We’ve gone into lockdown, for the fourth time, here in Melbourne from the 27th of May until whenever – as I’m writing this the media is full of speculation the period will be extended beyond the initial week. I’ve been lucky to be completely engrossed in the novels that make up The Cazalet Chronicles and then the memoir and biography of their author, Elizabeth Jane Howard (known as Jane).
There are now five books in the series and I read all of them over the course of five days. I’d just completed the first instalment when called to have a Covid test after being in a Tier 2 exposure site (K-Mart Barkly Square at the same time as a positive case). Lucky to have volume two for the two and a half hour wait at St Vincents. And book three for the next day while I was waiting for the test result. Negative, but by that time we were in lockdown, so plenty of time for volumes four and five. So engrossed Joe couldn’t drag me out for our regular lockdown walks.
The Light Years, 1990
Joanna Lumley promises in her introduction to the series, which is in this first volume, readers will be completely gathered up in its intoxicating complications, the peerless storytelling sweeping me onwards, as familiar with the huge extended family as with my own, anxious and happy for them, fearful and sympathetic, appalled, thrilled and hungry for more.
Jane Howard said she wanted to write a novel about what happened at home during wartime, showing the impact on ordinary lives rather than from a soldier’s perspective which had hitherto dominated war fiction. The Cazalets have already been through one war and we are reminded of the impact of that from time to time. In the meantime a second one threatens. The titles of the books are a good guide to the content – as are the chapters which remind us what year we are in. Here we are in 1937 and life is going on as normal for the people to whom we are introduced.
They are the Cazalet family. Mother (Duchy), Father (the Brig), their three sons and daughters-in-law; Hugh and Syb, Edward and Villy, Rupert and Zoe; and their children. Their unmarried daughter who Rachel lives with them at Home Farm in Sussex. Villy’s sister Jessica and her family, along with a close friend of Rupert’s called Archie are also included in the saga.
The Cazalets are upper middle class, with plenty of money to keep them comfortably in the manner to which they are accustomed; prestigious London houses, exclusive clubs (for the men), beautiful clothes and jewellery (for both men and women), public schools (for the boys) governesses (for the girls) nannies (for the babies) and the right number of servants (thirteen in all). This comes from the family’s timber business established by the Brig’s father and now run by Hugh and Edward with pressure on Rupert to join as well.
The boys and their wives live in London but there are regular family gatherings at Home Place where the cousins run wild – well as much as they are allowed to in that strictly class delineated society. In the mid nineties the Duchy and the Brig and even their older children have lived through the late Victorian and Edwardian ages which linger. Old attitudes are reflected without judgement: boys are more important than girls, they go to school whereas girls are taught at home, (not that the Cazalets value education; the boys are meant to join the family firm as soon as their schooling is finished), girls have governesses and are expected to do nothing until they’re married, public affairs are for men to know not women, women manage households (with the requisite number of servants), husbands have clubs, wives shop for clothes and arrange dinner parties, people dress for dinner and women withdraw, nannies eat with the children, governesses occasionally join the adults, servants know their place.
We start off in Edward’s house in London where the servants start the day waking members of the family. Gradually we are introduced to the whole family as they live in London. Later they all gather at Home Farm and we get a fuller picture. Of the relationships between the individual couples and the state of each marriage – one loving, one superficially fine, one in trouble. Of the different personalities of the brothers – one loving but ineffectual, one charming but duplicitous, one artistic and relatively impoverished. Of the status of their wives in the family – two fitting in comfortably, one an outsider. It is quite beautifully done.
We get to know the personalities of the children – all so different; sociable, solitary, truthful, anxious, confident – they have the full gamut. We see their relationships with each other – friendships, alliances and rivalries. And their different interests – acting, writing, animals, nature. They each have different relationships with parents – caring and not, good and bad, changing over time. The exchanges – between children and between children and adults are so true – often funny, sometimes heartbreaking.
The impending war – will there be one or will it be avoided – is a constant background to the comings and goings of the family. They are all, in their own way, preparing for it. The Brig by starting building what will be needed – an air raid shelter, extra buildings to accommodate displaced people. The firm has taken steps to protect their timber. The children have all made secret, heartfelt promises to do things they don’t want to do, as a way to prevent war. The book concludes in September 1938 with them listening to Neville Chamberlain announce peace with honour after Munich. The threat of war has passed. The Brig is not convinced and neither are we.
Marking Time, 1991
We are a year on from where we left the Cazalets, September 1939. We start at Home Place where everyone has listened, first to Chamberlain and then the King make announcements on the radio. War is finally here and will dominate this volume. The whole family will stay in the country for the duration – the husbands decision, not the wives. The position of women in this society – the consequences of their lack of formal education, the total silence about women’s lived experiences, sex and childbirth in particular, the rigid rules about child rearing that separated mothers from babies – are slowly revealed. in the pages of these novels. restrictions they had to deal with, their lack of knowledge, how they were treated, are all drawn clearly but without drums and whistles. You weep at some of the scenes of sex and childbirth.
We are continuing to follow the ins and outs of the lives of the older couples which are becoming steadily more complicated – two new babies and a pregnancy that may disrupt the lives of one couple, an affair that’s getting serious that may disrupt another, and an illness and death that devastates another. Archie, Rupert’s friend joins the family and we learn of an earlier family connection with him. And he learns of another relationship, homosexual, that’s hidden from the family.
Our focus amongst the children is increasingly drawn to the lives of the three older girls. The breathtakingly beautiful Louise, desperate to be an actress although completely unschooled in anything other than Shakespeare; Polly, prone to anxiety loves collecting beautiful objects and imagining her dream house; messy, opinionated, truthful Clary who wants to be a writer and who hates her stepmother.
The brothers join the war effort in different ways and much of what is happening to members of the family is now told via letters written by Clary to her father. The tone of these is completely right for letters from a fifteen year old girl. It concludes at the end of 1941 with news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour which portends a longer war; but there is good news on the European war front for the Cazalet family.
I loved the depiction of children throughout – the way they talk to each other, what they talk about, their language, their interests, their concerns, how they relate to one another and to adults. . This is especially true in the first volume. Later we can see how those interests and their early experiences have moulded the adults they become. We follow them through the frustrations and joys of childhood, the miseries of adolescence, traumas of early romances and finally witness heartbreak or happiness.
Personalities and the nuances in the relationships between people emerge slowly as we get to know them better. People who love each other unwittingly cause distress by concealing things. Misunderstandings arise and strain even the most loving relationships. Sensible advice given, heeded and unheeded. Everyone is multi-dimensional. No-one is completely bad, no-one completely good. Everyone stands before use in their messy reality. . You feel that you know these people and are intensely engaged in what they’re doing and what’s happening to them.
This opens in March 1942 and is told in chapters mostly reflecting the viewpoints of Louise, Clary and Polly but with a couple looking at the family as a whole. The title, once again, captures the whole tone of the book. People are certainly confused – mostly about love. But we open with Polly who is savage about the secrets adults have kept from her. We’re still at Home Farm but the impact of the war is starting to impinge more on everybody. Lots of talk about food stamps and even the food in London restaurants is below par. The good news that ended the last book has not resulted in any practical change. Mostly about love. Louise is completely independent of family but struggling with others expectations and her own desires.
Clary and Polly are growing up and questioning the status quo – about women in particular. Archie is still around. Adolescent crushes continue, as do affairs by married folk; one in a most unexpected way. Lack of knowledge about sex blights the lives of women – both old and young! It’s hard to say more without spoilers and I don’t want to do that. All through reading these books
I’ve been trying to work out how Jane Howard has managed to get readers so involved in these characters. There are the usual things you find in novels, descriptions of physical features, personalities and so on but somehow in these books the characters come alive. She spends a lot of time describing clothes; especially, but not only, womens. Dresses and outfits sound wonderful. That might be part of it – you get a clear sense of what everyone looks like. It’s probably more to do with how wonderful she is with dialogue. All of the talk sounds exactly like talk does. There are no forced speeches explaining anything. Snippets of conversations convey a lot. And all of the characters retain their own individuality always.
This volume ends with the European war ending and a mysterious final coda from the point of view of a man on a boat. It took me a while to work out who he was – no spoilers, so no more to say.
Casting Off, 1995
This volume is dedicated to Sybille Bedford with love and homage. Sybille was a great supporter of Jane Howard. This takes us through from 1946 to 1947 but I can’t say much about it without spoilers. The title, again sets the scene. The greatest casting off has happened at the 1945 general election, which the dreaded Labour Party has won. The Cazalet’s being rusted on Tories (mostly) can’t believe the people have turned their backs on Churchill. Now the war has been won so people themselves have to cast off from the personas they adopted during their wartime and that becomes a backdrop to this volume. It’s hard for people to pick up where they left off.
Nor is it easy to cast off adolescence and start adult life as Polly and Clary are doing. They are sharing a place in London; getting jobs and having romances. It’s lovely to see how the personalities and interests that we have been familiar with since the first book have moulded who they have become as adults. Louise’s life is set on a course that seems to be fixed.
The lives of the older adults are getting more complicated too and there will be cast-offs before the end of this volume. Over time Archie has become something of a father-confessor for family members – someone in whom they can confide in confidence.
Jessica’s family come to the fore in this volume – her husband Raymond and children Angela, Nora and Christopher. We’ve met them before but now we see what’s happened to them as they’ve moved out into the world. Their lives illustrate different aspects of how the war impacts on peoples lives – both for good and ill. And so we witness more affairs, more marriages and more deaths. We seem to know where everyone is headed in life and, while all is not well with everyone, it is all quite satisfactory.
All Change, 2013
But wait there’s more! Howard wrote the first four volumes in an extraordinarily short time – they were published almost annually between 1990 and 1995. After a gap of eighteen years, in 2013 she published a fifth volume. It was dedicated to Hilary Mantel and her husband. Hilary had long been an admirer as you can read here.
Once again the title reflects perfectly the substance of the novel. It begins in 1956, nine years after we left the family, back at Home Farm where the Duchy is dying. Change is everywhere. The servants are getting old as is everyone we met in volume one. As we discover at another family Christmas, this time with Rachel presiding not her mother.
The older young people from back then – Louise, Polly and Clary have paired off. Polly and Clary at opposite ends of the income spectrum. But as with their parents they are finding marriage and adult relationships as difficult as their parents. The boys’ stories now get updated – Teddy, Simon, Neville – all facing different challenges involving class, business and romance. Young Neville who was incorrigible as a little boy now gets a story and he has grown up exactly as you would expect.
Perhaps the biggest change in this volume concerns the firm which necessitates change all round. The whole world is changing around these beautifully realised characters and we sympathise with their struggles to adapt. It ends in 1958 with another Christmas at Home Farm.
There’s a new lot of youngsters running around the place, having the same conversations and doing the same things the children did in volume one. At least one family ruptures is confronted, futures sketched out and resolutions made – most particularly by Louise who is now 35. And so our saga ends. I was disappointed to leave them after following their lives for nineteen years. The whole series is a tour de force.
Before I leave the Chronicles, check out these cover designs. Howard thought the covers of her books contributed to the variable and often lukewarm responses to each instalment. My ebooks change covers when I’m not looking – I assume converted to the latest. I’m not sure how I managed to catch both of these. The one on the right is the original. Which is preferable? Would the sketch put male readers off? If so, their loss.
Slipstream, Elizabeth Jane Howard
Missing her characters I moved on to the author. This was published in 2002, well before the final Cazalet book. I was astonished to find that nearly all of the characters and situations in the five volumes of the Chronicles were based on her actual family. Amazing! Louise, Polly and Clary are all different aspects of herself – the great beauty aspiring to be an actress, the lover of fine objects and whizz at house design, the writer. The marriages (well, Louise’s) and the affairs they have are based on Howard’s own. Her family had a timber business. Her grandparents had a place in Sussex called Home Farm. They were called the Brig and Witchy. Edward and Villy are carbon copies of her parents. He the womanizing charmer, she bitter about giving up her dancing career and hostile to her daughter. All exactly the same – well almost. That’s why the characters are so believable and why the young women are more rounded than perhaps the other characters – she is writing about her own lived experience.
She married very young, at nineteen, to Scott of the Antarctic’s son Peter, whose mother was a nightmare – according to the novels and this memoir. She knew very little about sex, less about childbirth and was treated terribly when she was having a baby she knew she was to young to have. Post natal depression, bored witless as a naval wife onshore while her husband went to war, then doing the duties required of the wife of a political candidate (failed) and without any interest in the natural world which was his passion, so divorce beckoned. In doing so she more or less gave up her daughter – first to a nanny and then to Peter’s second wife. It’s not quite as complete a break as it’s presented in the novel and they were close when she was finally on her own – which took a while!
She tried out acting unsuccessfully and modelling. Always being noted as a beauty she is scathing about being treated as that and nothing else. After the marriage (and a bit before it ended) she embarks on a string of affairs. I found it upsetting that as soon as some bloke looked at her she willingly followed him. A terrible neediness and lack of self esteem.
All the time she is writing all the time and working hard at lots of things. She organised a very successful literary festival and was in demand on television book shows in Britain. She had already written four novels, the first of which won a major literary prize by the time she finally marries Kingsley Amis. There was another brief marriage to an expatriate Australian which is discarded quickly and barely mentioned.
She was married to Kingsley for eighteen years and he seems a complete nightmare; a caricature almost. Writes all morning, eats, sleeps and then plays. All the time drinking vast quantities of liquor. A bottle of whisky a day minimum. She dances around him doing everything he wants. Changing houses, entertaining, organising travel, chauffeuring him around as he doesn’t drive. Looking after his kids from his first marriage – setting Martin Amis off on his writing career.
When she finally leaves him, thank god, she then moves through a series of affairs with married men. I’m not going to repeat the famous names – for years that is what she was most famous for. Which is disappointing. The final part of the book is mostly about these very unsatisfactory relationships which always end badly. She is also very engaged in moving houses and decorating them, holding expansive dinner parties with lots of people you aren’t interested in. Disappointing.
Mostly because she hardly talks about her books at all. I concur with her friend Roy Foster whose response to this book was that he didn’t care who she went to bed with, he wanted to know about her work. She replied she didn’t think people would be interested in that – she has been conditioned to think her life is more important than her work. More evidence of lack of confidence, self esteem and perhaps the result of the lack of attention given to her work during her lifetime. Awful.
In all she wrote a total of sixteen novels, two books of short stories, a film script, a television script (for Downton Abbey). And there’s barely a mention of how she worked at them. She talks about getting them published and a bit about her editors, but nothing about how or why she wrote them – except one called Falling.
This was about a bloke who pursued her after hearing her on the radio when she was in her seventies! After corresponding for a while she invited him home and bedded him. She is very open about needing the sex. She was thinking about marrying him – by this time she is comfortably off financially (that took a long time) – and her family did some sleuthing. Turned out he was a complete conman. She was told by an expert that this book was the most insightful writing about a psychopath he’d read. After it was published she was contacted by people who’d been taken in by him and even a letter from him suggesting he was still at it! So that was interesting.
She was obviously a very complex person. Stymied by a complete lack of formal education but she showed no interest in pursuing any further learning as an adult. Lots of contradictions – both shy and arrogant, disdainful in her beauty and proud of it, flouting conventions and then setting high standards. Not much given to self reflection, despite trying transcendental meditation for a period. She couldn’t stand being alone and always had large numbers of people staying for extravagant meals at week-ends which involved enormous amounts of work – for her and others. Interesting, but it’s the novels that count and she was more often known for her liaisons than her work. A pity.
Elizabeth Jane Howard A Dangerous Innocence, Artemis Cooper
Having read Slipstream this biography was a bit repetitive, recounting family history, marriages and affairs, details of houses and lists of friends. I do think this is the best photo of her – better than the one she chose herself for her autobiography. Artemis Cooper was a friend and this is an authorised biography. She draws on Slipstream a lot – which makes sense I suppose but means it’s not as insightful as it might be.
There are snippets of fact checking against Howard’s own portrayal of people and events. For instance her mother was not quite as hostile and nor was Peter Scot’s mother so bad – although she did threaten to kill her if she harmed Peter, but it was just her joking way! People who knew her do mention some of the contradictions I picked up reading Slipstream. Some make the point that if there was an easy way or a hard way Jane, as they all called her, would choose the hard way. So with Kingsley who didn’t really care what he ate she could have given him much simpler meals than the complex recipes she insisted on and the same could be said of the hordes of visitors to her final home in Suffolk, so her recollections of being left to do all the hard work of entertaining and house-keeping as put upon drudge was to an extent self inflicted.
Thankfully the biography covers the books insofar as plots are concerned. They sound interesting – all reflecting her interest in how people relate to one another, so a bit of a focus on lot marriage and romance I think – not that I’ve read any. I might. She was obviously incredibly clever at writing which makes it so frustrating that she doesn’t talk about it much in Slipstream. Here we are told how she had to argue with just about everyone to maintain the structure of her second novel, The Long View, which looks at a marriage going backwards. Editors all wanted it to go chronologically but she persisted and when published it was a great success.
Having read all this I feel sorry for her and I liked this bit of the biography which suggests a cause of all those affairs. A therapist friend, who ran a womens’s group that she joined and enjoyed, called her a bottomless pit of neediness. Cooper asked the therapist to explain what she meant and she replied: ‘To receive love, you have to have something to put it in,’ and she brought her hands together into a bowl, as if she were holding water. In response Cooper asked what that love-holding bowl was made of. “It’s made of touch, and saying sweet things, and hugging and intimacy – all the things Jane did not get as a child. So if you don’t know how to make that bowl, or if it’s broken, when love comes along you have nowhere to put it, it just trickles away. that’s why Jane could never have enough love, why she was constantly searching for more”.
The result of an Edwardian upbringing and the class she was born into and her milieu. Either way it’s sad. The other thing I learned from the biography was that despite her facility describing children – the way they talk to each other and to adults, how they think, their hopes and fears – when she invited people for week-ends she expected children have their dinner separately from the adults and to be in bed by seven. This meant people with children stayed away. Another hangover from a different upbringing.
She died at the age of ninety in 2014, a year after the final volume of the Chronicles was published. Amazing woman.
Cooper concludes her biography: In her lifetime Jane was eclipsed by Kingsley Amis … her books were dismissed as ‘women’s fiction’ … If you go into a bookshop today you are likely to find more books by Elizabeth Jane Howard than Kingsley Amis. Now that would have surprised her.
Elizabeth Jane Howard – her life and her work – is fascinating. I’d recommend the biography over the autobiography and above all The Cazalet Chronicles.