business," she said. She once tried to give it up altogether. But she couldn't. "When you write something which comes off, it's a feeling like no other," she said. "It's like being visited by something outside yourself."
• Elizabeth Jane Howard, writer, born 26 March 1923; died 2 January 2014
BBC Radio 4 Extra celebrates the life of the novelist, Elizabeth Jane Howard who died aged 90 on January 2nd 2014.
This 3 hour special features material from the BBC archive including two of Howard's short stories, and her choice of Desert Island Discs from 1995. But it also includes an extract from her first novel The Beautiful Visit (read by Juliet Stevenson), as well as new interviews with, among others, her step-son Martin Amis and her biographer Artemis Cooper, all recorded at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.
As well as being the author of 14 novels, and selling more than a million books, Howard lived a richly eventful life. She walked out of her first marriage to naturalist Peter Scott, taking with her just £10, a suitcase and half a novel. She subsequently went on to remove herself from two more marriages. As her life-long friend, Jacqui Graham, points out, it was enormously brave. "Women just didn't do that."
Cathy Rentzenbrink, who presents the programme, says of Howard, 'What I find interesting is the way her life and fiction intertwines. I can't think of any other writer where the mistakes of life are transformed, reinterpreted, recycled into such brilliant novels."
Producer: Sarah Wade.