I read a certain amount of fiction in any given year but I could by no means be defined as a voracious consumer of same. I dislike horror, crime, sci-fi or fantasy whether in book or movie form. You can keep The Hunger Games. I am baffled by the preference of some folks these days for what is called ‘young adult’ or ‘crossover’ fiction. I’m a grown up for God’s sake. I can’t be having what is known as chick lit either. The truth is I prefer reading history and biography and the kind of fiction that oozes verisimilitude. This past year has seen me working through tomes on Gladstone and Browning and A.N. Wilson’s The Victorians. The detail of real lives rarely disappoints. I am a nosey parker.
How lovely then to stumble upon the five novels of The Cazalet Chronicles series by Elizabeth Jane Howard. The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off and All Change make up the set published between 1990 and 2013. The final volume appeared in 2012, the year before Howard’s death at 91.
This is the kind of realism one can really enjoy. The first volume introduces us to the extended Cazalet family on the eve of World War II. Howard helpfully provides a family tree in each volume. The author describes them as ‘middle class’ but from where I’m standing they are as upper as one can get. They have all the trappings of upper class life, nannies, governesses, prep and public schools, cooks, chauffeurs, horses, gentlemen’s clubs. Three generations of the family flee to the grandparents’ country house in order to sit out the war. London houses are reluctantly abandoned by wives and children while grandfather Cazalet and his three sons commute to the offices of the family timber importing business. London becomes the place were one goes for lunches, dinners, afternoon teas, shopping expeditions and extra-marital affairs . Over the five tomes we witness the growing pains of an army of cousins, the fortunes of their fathers in civil and army life and the varied pressures on the womenfolk and their servants at a time of uncertainty.
Howard is unsurpassable in recording the minutiae of daily life, clothes, food, shops, dressmaking, gardens, baths, babies, rationing, illness, loss, and death. Long vanished London department stores come to life.The fabrics and colours of suits and hats are lovingly described. Howard favours green when it comes to glamour. Silk dresses and tweed suits feature strongly. The elder Cazalets can be at once generous and insensitive towards the hardship endured by servants. This is surely the last time in history when people were waited on hand and foot. By volume five servants are thinner on the ground.
Young people are left to their own devices. Emotionally neglected teenagers head for the same romantic disasters which have plagued their elders. Victorian prudery and that strange amorality characteristic of the upper classes strangely co-exist. ‘Falling in love’ is invariably an accident just like tripping on thepavement and the spouses of others are never off-limits. But perhaps my views are too informed by a convent school education. The heroine for me was Miss Milliment, the wise governess, whose life, constrained by a poverty not always so genteel, stood out in sharp contrast to that of the Cazalet wives.
By volume three I really felt I was a Cazalet. The final volume takes us well into the fifties and a changed world.The earlier volumes have been made into a television series which has somehow escaped me. One wonders how producers could condense such richness of detail into a few episodes. I feel a boxed set coming on.
Howard died in 2013. The next excitement was the discovery that she had written a memoir, Slipstream, published in 2002. I’ve just finished it. It turns out the Cazalets were the Howard family down to the smallest detail. Only the names were changed. Howard herself is a composite of Louise and Clary, two of the cousins in the five novels. Howard’s first husband was Sir Peter Scott, the naturalist, son of the Antarctic explorer. Kingsley Amis was husband number three. One loses count of the number of affairs. All these relationships are described with disarming frankness. Howard lived an examined life. I had read just one other of her novels years ago, Falling, based on yet another episode in an incredible life.
A stunningly beautiful and highly intelligent woman, Howard’s misfortune was that she was never allowed to see herself in a positive light while she was growing up. Psychology had not been invented. Generous, hard working and possessed of the courtesy expected of her class, one feels that neither the novels nor the autobiography are self serving. She was accompanied into old age by troops of friends which surely must be the acid test of any individual. These five books were, for me, a bonanza of realism.