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.