Friday, January 10, 2014

Three First Names

When someone with three first names, two of them female, and one male first name as their surname, passes away at 90 you really expect a hyphen in their name. But Elizabeth Jane Howard, a British novelist who has just passed away at 90, didn't have a hyphen in her name. No matter. Her name is no less patrician. And certainly no less British.

I have to say, I never heard of Ms. Howard, or read any of her books, which apparently didn't get turned into 'Downton Abbey.' She also apparently didn't accrue what you might expect to be the usual British recognitions: Dame, OBE, etc. She lead a lively life and would hardly ever be accused of being a serial monogamist. She would appear to have been the literary version of America's political playmate Pamela Harriman in how many literary figures she shared sheets with.

Accompanying the obituary is a 1965 picture of Elizabeth with Kingsley Amis, her husband for 18 years. Ms. Howard, then in her 40s, is shown in profile exhibiting what Gilbert and Sullivan would surely claim were "the remains of a fine woman about her." Ms. Howard married Mr. Amis in 1965 after a affair with him that lead him to leave his wife.

Language papers over many harsh adjectives. And obituary language can be as soft as cashmere. In the NYT obituary by Margalit Fox, a writer as American as a hot dog, she lets us in on the code for Mr. Amis's behavior that lead to the divorce.

Ms. Howard herself is quoted from a 2002 newspaper interview where she expresses how difficult it was "to live with someone who drinks too much and dislikes you."

Ms. Fox describes Mr. Amis as someone who "descended into alcoholism and unpleasantness." The most civilized of all descriptions. Obituary translation: he became a useless, drunken sod that absolutely no one could stand.

Ms. Howard moved on, and as late as her 70s was still beguiling. Even without a hyphenated name.

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