Born: March 26, 1923;. Died: January 2, 2014

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Elizabeth Jane Howard, who has died aged 90, was an actress and model who became a popular, but not always critically appreciated, novelist. Her most famous series of novels, the Cazalet Chronicles, was one of the great literary family sagas of the 20th century and its story of emotional repression and familial struggle was directly inspired by her own experiences: she never felt loved, or even liked, by her parents and the novels were her way of celebrating the joys of fulfilled, emotional relationships.

The other reason for Howard's fame - her succession of high-profile, passionate love affairs - was also probably a reaction to her loveless childhood. The most famous of these relationships was with her fellow novelist Kingsley Amis. She married him in the 1960s but walked out on him in the 1980s and Amis never forgave her.

She was born into a well-to-do, upper middle class family. Her father was a timber merchant and she was brought up in a house in Notting Hill that was well staffed with servants. However, she always felt that her parents preferred her brothers to her; they were sent to good schools; she, on the other hand, was left at home under the guidance of a governess and never acquired any formal qualifications.

Her intelligence and talent were never in doubt however. By the time she was 14, she had written, and sold, her first play, but initially her ambitions were to be an actress. In 1940, she won a place at the London Mask Theatre School, where one of her contemporaries was Paul Schofield. She appeared for a season at Stratford, and after the war mixed acting work with some modelling (she was never quite able to see her own looks as others saw them, but modelled for Vogue, among others, throughout the 1940s).

After the war, she learned secretarial skills but by this time had met the first of the three men she would marry, Peter Scott. She was still a naive middle-class girl though and suffered from low self esteem. "I really hadn't the faintest idea what I was in for," she once said. "He was the first person who noticed me and I was grateful for that."

The marriage did not work out and after three years Howard walked away, leaving behind her daughter Nicola. It was a difficult decision for her, but Scott and her were incompatible and, besides, Howard was beginning to grow up.

She had always written stories but it was now that she seriously began to pursue her ambitions to become a writer. Her first novel, The Beautiful Visit, appeared in 1950 and told the story of a young girl's experiences throughout the First World War. There was another novel, The Long View, in 1956, followed by The Sea Change, which many consider to be her finest work.

By the 1960s, and with another unhappy marriage behind her, to James Douglas-Henry, she by now an established part of the literary set and was asked to run the Cheltenham Literary Festival, and it was here that she met, and fell in love with Amis. He was still married to his first wife, but they embarked on an affair and later married, going on to become one of the most prominent and exciting literary couples of the 1960s and 70s.

The relationship was often unhappy for Howard though - she sometimes felt that Amis expected her to get on with running the house while he got on with writing his books - and by 1980, she had had enough of his attitudes, and his drinking. She gave him an ultimatum - the drinking or her - and he chose never to speak to her again. Even when he was dying and Howard asked his son Martin if his father would like to see her, the answer was no.

She wrote the first of her Cazalet novels, The Light Years, in the late 1980s, and it was clearly a way for her to explore some of the problems and issues from her childhood (she would later spend many years in psychotherapy trying to do the same thing). What struck readers of the Cazalet books, particularly younger readers, was the contrast between the unfeeling, repressed older generation of the family and the next generation who were determined to feel as much as possible. Teenagers and young readers in particular took to the passion of the books. The fifth and final volume in the series, All Change, was published last November.

The books were dramatised by the BBC and Howard continued to write other novels, although latterly she sometimes despaired at what she saw as a lack of recognition. The other novels included Getting it Right in 1982, Falling (1999) and Love All (2008). She also published a volume of memoirs, Slipstream 2002, which was remarkable for its lack of self-pity, and other books on gardening and cookery.

She was appointed a CBE in 2000 and is survived by her daughter Nicola.