At Home with the Cazalets

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‘All happy families resemble one another,’ said Tolstoy, rather sweepingly, ‘but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ The Anna Karenina principle has so long been taken for a truism one hesitates to disagree, but on reading Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles it occurred to me that there’s no such thing as a happy family – how could there be? – and that if there were, it would be a most unsatisfactory subject for a novel.

The Cazalet Chronicles were published between 1990 and 2013, and comprise five novels, opening in 1937 and concluding twenty years later. Fortunately for the reader, the Cazalet clan is too large and too wholly, unrelentingly human to be happy. It is occasionally happy, of course – sometimes ecstatically, sometimes quietly – but it is a family richly alive with tragedy, boredom, betrayal and restlessness. When happiness comes it is sweet because it is brief, or because it comes hard on the heels of sadness or discontent; in this way the Chronicles mirror the lives we lead more closely than any other novels I know.

At the head of the Cazalet family are William and Kitty, known respectively as the Brig and the Duchy. William is no Brigadier, but owner of a thriving hardwood company; Kitty is no Duchess, but she has the ironclad, parsimonious gentility of English nobility. Hugh Cazalet, the eldest son, lost a hand in the Great War; he gets headaches, has a gentle disposition and loves Sybil, his wife. Their marriage is an exquisite study in two people devoting years to withholding their feelings out of disastrously misplaced delicacy. Edward Cazalet is handsome, charming, a decorated war hero and a coward; he is married to Viola, known as Villy. Rachel, their unmarried sister, sacrifices herself to the care of others; she is selfless, good-humoured, sensible and accompanied everywhere by the faintest whiff of burning martyr. Rupert Cazalet, the youngest, wants to paint – but his beautiful and restless second wife, Zoe, cannot be kept on an artist’s salary. Then there is the third generation – and the reader becomes grateful for the family trees provided at the opening of each novel: wistful Louise, who wants to act; clever Clary, whose hair is never tidy; beautiful Polly, much given to falling in love; fragile Christopher, frightened of his father. Fourteen cousins, each so fully realized it would be hopeless to attempt to describe them in fewer than fifteen pages apiece.

Orbiting the Cazalets, like satellites, are characters which in the hands of a lesser novelist might have seemed secondary or, in comparison, rather flat; but such is the generosity of Howard’s imagination that what seems at first the introduction of some minor role becomes, two novels later, a character no less intrinsic than the Duchy. There is Sid, Rachel’s beloved friend, who has some of the novels’ most poignant scenes; Miss Milliment, the Cazalet governess, a masterly study in female loneliness, loss and thwarted ambition; and Archie, whose faults and frailties caused me first to despair, and then to forgive.

The first of the novels, The Light Years, is set in 1937, that brief time before the old social order – of upstairs and downstairs, of country homes and shooting parties and convenient marriages announced in The Times – was done away with by war and its aftermath. The Cazalets live between Home Place, their sprawling Sussex home, and the London houses where the men tend to business, and – where Edward is concerned – to their mistresses. Howard understands as acutely as any novelist that there can be no light without shadow: certainly there are picnics on the lawn, and dinner parties, and visits to town to buy new frocks – but these illuminations cause the moments of darkness to be still more shocking. The greatest shock, for me at least, is a moment of sexual abuse handled with such lightness it is as if the author can hardly bear to touc

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Comments & Reviews

  1. Maryscott O'Connor says:

    What a beautiful, elegiac paean to a writer and her creation.

    I’m currently watching the television series of The Cazalets, taking great umbrage at every “misstep” and variance from the novels. Still, there’s something lovely in seeing one’s familiar friends depicted on the screen, even if they’ve “got it all wrong, all wrong,” as I’ve found myself exclaiming more than once…

    Thank you for this essay.

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