Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Cazalet Chronicles

Oh, where to begin?! I have just finished All Change, the last book in Elizabeth Jane Howard's marvellous Cazalet Chronicles and am equal parts elated and bereft! After five books and a story spanning 21 years, I feel like the Cazalets are my own family. As they are a large and ever-expanding family, it is to Howard's immense credit that she has drawn them all so completely for my mind's eye that I did not once have to refer to the sprawling family tree which appears so helpfully on the endpapers. Quite a feat at the best of times and she was in her late 80s when she wrote this.

It amazes me that she was able to so accurately capture and describe the internal emotional lives of so many diverse characters. She weaves them together beautifully by writing different chapters from the perspectives of different people, so the story keeps moving on but we are far more deeply involved with each character through seeing things precisely from their point of view. As my writing teacher always said, "Don't tell me, show me." Howard is a genius at that. She has also been clever here with her ending, which, of course, I won't spoil by giving away. I was so curious as to how she would manage to successfully wrap up such an ongoing family saga. There is no plot, after all; we are simply following the life of a family — all the ins and outs, up and downs…. I will simply say that I was not disappointed.

Howard's real skill is making us care about each and every one of her characters, even the less sympathetic ones. She has managed to make them so utterly human that we can always find a scrap of recognition (and therefore compassion) in even their most appalling behaviour. We all have less-than-attractive traits and it is a relief to see them handled so beautifully. We are also treated to a partial social history of England between 1937 and 1958, which is inherently woven into the writing (some of which is autobiographical). It's all the bits I wish I could "see" when I visit an old country house, the bits behind the closed doors: how did they really live, how did they think and feel, what did they wear and eat and do? What social conventions were they held by? And when and how did they allow for changes to set in?

Howard is brilliant at showing all the dynamics of a big family, how they are all cogs in a larger machine, each affecting the others. I come from a smallish family and do not live near most of them, but I do have childhood memories of gathering as a clan at my grandparents' house for summers and Thanksgivings with my aunts, uncles and cousins. There were elements similar to Home Place (the Cazalets' family home) and they are lovely memories, but only took place over a short number of years. In this series, their whole lives and those of their parents and children revolve around this hub and it is this unifying theme of the house being a true home to them all that is the real bedrock of her story.

My friend Jane (she of the most excellent recommendations) introduced me to these stories. I was resistant at first. Surely one family saga is much like another, I reasoned, and I had read plenty. She finally got so fed up with me that she bought me the first one, The Light Years, and told me to Get On With It! And I'm so very glad she did. My life has been immeasurably enriched by Elizabeth Jane Howard's wisdom, intelligence and grace. Jane told me once that every few years she would re-read the whole series (and there were only four at that point) from start to finish. At the time, I thought, "Good Heavens, is she mad?" (I am not usually a re-reader.) But now I totally understand.

I shall miss the Cazalets enormously and there really won't be any more stories this time as Howard died, age 90, shortly after the New Year. However, I know without a doubt that I will be joining Jane in her tradition of re-reading these wonderful books. In fact, just knowing that I have the pleasure of re-visiting all of them again has taken me from a mood of feeling quite wistful to one of happy anticipation of a grand treat to come. So, I have now only to implore you to go and get yourself a copy of The Light Years and tell you to Get On With It! Trust me, you'll be ever so pleased you did.


  1. Your friend Jane, who is my sister Jane, also introduced me to them and they're such lovely stories. I bought the last one weeks ago but can't bring myself to read it because I don't want them to end!

  2. Oh, Sally, I felt exactly the same!! I only managed to hold out for a couple of days, though. Clearly you are made of sterner stuff than I! :-)