The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

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I’ve been meaning to read the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard for years, ever since I watched the TV series that aired on the BBC back in 2001. Somehow I never got around to it, but 15 years later, I have finally begun reading, and I can’t believe I waited this long to read something so utterly marvellous. I steamed through the first in the series, The Light Years, and am now on the second, Marking Time; they are completely absorbing and so evocative of their period that I can’t put them down, and the characters are alive in my head all day, waiting for me to rejoin them as soon as I get on the tube home.

Over five books, Elizabeth Jane Howard (who was a fascinating person) tells the story of the Cazalet family; a large, sprawling upper middle class clan who span several generations and all have very different outlooks on life. We are first introduced to the family in the summer of 1938, when they are gathering, as usual, at the Sussex home of the ‘Brig’ and the ‘Duchy’, who are the now elderly parents of four very different children. Hugh, the eldest, was badly injured in the first war, and is sensitive, kind and very much in love with his intelligent and homely wife Sybil. They have two children, and another on the way, and spend most of their time in London, where Hugh works in the family timber company. In a neighbouring house to Hugh and Sybil live Hugh’s brother Edward; strikingly handsome and wonderfully charming, he has a charmed existence. He is married to Villy, a former ballerina, with whom he has three children. Edward, however, has a dangerously roving eye, and Villy, with her exceptional intelligence and artistic talents, is frustrated by the limits of her life. Rupert, the third son, is a failed artist, forced to take a job as a teacher to make ends meet. His much loved first wife died in childbirth, and he and his two children now live with his new wife, Zoe, a decade younger than him and breathtakingly beautiful, though incredibly selfish and resentful of his relationship with his children. Rachel, the only daughter, has remained unmarried and still lives with her parents; completely devoted to her family and indispensable to them all, her life is subsumed by her siblings, their wives and children, though they are completely unaware that she is desperately in love with her female friend Sid.

When together at the country pile of the Brig and the Duchy, the family live an easy, relaxed existence, spending long afternoons lazing around in the gardens, evenings talking and listening to the gramophone, and happy days picnicking at the beach. All their needs are taken care of by the army of servants, and the descriptions of the colossal meals prepared by the indefatigable cook are marvellous. However, fault lines run beneath each of the relationships, and as we flit between the viewpoints of each character, including delightful forays into the minds of the Cazalet children, the reality of their seemingly charmed existence is brought into repeated question. Rupert and Zoe’s marriage seems to be heading for disaster; Villy is desperately bored; Rachel longs for a way to be with Sid; Hugh’s son is terrified of being sent away to school; Rupert’s daughter hates her stepmother. And bigger than all of this is the looming threat of war, which has the potential to destroy everything they hold dear. Amidst the seeming idyll of a long, hot English summer, plenty of storm clouds are brewing. Every member of the family has their own battles to face, and Howard is brilliant at being able to dip into each of their consciousnesses in turn, making every character, no matter how young or seemingly insignificant, come wonderfully to life.

This is exactly the sort of book I love; full of the minutiae of the everyday that is far more engrossing than any adventurous, action packed plot, with characters who are so real you feel you know them as friends, all set amidst a background that is marvellously realised and so evocative of its period. I know I won’t rest until I’ve read my way through all of them; if you’ve never read them, you must. They are pure reading pleasure, and are set to become absolute favourites that I know I’ll go back to time and time again. Especially in these uncertain times (I am another frustrated Remain voter…sigh), a good book like this is a very welcome balm to the troubled soul.

 

42 comments

  1. The Cazalet Chronicles are my favorite books ever and I have read them 3 times. Rachel, you are in for treat after treat in each succeeding volume.

    Recently, I added the first two to my Kindle just in case I am out somewhere and have an uncontrollable urge to read them again. Just waiting for the other volumes to appear on the Amazon 1.99 specials. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. xxxooo

    Please email me. I need your email address.

  2. They are wonderful books and superbly written (I don’t think Elizabeth Jane Howard ever got the credit she deserved for her writing). I read them as they were published and actually wrote her after the third begging for a fourth!

    1. No, it seems strange to me that these books aren’t more highly prized – the rather saccharine chick lit style covers don’t help! I wish I’d discovered them as they’d been published – I feel very behind the times!

  3. I loved this series! The miniseries was great but the books are even better. Such a great saga of a family and all the characters are so distinct and beautifully drawn. I know Howard wrote other books as well and I keep meaning to look for them. Enjoy the rest of the books!

  4. Loved The Light Years when I read it last year; I’ve now got a copy of Marking Time and am holding onto it for my holiday in August. So excited for it.

  5. I was waiting for the final volume for so long and it finally came out shortly before Howard’s death. I had been saving them “against the day” but I may as well go ahead and enjoy them now. One never knows the future.

  6. Yes, oh yes–a great series of books. I loved them so much that I couldn’t wait for the last one to be published in the U.S. and I got one of my English aunts to send me a copy.

    Perhaps one of the most wonderful aspects of the books is the incredible level of detail–down to the brand names of face powders, types of hair clips, steps to preparing certain foods–and there doesn’t seem to be a false note anywhere. Is it any surprise that EJH was one of the writers on the original “Upstairs, Downstairs”?

    1. Yes absolutely – the detail is all there and not at all crowbarred in. You feel completely immersed in the period. I had no idea she wrote for Upstairs Downstairs! That makes me love her even more!

  7. This series helped keep me sane when I was going through a tough time last year. And I can never resist a good family saga! Not quite as amazing as EJH but also excellent is the recently republished Good Daughters trilogy by Mary Hocking. Recommended for when you eventually get through the Cazalets.

    1. I’m glad you found them helpful – there’s nothing like a good book in a time of crisis. Thanks so much for the recommendation – I will check them out.

  8. Yes, they are wonderful books. Precisely situated at the intersections of Jane Austen, Nancy Mitford, Barbara Pym, and yet totally on their very own enchanting road.

  9. Thanks for recommending Elizabeth jane Howard. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know here. Bt i started the book and after 100 pages I’m hooked. Long way to go but I’m optimistic.

    The last time i contacted you I suggested that you might enjoy A Month in the Country, by J L Carr – which you later reviewed.

    So, here’s another one that I think you would enjoy: The Power of the Dog, by Thomas Savage. It’s another book resurrected from about 50 years ago. It’s got an unusual ending but no clues from me… Hope you enjoy it

    Meanwhile, I very much enjoy your reviews – one day I should buy you a glass of malbec as a thank you.

    royston

  10. apologies for the sloppy email i just set you. Here is a corrected version:

    Thanks for recommending Elizabeth jane Howard. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know her. But i started the book and after 100 pages I’m hooked. Long way to go but I’m optimistic.

    The last time i contacted you I suggested that you might enjoy A Month in the Country, by J L Carr – which you later reviewed.

    So, here’s another one that I think you would enjoy: The Power of the Dog, by Thomas Savage. It’s resurrected from about 50 years ago. It’s got an unusual ending but no clues from me… Hope you enjoy it

    Meanwhile, I very much enjoy your reviews – if one day our paths should cross our paths (unlikely as I live in Canada) I should buy you a glass of malbec as a thank you.

    royston

  11. These books sound wonderful…have just ordered the first three…
    many thanks for the suggestion
    cheers from Canada

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