I was inspired to pick up this set of books after hearing snatches of the Radio 4 adaptation this year, and reading reviews of Artemis Cooper’s new biography of the author, Elizabeth Jane Howard – about whom I knew little apart from the fact that she was unlucky enough to have been married to the old devil himself, Kingsley Amis. How glad I am that I did, particularly in the dying days of this particularly dismal year. The experience of reading the Cazalet series (The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off and All Change) is like stepping into a warm bath. Comforting, life-affirming, immersive – and you absolutely don’t want to pull the plug.
The books follow the fortunes of a grand English family from 1938 until the 1950s. Dominated by a formidable elderly couple, known affectionately as ‘The Brig’ and ‘The Duchy’, the family includes three sons and their respective wives and children; various maids, cooks, gardeners and drivers. This is an upstairs/downstairs saga in time-honoured English fashion – although it is by no means a vanilla treatment of privileged upper class life. Under the controlled surface are pain, loss, passion, adultery, and unfulfilled desires played out against the backdrop of war.
The first book takes place on two summer weekends at the family home in Sussex. War is imminent, and the focus is on the parents’ lives, loves and anxieties. As the books develop and the small cousins grow up the lens shifts towards the young women coming of age during the 1940s and beyond – finding their feet in a rapidly changing world. Although these books are not taxing to read, the cast of characters is impressive and the period detail is perfect: the clothes, food, habits, language and attitudes of the time are all beautifully recreated.
For me, Howard’s real skill is in entering the mind and catching the idiom of each character in turn; her gentle humour and sharp observations, and in her ability to sustain the reader’s interest and attention over so many books. I will admit here I that haven’t quite finished the series: I am saving the final two volumes to read over the Christmas holidays – I know they will be the perfect companions for cosy afternoons by the fireside.
The Cazalet Chronicles is published by Pan and consist of five books.