Seduced by a Psycopath - Daily Mail; March 10, 2005; Tessa Cunningham
It was the week's most compulsive TV drama: a charming yet ruthless conman tricking his way into a vulnerable woman's bed. Here, novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard reveals the chilling truth about the real-life affair that inspired her story.
Settling down to watch Sunday night's blockbusting drama Falling, based on her novel of the same name, Elizabeth Jane Howard couldn't help but feel satisfied.
After all the TV film, which netted an estimated 7 million viewers, was a huge success.
Foyle's War star Michael Kitchen was superb as callous conman Henry Kent.
And Penelope Wilton has rarely been better than as Daisy, a vulnerable middle-aged novelist seduced by Henry with a mixture of dogged devotion and mindblowing sex.
But how many viewers can have guessed that the film - which laid bare the terrifying vulnerability of a lonely woman under the sexually charged spell of a conman - was actually based on the novelist's own experience?
Or that Jane, the ex-wife of novelist Sir Kingsley Amis, believes she was lucky to have escaped with her life?
In her early 70s, bruised and battered by the traumatic end of her marriage to Kingsley Amis years earlier, Jane found herself caught in a conman's trap which was every bit as terrifying as the dramatisation?
Targeting her as a successful - and presumably wealthy - writer with 13 novels to her credit, the conman wrote her a fan letter after hearing her chatting with Sue Lawley on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs. But the relationship quickly turned into the most painful and terrifying of her life. Even now - eight years later - Jane still finds it upsetting to recall the full horror of her experience.
The conman - whom Jane refuses to name to spare his family - has since died.
But he didn't simply leave a string of broken hearts behind him. It is possible he was also responsible for the death of a former wife.
'I was very, very lucky to get away,' shudders Jane, now 82. 'It was very shocking to find that someone I thought had loved me, someone I'd enjoyed a loving time with was simply after my money and had an appalling record I didn't know about.' In her youth the beautiful, talented Jane captivated some of the most illustrious men in Britain. Her lovers included Laurie Lee, celebrated author of Cider With Rosie, poet laureate Cecil Day Lewis and tortured writer Arthur Koestler.
At 19 she married naturalist Peter Scott, son of Captain Scott, the eminent explorer who perished in the Antarctic. Sadly the marriage, which produced her only child, daughter, Nicola, now 62, lasted only five years.
In 1965 Jane married Kingsley Amis, then one of Britain's most celebrated novelists. At first they were blissfully happy. But by the time the once glittering marriage ended 15 years later in 1980, Jane's self-esteem was at rock bottom. During the latter years of the relationship Kingsley, who died in October 1995, had resolutely refused to sleep with her, preferring the companionship of his whisky bottle. Since her divorce Jane had remained single. But in the spring of 1996 she was invited to appear on Desert Island Discs. At a desperately low ebb, after recovering from an operation for colon cancer, she agreed.
'After the programme was broadcast the BBC forwarded me around 80 letters from listeners,' Jane recalls.
'I've become very good over the years at sorting out the ones that are a bit mad or eccentric but there seemed nothing out of the ordinary about the letter from this particular man.
'It was simply a brief note, saying how much he'd enjoyed the programme and that he'd like to take me out to tea one day.
'As I hadn't replied immediately there was also a second letter, wondering if I'd had the first and saying if I didn't like the idea of tea, he'd quite understand and wouldn't bother me any more.' Impeccably polite, Jane sent a brief letter apologising for her tardy reply and explaining that she'd not been well. That single letter - combined with her own vulnerability - was her downfall.
'I had spent two weeks thinking that I might die. You can't have cancer and not think that,' she says. 'And that's really what precipitated the whole situation. It made me value life enormously. I didn't want to waste opportunities.' By luck or design, the conman, who at 62 was some ten years her junior, also tapped into Jane's passion for letter writing.
'He wrote long letters about three times a week. I was charmed and flattered by this attention. Of course I didn't realise then that he had nothing else whatever to do with his time.' Over the next four months Jane's conman spun a devilishly complicated web of lies. Just like Henry in Falling, he also worked at eliciting Jane's sympathy-He told me that he had a smallholding of around 35 acres and that he kept sheep.
'It all sounded reasonable and very respectable,' she recalls. 'He explained he was parted from his fourth wife. The marriage had been a ghastly mistake and now he was determined to make a new life for himself.' Only later did Jane discover that, if the chequered romantic history, was true, his respectable, middleclass lifestyle was anything but.
Her conman actually lived in a council house, didn't work and had no money - other than that he leeched off wealthy women like herself.
'But I had no reason to disbelieve him,' says Jane. 'You can't go through life not believing people can you?' And while Jane could have limited the relationship to the literary level, she decided to take it much further.
She's frank about her reasons - although she admits some people may find them slightly shocking.
People like to assume that, once they hit the menopause, women should not be interested in sex any more,' she says. 'But that just isn't true.
This terrible taboo comes out of hundreds of years of treating women as second-class citizens.
'No one would think it was strange if a man of 65 fell in love. But when a woman does the same they not only think it's strange but mildly funny and embarrassing.' It had been 16 years since Jane left Kingsley and she was aching for love, attention and, yes, sex.
After they had exchanged increasingly romantic and intimate letters for four months, Jane invited her charming pen pal to spend the weekend at her six-bedroom 18th-century home on the Norfolk-Suffolk borders.
Sensibly she invited three close friends to join them. From the world of publishing, they were all highly intelligent, sophisticated people. But, just like Jane, they too were taken in by the smooth talking conman.
True, he seemed nervous and a little out of his depth in the rarefied company. But although he was not particularly good looking, his charm blew her away. Now, of course, she can understand exactly how cleverly he used his powers to ensnare her.
'People say: "How can you be taken in by that person?" Jane sighs.
'But that's the whole point about conmen - they have the technique to make themselves charming and attractive, otherwise they wouldn't be in business.
I'm convinced he was a psychopath and psychopaths like him have four distinguishing features.
'First of all they are frightfully good at giving first impressions. If they go for a job interview, they will always be the one to get the job.
'Secondly, they don't have close friends because they can't get close to people. Thirdly, they have no moral brakes. They can't see why they shouldn't do exactly what they want because they have absolutely no consideration for anyone else. Lastly, they don't usually do very much. They will tell you the jobs they once had but they don't actually do much at the time.' And then - just like Daisy - Jane sealed her fate. She invited this virtual stranger to share her bed. Sex, as she puts it succinctly was 'his element'.
He was such an expert lover, Jane found herself utterly hooked.
'Most men I've met just aren't very interested in knowing how to please a woman. They think sex is as easy as boiling an egg, and it isn't,' she says.
'And this man really was interested in women and it showed. Of course, it never occurred to me why he was so eager to take the time and trouble to be interested in me. Why should it?' He was a considerate lover. His charm and sensitivity entranced Jane.
With supreme irony he gently told her, as they snuggled up in bed that first weekend, that he thought she needed time to get to know him. No previous lover had ever shown such consideration and Jane was enchanted.
After that the relationship progressed at breakneck speed. A few weeks later, Jane invited her lover to spend an extended ten-day holiday with her.
When they weren't making love, Jane found herself able to talk easily.
He had read all her novels and enjoyed asking her questions. Craftily he had also read biographies of both her former husbands - Peter Scott and Kingsley Amis. He knew virtually every detail of her life.
Jane's a self-sufficient woman, a consummate cook and passionate gardener.
All through her marriage to Kingsley, she had run every single aspect of their huge country home, Lemmons, while trying to pursue her career.
No wonder basking in the attentive pampering of a solicitous and devoted lover was utterly delicious.
Jane's friend seemed to like nothing better than pampering her. He cooked, shopped and made endless cups of tea.
Tellingly, he also began to suggest marriage. 'I made it very clear there was no way I would ever marry again,' Jane says firmly. 'At my age I knew it wasn't for me.' However, her conman was nothing if not persistent. He suggested moving locally and buying a little cottage.
Jane was reluctant. But the sex and attention were so seductive, she couldn't bear to lose him.
Every time he left, she found herself yearning for him. 'As soon as he was away I thought of when he'd be back.
"You like me in bed," he said one day, and it was true. What he didn't know was how unusual that was.' However, Jane discovered that her conman had a very different side when he was crossed. In Falling, Henry attacks the terrified Daisy when she refuses to marry him.
Jane's conman also proved to have a furious temper.
'We had one confrontation which chilled me very much,' she recalls. 'I can't even remember what it was about, but he ended up storming out of the house in a rage and didn't come back all night.
'Afterwards he behaved very much like Henry does. He was very apologetic, saying he didn't know what had come over him. I was horrified.' Jane can't be sure what would have happened next. Her relationship with the conman, which had started in March 1996, came to a dramatic end five months later when her daughter Nicola uncovered one of his more outrageous lies shortly before he was due to visit Jane again.
'I never caught him out in a single lie. He was too clever to ever slip up with me but he made one crucial mistake with Nicola,' recalls Jane. 'He told her that his third wife had been killed in a riding accident in the West Country.
'He hoped to ingratiate himself with my daughter because he knew she loved horses. His mistake was that he underestimated her. He had no idea that she's extremely formidable in the field, running horse riding for the disabled courses and breeding horses.
'Of course, she was shocked by the tragic way his wife had died and started making inquiries. She couldn't understand why no one had heard about this young woman being knocked down and killed by a car while riding on the road.
'She and her husband became so suspicious they went to the Public Records Office in London to try to find a death certificate. There wasn't one.' As Nicola, a jewellery designer, and her husband, Elliott Starks, a painter, probed deeper, they discovered one lie after another. Despite being terrified of how she'd take it, they broke the news to Jane.
'I was shocked beyond belief,' she says. 'It hurt me very badly for a long time. I felt terribly humiliated.
Everything he'd told me had been a pack of lies - some disgusting, some positively dangerous.
'Like a novelist, he enjoyed telling stories for the fun of it when it wasn't the least necessary. He got a kick out of lying. For example he told me he had only been married to his first wife for a year. In fact he had been married to her for 12 years - and had two children.
'I felt abused by the lies more than the sex. Lies imply such terrible disrespect for the person. That was the worst part. There was no single fragment of truth I could cling onto.
'I know he didn't care about me at all. He was a hunter and I was his prey, but knowing how much I'd trusted him and how close I'd got to him was painful.
'He was far too clever to actually ask for money. I offered to pay half his fares when he flew to visit me - he lived in the North of England. That seemed only fair.
'Then one day, shortly before I discovered the truth about him, he mentioned he had an overdraft of £1,400 on his credit card. Paying interest seemed ridiculous, so I offered to pay off the loan for him. He had done so much for me - I wanted to help him. Now I realise I got off lightly.' Jane wrote him one last letter - telling him the game was up.
Mercifully she never heard from him again.
But it took her many months to regain her self-confidence.
Writing Falling proved great therapy. 'It's ironic that such a painful personal incident has led to such a surprisingly successful novel.
'I didn't expect it to do very well but it has had an amazing resonance with a lot of women. Many have experienced much the same thing.' Jane's experience had another unexpected consequence. It brought her closer to her daughter.
When she walked out on her first marriage, she was forced to abandon Nicola.
'I don't just love Nicola. I admire and respect her,' says Jane proudly.
'She had a rotten time as a child because she had two very difficult parents.
'When I left my first husband, I didn't have a bean. I only had half a novel written, which I never thought would be published. I had no qualifications.
There was no way I could keep her. In those days a single woman couldn't even get a mortgage.
Now, though, I think leaving her was probably a mistake.' But bridges have now been built. Jane is a proud grandmother of four and a greatgrandmother of ten. It seems incredible that any woman as well connected and successful as Jane should have found herself vulnerable to a conman. Yet, her experience is a salutary lesson for any lonely middle-aged woman looking for love.
'To be a victim you have to suffer from low self-esteem and be too trusting.
How many women are like that?' she says. 'Particularly if you are older, your self-esteem is likely to be low. There is such an accent nowadays on being young and slim with the right breasts and the right hair. If you aren't one of those women you are bound to be flattered when a charming man pays you attention.
'I shudder when I hear about women meeting strangers on blind dates or through the internet. That's the perfect hunting ground for a psychopathic conman like the one I met.' Falling published by Pan, £6.99.