Reading Note:
The Cazalets
22 March 2018

I am not going to attempt to do justice to The Cazalet Chronicles, the five novels of family history that Elizabeth Jane Howard spun from her own, hewing close to the facts where she and her parents, her grandparents and their sprawling, shabby Sussex country house were concerned, but ranging into fiction when filling out the other branches. The novels trace the Cazalets’ story from 1937 to 1947, and then take it up again, in a final, originally unplanned novel, from the summer of 1956 to Christmas 1958; the novels appeared between 1990 and 2013. The cast is quite large, but there are several principal roles, most notably a trio of cousins, all on the brink of adolescence at the beginning and all mothers by the end. Louise Cazalet, the oldest of these girls, is the one based on Howard herself, but she in no way dominates the narrative — not least because Howard assigned her own vocation as a writer to the slightly younger Clarissa Cazalet. The third girl, Polly, is something of a dream; neither as glamorous as Louise nor as clever as Clary, Polly radiates a calm, fastidious beauty that owes as much to her grounded character as to her pretty face.

By the time I got to the third volume, I had pulled A Dangerous Innocence — the subtitle of Artemis Cooper’s biography of Howard — down from the shelf, only to be disappointed that Cooper doesn’t make more of the real-life family background. Did, for example, the Howards’ timber company wind up in bankruptcy, as the Cazalets’ does? Was Jane’s uncle, Geoff, as hostile to her father, David, after the latter divorced his wife and married his mistress, as the novels’ Hugh is to Edward? (For this hostility is the germ of the bankruptcy — the brothers stop communicating effectively.) And what did Home Place, the Sussex haven, look like? Howard simply appropriated the name for her books, and presumably the layout along with it. Since most of the family spend the war at Home Place, it would be nice to have pictures. 

Sorry to be so lame. To do justice to these books, one would have to be able to argue compellingly that the rich domestic detail, from designer clothes to children’s bathtimes, is as significant as the are growth of character, the disappointments of intimacy, and other elements that are characteristic of the standard (man’s) novel. One would have to assess Howard’s ability to measure the balance of group activity against lonely reflection, the tensions of youthful alliance, and the weight of the burden of secrecy. I sense the significance and the measure, but sometimes wonder if I want it to be greater than it is. There is also the considerable impact of social change over time: it is because the parents grew up in a very different world that they are so often unable to guide or understand their children. They have a habit of falling back on Victorian complacencies in the prospect of confusion. Once one began an appraisal, the writing would go on for yards and yards. At the moment, all I want to do is to record having read The Cazalet Chronicles with complete engagement and the greatest pleasure. 

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