August 25th, 2010


The Cazalet Chronicles

I’ve been spending a few days with the Cazalet family in the four books about them by Elizabeth Jane Howard: The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion and Casting Off. I’d read the books before but this was the first time I’d read the whole lot straight through. I recommend it as a treat for anyone who enjoys a family saga. It covers the years 1937 - 1947. The Cazalet family, timber merchants, live in various London houses and in the holidays at Home Place, a converted farmhouse in Sussex.

Head of the family is The Brig, or The Old Man, as his sons call him, married to the Duchy. There are three married sons, one self-sacrificing unmarried daughter and hordes of grandchildren, cousins and other relations. Mrs Cripps, the cook, is sometimes preparing food for at least twenty people and the descriptions of this are fascinating. The Light Years is probably the most enjoyable, because the happiest of the books. How carefree those pre-war years seem in retrospect by the time we reach Casting Off. The shopping! The women all buy wonderful clothes and huge amounts of stores have to be bought for Home Place. It’s also the book in which we see the cousins as children, see how much their characters are defined by their shared yet different childhoods. The books can’t be faulted for continuity; everything which happens later develops logically from the basic set-up. There’s a huge cast of characters, each clearly defined and each of whose stories one wants to know. As a story about a middle class family comfortable before the War, getting through it better than most and then facing a changed post-war world, it’s a useful social guide. It certainly tells you as much about that class at that time as Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga does about similar people in an earlier era.

When I read Slipstream, Elizabeth Jane Howard's autobiography, I realized how much of the Cazalet story was based on her own life and experiences. Louise’s marriage to Michael, for instance, seems very like EJH’s to Peter Scott. His awful mother! Louise is not a very likable character (ruthless honesty on the author’s part?) and it’s the cousins Polly and Clary who provide most of the interest. The nicest people tend to be observers who are not really part of the family, like Archie, Miss Milliment and Louise’s friend Stella. I was sorry when I came to the end of the last book.

The beautiful & elegant author