I have recently acquired a new mattress – after my back started telling me in no uncertain terms that the old one was knackered. I am somewhat sceptical still about the benefits of the much-lauded (and expensive) ‘mattress in a box’ Emma, but just think how much more expensive it might be to have one of the bedrooms below!
I can downsize quite easily if I live all by myself – but I will need a special room just for my books, somewhere to read, write, and just admire all the imacculately arranged shelves. The ideal would be the Whatley family’s specially-commissioned library in Texas (first picture below), but some of the others might also do…
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.
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.
If you don’t have a garden or a big enough one for a shed, then these little chalets, huts, houses might tempt you – most of them are open to paying overnight guests.
Last week I headed back to my workplace for the first time in 18 months and mentioned that, despite the discomfort of commuting and fear of Covid, one of the absolute perks of my job is working an iconic building such as Senate House. I have always been an Art Deco fan, and the architect, Charles Holden, was clearly also influenced by the Bauhaus style when he proposed a grandiose scheme in the early 1930s. Lack of funding and the start of the war meant those plans were abandoned and only a small fraction was actually built. Nevertheless, it is an impressive building both inside and out, and has starred in many a film or TV series. You can find a full list of films, TV productions and advertisements in which the Grand Old Lady has played a part here, but I’d just like to highlight a few personal favourites.
Twenty-five years ago I went to Germany for fieldwork during my Ph.D. I was based in a small university town Marburg, and very soon I discovered there were two other Romanian girls studying there. One of them became a very good friend: we were both passionate about literature (both German and English) and were both in very new, very long-distance relationships that we weren’t entirely sure about. I had concerns about my boyfriend’s character, while she was more concerned about the age difference (she was three years older than him). We both ended up marrying our sweethearts: my fears were well founded, hers not at all.
Csaba was Romanian of Hungarian origin. He ended up embarking on business studies in Marburg himself, so as to be with my friend, although he spoke hardly any German at the time. He had been an elite athlete previously and we would go running in the woods together, and he also introduced me to Tai Chi. He was full of energy and humour, utterly devoted to my friend, sending her tapes with his voice whispering sweet nothings in her ear whenever they were apart.
They returned to Romania after their studies, had children about the same time as I did. I could think of no better people to ask to be godparents to my second son, even though I knew we were going to be hundreds of miles away.
Whenever we went to Romania, we visited them and our boys became good friends, despite the mix of five languages and cultures that they were experiencing between them.
Their older son graduated from secondary school this year, just like mine did, and planned to study medicine. They were justifiably proud of him, and trying to decide if he should study in Romania or Germany.
Early this morning, my friend sent me a message that Csaba died of Covid. It is hard to believe that a man like this, the heart and soul of every party, but also the most thoughtful and loving husband, father, godfather and friend, could just be snuffed out like that. All the adventures and visits and joint ventures we had planned… All the advice and serenity that his sons will never get a chance to experience… All the love and support that my friend is now left without…
I have no words. Other than: make the most of your life and your friendships.
Farewell to thee! but not farewell
To all my fondest thoughts of thee:
Within my heart they still shall dwell;
And they shall cheer and comfort me.Anne Brontë
I am lucky enough to have a room of my own, a study, in my house. Yet I never stop dreaming of a little dream cabin or writing shed hidden somewhere in a (beautifully tended) garden, out of earshot of the house.
Yesterday I ventured back to work in central London for the first time since the 16th of March, 2020. Obviously, the student-facing or facilities management staff have been going in fairly regularly already, but from September this year, all of us in professional services as well are required to spend at least 40% of our working hours in the office. I will not quibble about the wisdom of that, other than to say that most of the courses I support and deliver are still online, which I can support better from home, while the other half of my work is content creation, which again benefits from quiet focus. However, I have missed the leafy, academic atmosphere of Bloomsbury and the iconic building where I work. With sunshine and relatively quiet streets before the students return (and ignoring the building works), it was very pleasant indeed to be back.
Senate House Library kindly waived my enormous fine for overdue books. They are celebrating 150 years since the foundation of the library this year, and will have a virtual exhibition of 150 of its most interesting books and artefacts. These include one of the first printed edition of Copernicus’ work, a manuscript of Don Juan by Lord Byron, a first edition of one of the first slave autobiographies, the Nazi Black Book for the British Isles and much more.
Although it was quiet, cool and very safe inside the building, and it was nice to wander around the streets nearby and discover my favourite Greek deli The Life Goddess was still making excellent traditional Greek desserts, the commute was as bad as I had remembered: busy, maskless, insufficient number of coaches on the train, long waits on the Underground. Add to that a very long day (so that I could avoid rush hour). the ‘novely’ of wearing respectable shoes and carrying a heavy backpack with a laptop while going up and down stairs, and you will understand why I collapsed for 45 minutes on my bed when I got back home.
In time, it will no doubt become more manageable. In the meantime, I have one very contented customer who is delighted that I am working from home still on most days.
It’s the end of the summer (for some of us) and so I leave the beautiful gardens and landscapes, and take you indoors. Please make yourselves comfortable on these sofas – although some of them look more comfortable than others. I love modern design, but I almost fear sitting down on some of these sofas for fear of messing up! (Incidentally, I am getting a new sofa soon, which may be why I am so receptive to these images, although it’s safe to say mine will be nothing like as grand as any of those below.)
When the summer holidays are over and people gather back for school and work once more, I miss all of my friends who live in other countries. Since I am still cautious about travelling, I can’t go and see them, but I am imagining we are sitting and having endless discussions over dinner and wine in places like these.