Wednesday, 4 May 2011

War stories: The Cazalet Chronicles


Next week I am taking a group of students to see the theatrical production of War Horse and to visit the Classic War Stories for Children exhibit at the Imperial War Museum. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reading the five children’s novels which feature in the exhibit – and it feels like the culmination of a year of reading novels which feature war (especially World War II) as the backdrop. These are war stories, but they don’t concern themselves with warfare or famous battles; rather, they focus in on the privations and struggles of the home-front. I hadn’t planned on this reading theme, but my interest in Persephone novelsSaplings or The Village, for instance – has landed me squarely in the mid- 20th century period which was so dominated by the long years of the war . . . followed by the long fall-out, economically and emotionally, from the war. It is a period that still grips the imagination, and shapes the national character, of Great Britain. For instance, at last week’s Royal Wedding, the balcony scene was as much about the “flyover” (the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight which featured a Lancaster, Hurricane and a Spitfire) as it was about a kiss. How many times have you wedding newshounds (and I admit to being in your company) read about Queen Elizabeth’s “austerity” wedding in 1947? Rather infamously, even a royal princess needed ration coupons to buy the material for her wedding dress.

If the recent wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton has aroused in your interest in England’s finest hour, I would thoroughly recommend the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard. The Chronicles are actually four novels – The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion and Casting Off – and none of them are short. But unlike the war, they don’t drag on. Although the first novel might feel a little crowded, as Howard introduces the many voices of her sprawling cast of characters, by the time I got to the final novel I was reading with a sort of absorbed frenzy – and then suffering from withdrawal symptoms.  If only there had been another one!  I could entirely identify with the person, as recounted in Howard’s memoir Slipstream, who wrote the author and begged her to reveal what was going to happen next.

In her memoir, Howard explains that she wanted to write the novels in order to show how England had changed during the war (p. 434, Slipstream). The device of a family saga is a perfect one for her purpose, because it features three generations of a family – neatly encompassing the cultural shifts of each generation. The wealthy grandparents, whose summer home in Sussex becomes the family base, are Victorian: theirs is a world of comfort and order, made possible by a vast web of loyal domestic help. The next generation, that of the parents, has been blighted – physically and emotionally – by World War I. They are still dutiful to the old traditions, but their lives – especially as represented by their relationships -- are rather frayed at the edges. The youngest generation, represented by three young female cousins, come of age during the war. They don’t exactly raise themselves, but in many senses – some of them quite literal – their parents are absent. By the end of the series, it is obvious that they will have to make their own way in a very changed world.  One of three female leads, the character of Louise, has a life which closely parallels that of the author.

Howard has a fine touch with detail, and all through the novels I felt immersed in the complete atmosphere of the world she recreates. If you want lots of domestic detail – to know how what an upper-middle-class family ate, or how the garden looked and smelled – these are the right books for you. Nearly all of the characters are finely rendered, even the more minor ones. As with Upstairs, Downstairs (and the more recent Downton Abbey), the “staff” are emotionally fleshed out. Indeed, one of the most vivid characters in the books – and perhaps my favourite – is that of Miss Milliment, the ancient family governess.

After I finished the Cazalet saga, I read Howard’s memoir and discovered how heavily she had drawn from her own life. I suppose she was following that famous dictum to write what you know, but I also felt like these novels were a life’s work in the very best sense. She wrote them quite late in her own writing life, a decade after the breakdown of her marriage with Kingsley Amis, and they have an emotional authenticity that has been, perhaps, tempered by the detachment wrought by time and plenty of reflection.

I read too much, and too quickly; and much of what I read is lost before too long; however, these novels – and their characters – have really stuck with me. I think of them; some of them have become friends. As I was reading Michael Morpurgo's novel, War Horse, I was reminded of Howard’s work. For those of you don’t know it, War Horse is a story about the relationship between a young English soldier and his horse during World War I. One of the war stories in her novel, which Howard borrowed from real life, concerned her real-life father and his older brother. Apparently they came upon each other, by coincidence, on a country lane in Ypres. They didn’t recognise each other until their horses (brought from home) neighed at each other.

If you've never heard of Elizabeth Jane Howard, or are unfamiliar with her work, you should really do yourself a favour and discover her.  Her life has been a long, full one, and it has intersected with many of the most fascinating characters of the past century.   Howard's mother, an infamously critical person, was quoted as saying that it was a pity that Howard had nothing to write about.  I disagree entirely.





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37 comments:

Dumdad said...

You've certainly whetted my appetite. I know of Elizabeth Jane Howard through the Amis connection but have never read her novels. I shall endeavour to change that soon.

the veg artist said...

I read through these a few years ago, and absolutely loved them. Did you know that her first husband was Peter Scott the naturalist, son of Robert Falcon Scott of Antarctic fame? The mother-in-law is based on Peter's mother, the sculptor Kathleen Bruce, who by then had married Lord Kennet - a lady with 'backbone' to say the least.

Margaret said...

I am SO excited to look her up! I am unfamiliar with her and from your wonderful description I am already hooked.

pattinase (abbott) said...

She is a wonderful writer. I am glad to hear her name again.

Elizabeth said...

Now you want to make me read EJH who I was slightly put off by her relationship with KA.....silly of me.
Yes, there is lots of splendid stuff written by women about the middle of the last century.
I'm in the middle of Winifred Peck's HOUSE-BOUND which is rather good --set in Edinburgh. Rose decides to run her own house with little help (none from husband or daughter!!!.......hm.........) thoughtful and well-wrought. Published in 1944 with the war still on.
I loved the Royal Wedding and do hope Camille's tea went off well.

Jeanne said...

Bee,
I really enjoyed this post! We took my 11 year old son to see War Horse in London after he finished reading the book. I also took him and a few friends to see the exhibit you mentioned at the Imperial War Museum and they enjoyed it. I loved it...could have stayed longer, but boys will be boys and there were guns and tanks about.

I first came across EJH in our local library. I wanted an audio book to get me thru traffic jams and picked up 'A Beautiful Visit'. Her writing is so descriptive that I was taken in from the very beginning. I would love to sit down with the book you mentioned and will make a note of them all.

I am envious of your reading...I miss it!!

Best wishes and enjoy your visit to the Imperial War Museum.

Jeanne xx

Barrie said...

You were reading in a frenzy?! That's a great recommendation! I'll have to google Howard. I know I've read something of hers, and it's driving me crazy that I can't remember what! Thanks for joining in.

Teresa O said...

My interest is piqued. I'll have to check into Howard and see if I can find her books. Thanks for sharing, Bee.

Bee said...

the veg artist -- yes, I DID know about her first marriage to Peter Scott. She talks about it in her memoir, but even more intriguingly, she describes it in the Cazalet Chronicles. There is also a very interesting portrait of the "mother-in-law" -- clearly Lady K.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Hello Bee

I will research Howard--never heard of her. I have the book on War Horse--would love to see the musical.

Thanks for sharing all this great information!

Best
Tracy :)

Beth Yarnall said...

Great review and I love the photos!

Sarah Laurence said...

Welcome back to the book review club – I always love the background you bring to your reviews. Thanks for the introduction to EJ Howard’s works as I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read anything by her. There is much appeal in a series that would show how historical events affected one family over time, especially given the personal history.

I loved Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey too. I wanted to see War Horse now playing in NYC, but too little time. Your garden looks lovely too.

rayfamily said...

I can't wait to dive into them! I loved Upstairs Downstairs, I remember watching it when I was young with my parents and I introduced my husband to it a few years ago. Downton Abbey was wonderful! Thanks for the information!

Nimble said...

You've got my number, I've added them to my list. I find to my bemusement that the university library has numbers 2 and 4 and the city library has 1 and 3. What happened?!

I can't agree with "I read too much and too quickly". I understand the feeling of gulping down novels in a way that makes it hard to remember them. But I figure better a glancing blow than to never have read them at all.

Christina said...

ok you so have me going, with this one. and i love it.
i am putting it on my list.
xo

Reya Mellicker said...

I am so happy I stopped by. The books sound fascinating.

I didn't get up in the middle of the night, but I did watch bits of the wedding the next day. They feel like a solid couple, at ease with each other and very happy.

I imagine it'll take a long time before Europe is healed from WWII.

steven said...

hello bee! these are new titles to me and a new author. i am intrigued by the war that my parents lived through (as young children) and i really want to know more about it. the first world war was told best to me through the flax of dreams series by henry williamson. i've been looking ever since for something similar about world war two. steven

Linda said...

I am so excited--i love long sagas that go on book after book about generations of the same family..there's something so human about them and I too mourn when it's finally over and i must close the whole thing....now you can guess where i'm off to...to buy them!

your remarks particularly moved me and I can imagine this scene played out many times during the war: "Apparently they came upon each other, by coincidence, on a country lane in Ypres. They didn’t recognise each other until their horses (brought from home) neighed at each other." sigh xo

Frances said...

Hello from New York, Bee, and thank you for reminding me of the author Elizabeth Jane Howard. Her books have been recommended to me before, but somehow I never quite checked any of those novels out from the library.

The way in which you describe your reading (quick and sometimes leading to forgetfulness) really connected with me. I steal my reading minutes while waiting for buses, or subway trains, or even while riding on buses or subway trains. I immerse myself in the book of the moment, and then...find it's due back at the library and find that I've not quite finished it. So back to the library the book goes, and I ask to be again added to the reservation list. And so on.

So, when I next visit the library I will go to the stacks and take home the first of that family series by EJH. Thank you!

slommler said...

What a great and glowing recommendation..I will have to give these a read!!
Hugs
SueAnn

Joanne said...

Just before Easter we visited RAF Coningsby which is where the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight is based. The Spitfires were practicing while we were there, which was very exciting. The Light Years is on my TBR shelf and I'm looking forward to reading it.

MARGARET GOSDEN 2 said...

The Cazalet Chronicles series is on my list! This period of history is of great interest, still being alive to
remember my grandparents, but not what they lived
through, except that they lost a son to WW1 at the age of 17. Love the photos of your flower borders! Thank you!

herhimnbryn said...

Hallo Bee Lady,
Thankyou for this. Like many others, I know of E.J.H, but have never read any of her work. I will now. I need a swag of books to read as winter approaches here and these seem like the way to go.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

How could her mother say such a thing? Scheesh. I've read Howard's novels and loved them! I don't know if I could possibly sit through the War Horse, though. I was sorely tempted when I was in London to go and see it, but I just think I would spend the entire evening in floods of tears. Let me know what you thought!!

Merisi said...

Thank you for this post, I bookmarked it for later reference. Hugs, M.

sewa mobil said...

Nice article, thanks for the information.

Dick said...

I devoured the Cazalet sequence when the books came out and I've been in semi-withdrawal ever since. Only Mary Wesley's 'The Camomile Lawn' gets close.

Dick said...

I devoured the Cazalet sequence when the books came out and I've been in semi-withdrawal ever since. Only Mary Wesley's 'The Camomile Lawn' gets close.

Dick said...

I devoured the Cazalet sequence when the books came out and I've been in semi-withdrawal ever since. Only Mary Wesley's 'The Camomile Lawn' gets close.

Meri said...

More things to add to the "to read" list. Just what I need!

Anna said...

Bee I grew up in Poland (now in Canada), and we always enjoyed the movies from the war times.
Like you said: 'they focus in on the privations and struggles of the home-front' - only few we watched that showed the famous battles, otherwise it was all about family life during the war. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Anna :)

Cottage Garden said...

I don't know how I managed to miss this post Bee, as illuminating and engrossing as ever you have whetted my appetite for the work of Elizabeth Jane Howard. I loved The Village and like yourself, I seem to be into early to mid 20th century writing at the moment.

How was War Horse? I must see it before it closes, I hear its incredible.

Jeanne
x

Emm said...

For years I separated fiction and non-fiction in my mind and thought that I could only leanr about history through non-fiction. That all changed in the past year and I've read several works of historical fiction dealing with WWII and Zimbabwe c.1983 of all places. It has been a great experience and I'll certainly be adding more historical fiction to my list.

I've added this series to my never-ending to-read list!

twebsterarmstrong said...

I read The Light Years this week because of your recommendation, and have ordered the next three in the series. Thanks!
(This, after my announcement that it would be a non-fiction summer...)

Relyn said...

Oh, I do love all your bookish adventures, friend. I have missed you.

desert argonauta said...

Dear Bee,
I love what I see of your blog- and will take more time perusing...I'm a California girl with roots in Texas and a heart in England! I'm retiring from 35 years teaching English to seek my fortune as an artist!
Desert Argonauta (blogger)

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