Comfort Reading: The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I never watched more than a few episodes of Downton Abbey, although my mother was very fond of Upstairs Downstairs and The Forsyte Saga TV series when I was a child. Family sagas were not for me, I decided, especially when they show uncritically all those ridiculous English class differences.

The Cazalet Chronicles, however, are a bit of an exception, because although they depict the 1930s-1950s, a time of great social changes, and a period that Elizabeth Jane Howard (born in 1923) knew quite well, they were in fact written in the mid 1990s (the last one appeared even later, in 2013, shortly before the author’s death). Issues such as sexual desire (or lack thereof), contraception and abortions, incest and homosexuality are addressed with a frankness which mark them out as modern. Yet the style feels old-fashioned at times – or rather, it feels as though these books might easily fit into the type of books published by Persephone, Dean Street Press or the British Library Women Writers collection. Above all, the characters are very much a product of their time and education – there are no attempts to modernize their outlook on life, which I think a 1950s reader would have completely understood, but which can prove frustrating at times to the present-day reader. Yet, of course, it also provides an insight into a very different set of beliefs and behaviours, and ultimately that world dies out and the older generation is left behind, vulnerable and shaken. The books are often critical (sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly, of the habits, lifestyles and beliefs of the upper middle classes, yet there are also fascinating blind spots, because the author was of course a product of this very social class.

The lynchpin of the action is Home Place, the family home of the Cazalet patriarch and matriarch, affectionately known as the Brig and the Duchy. Their unmarried daughter Rachel lives with them, unable to quite admit to herself that she has a lesbian attraction to her good friend Sid. Their three sons are all married and have children, the older two fought in the First World War, and the eldest, Hugh, suffered some serious injuries. Hugh is happily married to the domesticated Sybil, while Edward gallivants about like a bachelor, although he is married to Villy, who gave up her career as a ballet dancer and is not quite fulfilled with domestic life. The youngest son Rupert dreams of becoming an artist, but was left a widower with two young children and is remarried to the beautiful, much younger and petulant Zoe, so he has to work to support his family. We follow the fate of this generation – watch them mature (or not), fall out of love (or not), have babies, fall ill, die or be left mourning, over the course of World War Two and the immediate post-war years. The story never quite loses sight of them, but shifts more towards the younger generation: beautiful Louise, who wants to become an actress, over-sensitive Polly, Clary who wants to be a writer, plus a lively assortment of brothers and cousins.

Chapters or sections of chapters move seamlessly from one point of view to another, and it’s astonishing how vivid and clearly differentiated each point of view is. The grown-ups often behave badly, are confused or feeble, observed with merciless acuity in their vacillations, while the children get all the best lines. Howard really seems to understand children’s psychology exceptionally well and has a great ear for dialogue and children bickering.

‘People don’t have black walls, Polly, I should have thought you’d have known that.’

‘Why don’t they? People wear black clothes and there are black tulips.’

La tulipe noire was actually very dark red. I know. I’ve read the book. It’s by a man called Dumas. It’s actually a French book.’

‘You can’t read French.’

‘It’s so famous you can get it in English. I can read French, but not so that I can understand it properly. Of course I can read it.’

The Cazalets are not aristocrats, but they are well-off at the start of the series, with the rare hardwoods and timber business their father has set up. The Brig keeps building new wings to the house or converting cottages on the grounds to house the family when they come for the holidays – and during the war, when they all need to evacuate to the countryside, that seems like great foresight, as does the Duchy’s rather austere approach to food and heating. We don’t get to see much of the story from the servants’ perspectives, with the exception of the rather touching Miss Milliment, the governess, who home schools all the children while they are small and the girls until they grow up. The boys are sent off to boarding school (even though they hate it, just as much as their fathers before them hated it), while the girls are not very well educated at all, as they are expected to just marry. There is a certain soap opera quality to the events and personal entanglements being described, but the author does an amazing job of zooming in onto poignant little vignettes, and then telescoping years into short chapters and paragraphs. By spending time with the same people over such a long number of years, you realise that their personal tragedies subside, their broken hearts mend, life moves on even though they might have the occasional twinge of regret. It’s a mature author’s reckoning with life: everything is about endurance, nothing lasts forever, and small pleasures and contentment might still be around the corner, if we know how to find and appreciate them.

It’s the lovingly described details of the house, the decorations, food, clothing, parties and so on, which make the series for me. It’s a rich social fresco, and we can see how tastes and product availability change over time. The author achieves this wealth of detail through almost exhaustive photographic description and enumeration – which could get boring, but, because it is historical domestic detail, ends up being quite fascinating.

The larder was cool and rather dark with a window covered with fine zinc mesh, in front of which hung two heavily infested fly papers. Food in every stage of its life lay on the long marble slab: the remains of a joint under a cage made of muslin, pieces of rice pudding and blancmange on kitchen plates, junket setting in a cut-glass bowl, old, crazed, discoloured jugs filled with gravy and stock, stewed prunes in a pudding basin, and in the coldest place beneath the window, the huge, silvery salmon, its eye torpid from recent poaching, lay like a grounded zeppelin.

This wealth of food and presents in the first volume give way to the deprivations of the war years, and then the long years of rationing after the war too. In the final volume, Home Place is starting to look terribly threadbare, especially now they no longer have an army of servants to help run it. The author is also very much interested in clothes and make up, and we get almost a blow by blow account of how clothes and mores both change in the 1940s and 50s, ending with some of the younger members of the family wearing jeans.

I believe that Elizabeth Jane Howard intended this to be a four-book series, but was then persuaded to write a fifth volume nearly two decades later to wrap up some of the storylines. Many readers feel that this final volume is weaker than the rest, and the styles is noticeably different -with faster, snappier changes from one point of view to another, or group portraits, including that of very minor characters, as if to cater for a shorter attention span of readers. It’s only when the family all come together again for Christmas at Home Place towards the end of the book that the detailed descriptions of games and conversations, food and clothes reappear, and they provide a moving contrast to the full house at the start of the series.

This beautiful new edition which came out in June 2021 was irresistible, so I gave myself the whole series as a birthday present.

I know I said that the protagonists are typical of their time, but I did find it disappointing that none of the women, of either the older or the younger generation, seem to find (or even seek) fulfilment outside the domestic realm. Clary is the only one who pursues her writing, but we are not entirely sure how successfully she will be able to combine family life and her art. I feel that Villy is particularly hard done by: beautiful, well organised, loyal and eager to help all others, she seems to have a natural talent at so many things, but has been raised by a prudish mother who told her sex was ‘the horrid side of married life’. Faced with a selfish husband who thinks only of his pleasure and comfort, she clearly suffers from not being able to use any of her skills fully, but both the author and the people around her judge her for being bitter and full of ‘self-pity’, even when she ends up (spoiler alert) being abandoned by both her husband and several of her older children. I would have liked to see Villy throw a proper diva-like tantrum at some point and punish the whole Cazalet family, who (with one exception) ultimately side with Edward, their half-hearted criticism of his behaviour notwithstanding.

There is something irresistible about reading all the volumes in quick succession and thus achieving complete immersion into this kind of world and family. I felt much the same about reading Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy or the (one-volume, but a massive volume) The Eighth Life (for Brilka). Perhaps I like family sagas after all, when they combine successfully with the description of a vanished world that I never knew.

43 thoughts on “Comfort Reading: The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard”

  1. It’s ages since I read this series, and I’m not sure that I ever got around to the fifth book. I can feel a winter cosy-up whole-series read coming on! 💕🌸

  2. Good for you, buying the series for yourself as a birthday present, and immersing yourself. I loved loved the review.

  3. I began reading the first volume a few years ago, spurred on by the outpouring of love for it on Twitter by people whose opinion I trust but gave it up. I suspect it wasn’t the right time for me. Perhaps it’s better to binge read the series.

    1. I did actually read the first book a few years back and was not hugely impressed. I described it as ‘they spend an awful lot of time eating and taking baths’ and I also mixed up the characters, but this time it turned out to be exactly what I wanted and needed. Yes, I think reading in quick succession did help…

    1. I kept thinking I must have read them before, because they sounded so typical of the 1950s and 60s, but they were in fact written in the mid 1990s, by which point I had already arrived in UK and was not that nostalgic for ‘olde Englande’ anymore.

        1. It’s not sugarcoating the past by any means, I think she is quite critical of many of the old middle class traditions, but she does it subtly, through the story telling.

  4. Your very thoughtful review has reminded me that I really need to finish the rest of the series! I’ve read the first three, and very much enjoyed them all, but for some reason I’ve not finished it.

    1. I tried to avoid spoilers (mostly) because I thought there might be people who have only read a couple in the series, but the truth is, this is not the kind of book you read for plot (or at least, I don’t). It’s all about the characterisation and the descriptions.

      1. I agree with you completely. I think Howard shows such strength in how her characters grow from one book to the next, and always find them and their actions highly believable.

    1. I didn’t intend to do the immersion: I was going to read just one or two and then leave the rest for the winter months. But it worked very well indeed. I now wish I had done the same with the Cairo Palace Street trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz, as I loved the first volume but then took a break and by now have forgotten who most of the characters are.

  5. There is definitely something about family sagas, isn’t there, Marina Sofia? When they’re done well, they invite you to immerse yourself and really lose yourself in the story. I’m very happy for you that you decided to treat yourself to this set; in these times, we need those comforts.

    1. In fact, I was so inspired by this particular family saga that I have just embarked upon another one, a Romanian one, and will hopefully finish my Egyptian one too by the end of the year (if I don’t get indigestion).

  6. Just skimming this post for now, Marina, as I have this series in the TBR and would rather not know too much about it before diving in. I will come back to it though, when the time in right!

    Your comment about the lovingly described details of the furnishing, clothes and food etc. caught my eye. It’s a feature of much of Howard’s work, based on the five or six of her standalone novels I’ve read so far. There are some wonderful examples of ’70s period detail in Odd Girl Out, which I very much enjoyed!

    1. I deliberately tried to avoid spoilers for that very reason, that many won’t have read them, or only read a couple. I would never have expected to read them all in two weeks, but it really seemed to work for me this time, and probably added to the enchantment.

    1. Yes, I think a lot of the descriptions are the author’s personal memories and it shows. No amount of historical research could make those little details sparkle quite so brightly.

  7. I bought the set of five books in April 2020 right after the pandemic started, hoping that they would work well for me as comfort reading. I have only read two of them so far but luckily I did enjoy them, so I am looking forward to finishing the series. I had wondered how she did so well at depicting the time, not realizing that she had lived through it (although I should have). Anyway, I hope you have motivated me to get to the third book soon.

  8. For some reason I have never fancied these, although I remember my mum thoroughly enjoying them. You make them sound right up my street, and I might need to add them to my need to buy list.

  9. What a wonderful write-up of this series, which I have wanted to read for ages. The new editions are not available in Canada at the moment as far as I can tell; eventually I may give in to temptation and order them in from the UK! I got a similar immersive satisfaction from reading both the Barchester series and the Palliser series all in one go: Trollope too creates such a complete world, and you get so fond of his people (even the bad ones!) after so much time in their company.

  10. I’ve not been drawn to these in the past – like you family sagas haven’t really been my thing and the covers of some editions were a turn off. But you make them sound far more interesting than I expected. How did you manage to keep track of everyone though??

    1. They have family trees at the beginning of each book and I sometimes had to check what child was whose (less clearly differentiated when they are very young). But the first time I attempted to read it, I only managed the first volume because I did get a bit mixed up.

  11. I enjoyed reading these after first hearing them read on BBC Radio 4. I haven’t read the fifth yet, perhaps I subconsciously avoided! In fact I was totally wrapped up in their lives and remember some of the scenes quite vividly .

  12. My partner was (still is) a huge fan of the sequence, and recently reread it and watched the box set of the incomplete TV series. I’ve yet to fall under the spell, but then I’ve got enough other unread books of my own to last me a second lifetime! But I appreciated this, er, appreciation. 🙂

    1. I was very nervous after buying the whole set that I might not like it and regret my purchase. But it has surpassed my expectations. I know that others have really liked them, but I do sometimes have tastes very much at odd with others, so…

  13. I’m completely with you, Downton Abbey I find boring but the Cazelet’s had me up all night I was so immersed in their stories. That was a few years ago now and although I have the last volume I haven’t read it, maybe I need a complete re read?!

  14. Apparently, I’m the only one who’ve never heard of this series. I’ll keep it in mind for when I need comfort read. It’s always good to have a virtual TBR of those.

    It’s fun to follow a family and see the characters grow.

    Have you read the Jalna series by Mazo de la Roche?
    In French, there’s also Les Dames du Faubourg, absolutely fascinating and set in Paris.
    When I was a teenager I loved the Louisiane series by Maurice Denuzière.

    1. Yes, I have read some, not all of the Jalna series. And I don’t know of your other two recommendations, so that’s something to check out. Although I suspect my love of family sagas might be short-lived.

      1. I don’t know how I respond to the Louisiane series now. Maybe I’d find them silly or badly written.
        Les Dames du Faubourg is interesting for the historical context.

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