Reading The Cazalet Chronicles was always on my radar but what finally put this plan into motion was the reissue of all the five books in new sumptuous covers with the wonderful spine art – when aligned together, the spines form a picture (see the end of this post).I simply loved the books, they made for great comfort reads at a time when I needed it the most (in the recovery period after surgery).
The series, comprising five books, is a wonderful, absorbing, sprawling family saga set in Sussex and London, set around and during the period of the Second World War. These are novels teeming with characters and provide a panoramic view of the various members of the Cazalet family. The first one, The Light Years is set in the halcyon days before the advent of the Second World War, while the next two – Marking Time and Confusion – are set at the height of the war. The fourth one, Casting Off, takes place just after the conclusion of the war when the Cazalets must adjust to sweeping changes not only in the country but also in their personal lives, while the last one – All Change – is set about nine years after the events of Casting Off.
I don’t want to get too much into plot for fear of spoiling the reading experience, but I will touch upon the principal characters and some of the key themes explored in these marvellous books.
THE CAST OF CHARACTERS
William Cazalet and his wife Kitty (known as Duchy to their children and grandchildren) own a country estate in Sussex called Home Place where their unmarried daughter, as well as their three sons and respective families gather every summer to spend the holidays. Their eldest son Hugh had fought and been wounded in the First World War and the scars of that traumatic experience haven’t entirely healed. When The Light Years opens, his wife Sybil is expecting their third child – the first two offspring are Polly and Simon, both in their teens at the time. Hugh and Sybil love each other and have a successful marriage although there is a sense that both in their desire to please the other don’t really express their true feelings.
The middle son Edward, handsome and insouciant, is married to Viola (Villy) and the couple has three children – Louise, Teddy and Lydia (Louise and Teddy are close in age to Polly and Simon). Prior to her marriage, Villy was a dancer with a Russian ballet company but gives up her dancing career once she marries Edward. With not much to occupy her mind, Villy is beset with a feeling of emptiness and existential angst. Edward, meanwhile, continues to have extra-marital affairs of which Villy remains in the dark.
The youngest son Rupert is a painter compelled to hold a regular teaching job to support his family. Rupert has two children – Clary (in the same age group as Louise and Polly) and Neville. With the death of his first wife Isobel when Neville is born, Rupert subsequently remarries. When The Light Years opens, Rupert has only recently wed Zoe who is around 12 years younger to him. Rupert and Zoe behave like a young couple in love but Zoe enjoys the finer things in life and is prone to throwing tantrums when things don’t go her way. Rupert is always on the edge trying to please her. Zoe does not care for motherhood and has a fraught relationship with Clary. Rupert, meanwhile, laments at not having his space to paint…his day job and family affairs take up most of his time not leaving any room to pursue his vocation and passion.
Along with their father, Hugh and Edward are heavily involved in the family business (a company selling timber), Rupert is not yet part of it. Financially, Hugh and Edward are comparatively well-off, while Rupert struggles to meet expenses, particularly, Zoe’s extravagant tastes.
Then there’s Rachel Cazalet, the only sister among the three brothers, and unmarried. Rachel is in love with her woman friend Sid. But while the both the women are crazy about each other, their backgrounds and personas throw up many obstacles. Rachel is deeply devoted to her family often thwarting her chance of happiness with Sid. And Sid, whose origins are humble, refuses to accept any favours from the well-off Rachel and her family.
We are also introduced to Jessica Castle, who is Villy’s sister, and comes down for a month with her children to spend time with Villy and the family at Sussex. Jessica is married to Raymond Castle and they have four kids – Angela (a couple of years elder to Louise), Nora (who is around Louise’s age), Christopher and Judy. Given Raymond’s difficulty in holding on to a job for long, the Castles live a precarious existence financially, and Jessica secretly envies Villy’s more settled life, even if Villy can’t help feeling empty sometimes.
And then there are the children.
In The Light Years, the children are depicted as being absorbed in their own world – a world made up of picnics, games, friendship, fears, anxieties, and trying to get a grip on the bewildering realm of adults.
But from the second book onwards they start coming on their own and begin developing their own individual personalities. In this regard, Louise, Polly and Clary form the nucleus of the subsequent books taking on the mantle from their parents. Louise has something of the dramatic glamour about her and harbours aspirations of attending drama school and becoming an actress. Clary is not good-looking in the classic sense, although she does have expressive eyes, but she doesn’t care much for her outward appearance. Definitely intelligent, however, Clary displays a flair for writing with ambitions of one day penning a novel. Pretty and elegant, Polly feels a bit rudderless – she envies Louise and Clary for having an idea of what they want, since she is clueless. That said, Polly dreams of having her own home one day although she is vague about whether she plans to stay alone or marry and settle down.
Another key character who makes an entry in Marking Time is Archie Lestrange. Archie is Rupert’s best friend, and at a time when Rupert is away in the Navy fighting on the front, Archie finds refuge in Home Place where he quickly becomes the quintessential confidante of the family.
THEMES AND WRITING
At more than 500 pages each and spread across five books, Elizabeth Jane Howard, has ample scope to let the characters breathe and develop at a languid pace. As a result, each of them has a distinctive personality. Also, to make things easier, the beginning of each book displays the Cazalet family tree as well as a list of the cast of characters, along with a synopsis of the key events in the previous novel.
Some of the key themes covered in these books are marriage, family life, difficulties of war (the uncertainty, stasis, boredom and fear), limited opportunities for women, the indignities of old age, and the sweeping changes after the war, particularly with respect to class and tradition.
As the years roll on, marriages, births, deaths, disappearances, adultery and betrayal punctuate the lives of the Cazalet family depicted with compassion, generosity of spirit and considerable nuance.
In The Light Years, despite the convivial holiday atmosphere, the threat of disruption and their lives being upended hangs like a Damocles Sword over the Cazalets. The novel is set in 1937 when Hitler had started capturing territories but Britain was not sure whether the political environment then could escalate into a full-blown war. Of course, as readers we know otherwise, but the Cazalet family remains on the edge and gripped by mounting uncertainty especially in the second half of the novel.
Of course, from the second book onwards, the war becomes a hard reality, and the lives of the Cazalets are thrown out of gear as they must adapt to these new, terrifying circumstances. Having actively fought in the trenches in the First World War, Hugh and Edward are spared from active combat in the second war, although Rupert is not that lucky.
Ensconced in Sussex at Home Place for the entirety of the war, the women find themselves in a state of limbo. Louise and her cousin Nora attend a cooking school, while Polly and Clary have to carry on their lessons under their governess Miss Milliment. The Duchy continues to manage the running of the household and arranging the meals, while Villy and Zoe help in the nursing homes in whatever capacity they can. For Polly, Clary and Louise, particularly, the future remains uncertain and marriage does not really seem like an exciting prospect, although that is what they are expected to settle down for eventually. Louise is hell bent on attending drama school and vehemently resists Villy’s advice to sign up for service. Polly and Clary realize that the only option open to them is typing school if they want to secure any kind of job. University education is out of the question, it is a privilege granted to the boys – Teddy and Simon – although ultimately they are also expected to join the family timber firm.
War encompasses the second and the third books of the Cazalet series. The sumptuous country meals tastefully described in The Light Years, pretty much disappear in Marking Time and Confusion as rations and shortages rule the roost. The Dunkirk evacuation, the London Blitz and the continuous air raids keep the country and the Cazalets on the edge. With the eventual Japanese surrender, it’s from the fourth novel onwards that the Cazalets begin looking forward to a change in their lives with a few surprises in store.
Reading The Cazalet Chronicles was an immersive experience – all the books are evocative reads with the feel of a family soap on TV but without all the trappings of a melodrama. Composed entirely of a wide range of set-pieces, it’s like opening a photograph album that provides a glimpse into its vast array of people and their unique, complex stories. Led by finely etched characters, Howard’s writing is sensitive, nuanced and graceful, and she is adept at infusing psychological depth into this compelling saga along with keen insights into human nature. Against the broader landscape of war and its aftermath, what makes these novels so interesting is the rich, layered interior lives of the family members, many of whom are either battling their own demons or have dark secrets to hide…while the main storylines of Louise, Polly and Clary are as interesting as ever, it is also fascinating to read about the other cast of characters and how each of those lives shape up in different ways.
The first four books were simply wonderful, the fourth (Casting Off) to me was the best of the lot – it was beautifully composed where Howard brilliantly and sensitively conveys the plight of her characters and what is going on in their minds. My only quibble was with the fifth book – All Change. I knew going in that this was the weakest of the lot, and I have to concur. The character development so consistent in the first four books was somehow lacking in the fifth. Also, the portrayal of certain key characters was not in keeping with what was depicted before. The fifth is still highly readable, but I would have been happy if the series had ended at the fourth book as originally envisaged.
In a nutshell, with its domestic themes and a cast of fully realized characters, The Cazalet Chronicles are a terrific set of books; a series I cannot recommend highly enough. I am now all set to venture into her standalone novels.