Third time a charm? I can't remember when I first read Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles for the first time. To be exact I read the first three novels of the quartet, which follow the lives and adventures of the extended Cazalet family from just before WWII, through the war years and just after, but I somehow managed to skip over the last volume. Then in 2008 I decided it was time for a reread and this time I would read through the end of the story and discover just what I missed. But you know how it goes with reading plans sometimes. I read the first book, got distracted and didn't pick up any of the remaining three books. So, yes, I'm hoping the third time will indeed be a charm and I'll get the entire set read well before the end of the year. Don't get me wrong, this is no hardship on my part as I love Elizabeth Jane Howard's writing and it is so easy to become immersed in the Cazalet family, that rereading her books is a pleasure. As a matter of fact EJH is one of my favorite comfort read authors and I really must explore some of her other books, though I always seem to turn to the Cazalets.
The quartet is made up of The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion and Casting Off. Has it been more than a decade ago now that PBS aired the BBC adaptation of the books? I saw bits of it, but I am looking forward to watching it properly once I read the books again. The Light Years covers the summers of 1937 and 1938. This is the sort of story where not a lot happens really, other than the minutiae that makes up the drama of real life. In a way that's exactly what I love about these books, getting a sense of what life was like then. What Howard excels at, though, and I like this even more, is characterization. There are lots of Cazalets, and there are friends and lovers, tutors, household staff and each is distinct from the other. Each has a voice from the Brig, the head of the family, down to the youngest child. And each has quirks and worries and concerns, dreams and desires, and the reader is privy to them all.
Hugh, Edward, Rachel and Rupert make up the core of the family. The three sons are married and live in London. The elder two work in the family business importing timber. Their father, the Brig, is something of an autocrat and should be retiring from the business due to failing eyesight but can't quite seem to hand over control entirely to his sons. He and the Duchy live in the Sussex countryside at Home Place, which I imagine to be a nice country estate with lovely gardens not far from the seaside. Rachel, being the only daughter and unmarried is stuck helping her parents. She selfless to the point of having no life, and it's a given that as an unmarried daughter she doesn't need more than to help the family. The youngest son is a painter but works as a schoolmaster. His first wife died in childbirth, and he's now remarried to a much younger, rather frivolous woman. Zoe hasn't a maternal bone in her body, unlike her sisters-in-law, Sybil and Villy. And of course there are all the children.
It's all the little details that makes this story so interesting and entertaining to read. There's quite a gulf between the generations, and it's most obvious in the way the various households are run, and in the private lives of the women. The Brig and the Duchy are positively Victorian in their outlook and ideas--the sorts of food the children should (or shouldn't) eat, and not swimming right after lunch and just how much water is required when one needs to bathe. Sybil and Hugh are still happily married with three children and another on the way. They're so concerned with making the other happy they don't realize that their small actions actually go a long way to creating misery at times. Edward is the playboy of the family, happy go lucky with hardly no worries, but Villy is at times almost unbearably unhappy having once been a ballerina and now feeling empty in her life role. And while Rupert would like nothing better than to devote his time to his art, a wife with expensive tastes and family pressure to join the timber firm means he must give up his dreams.
War in Europe is on the far horizon. Both Hugh and Edward fought in the First World War and while Hugh doesn't relish another conflict, Hugh expects to join up immediately. It's several of the children, however, who fear a new war with the chance their fathers will go off to fight and perhaps not return. in The Light Years, though, war hovers in the background only. More immediate concerns are simply to enjoy the summer and dream dreams. Louise, one of my favorite characters has high hopes to be a famous stage actress and play Hamlet.
Several years ago I read Elizabeth Jane Howard's absorbing memoir, Slipstream, and it's obvious Howard writes her novels from experience. These novels may be historical fiction, but she grew up during the war years and incorporates her knowledge and life history into her stories. I think surely Louise must resemble Howard herself most closely, though maybe there are bits of herself scattered about the story. Can you tell I could go on endlessly about this book? I wrote about it briefly here (and shared a few interesting quotes as well). I'm not giving myself the chance to become distracted again and have already started reading Marking Time. The first book ends with appeasement between Germany and Great Britain, but in the second novel war is almost a sure thing. If you like well-done wartime dramas, EJH is worth seeking out.