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 touch it. This dark thread runs through the books, profoundly affecting the psyche of one of the Cazalet girls; it is all the more troubling because Howard refuses to paint the man as a creature of out-and-out wickedness. At all times one is conscious of an author for whom no human act is beyond comprehension or redemption.

As the world moves on, so do the novels, their titles exquisite little précises of their themes: Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off, All Change. Hugh and Edward Cazalet, for whom the Great War remains a constant presence, view the storm-clouds gathering over Germany with private grief. The war, when it comes, is fought as valiantly by the women as by the men, and infinitely more interestingly: there is something rather straightforward about Rupert’s fate, about the Cazalet business responding to altered demand for their stock of hardwood, about uniforms and shore leave and regimental codes. War is man’s business: they’ve done it all before and think they know what they are in for.

For the women, the war creates fresh battlegrounds they could never have foreseen or prepared for – a curious kind of freedom, for example, which alarms as much as it liberates. Home Place is given over to the Babies’ Hotel, one of Rachel’s philanthropic projects: the squash courts are filled with camp beds for orphans and their nurses. The Cazalet granddaughters find themselves caught between their mothers’ expectations – of wifehood defined by fine needlework, babies and the expert placement of dinner-party guests – and the growing realization that the world is vast, and fracturing, and that perhaps after all they might be better suited to the stage, to writing, to the BBC.

On reading All Change, the events of The Light Years seem as impossibly distant as a childhood memory: here is Juliet, Rupert’s daughter, sporting jeans and in love with her half-brother; here is Clary, the child we loved – but now she is weeping at the kitchen sink, torn between motherhood and ambition. One of Howard’s great triumphs is her understanding that the political is personal, and the general specific: that a changing social order may be depicted in a pair of damask curtains left unmended, or in a Jewish aunt’s frantic devotion to baking cakes.

Howard spares us that most egregious of inventions, the ‘strong female character’. Her women are not strong, for why should they be? It has never been a requirement for fictional men: they are permitted to be stroppy (Heathcliff), weak (Hamlet), petulant (Lear), venal (Gatsby) and vain (ditto). But if by ‘strong’ that phrase was first intended to signify ‘memorable’, Howard succeeds beyond measure: the Cazalet women have lodged so deep in my consciousness I find myself half expecting to encounter Rachel fastidiously selecting an apple (she’d never eat anything frivolous) in my local shop. They are by turns heroic and cowardly, noble and selfish, feeble and robust; their fidelity is sorely tested, and frequently fails, and they are never judged for it; they are careful and neglectful mothers; they are infuriating and admirable, silly and shrewd, and never less than absolutely human. The acuity of Howard’s observation and empathy is such I occasionally blushed on reading, as if she had somehow pierced my subconscious: this was particularly the case when heartbroken Juliet pictures herself retreating to a convent, where she ‘would become known for her saintly disposition, fasting in order to give her bread to the birds, nursing the sick, welcoming any humiliation that came her way’.

Villy Cazalet – endlessly cuckolded wife of Edward – is an extraordinary example of characterization so detailed and so rich that it is possible to dislike her strongly with the fond dislike one normally feels only for a close friend. ‘Admirable, but not endearing’, she can never quite shake the conviction that she might have made a prima ballerina – her knees, she wistfully remembers, were widely admired – if only she had not married Edward Cazalet. She dislikes sex, which Edward seeks elsewhere (notably in the arms of violet-eyed Diana, the only character in the entire saga one suspects the author of loathing), and is characterized by a sense of duty which she undertakes with more competence than charm. I recall, on first meeting her (I was a teenager, and expected my heroines to be more admirable than life), being a little shocked when her teeth were removed: how could I lose myself in a novel in which the heroine wore dentures?

But that, of course, is the point. Howard is not offering escapism, precisely, though certainly the reader who walks into Home Place at lunchtime will find it difficult to find their way out by supper. What she offers instead is entry into lives which are as ordinary, and as extraordinary, as the reader’s own: one might escape for a moment (Christmas at Home Place: stockings laid out for the children, turkeys roasting, and the promise of snow!), but there’ll soon be some small disappointment or sadness, sometimes all too painfully like the reader’s own.

That Howard was technically accomplished as a prose stylist should never be called into question. I was delighted to observe that a stylistic flourish for which Hilary Mantel has rightly been lauded was deployed by Howard more than a decade earlier. In Wolf Hall, Mantel embeds herself so thoroughly in Thomas Cromwell’s consciousness that he is almost never named by the narrator: rather, the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’ are used, causing no end of confusion to the desultory reader. In the Cazalet Chronicles Howard does much the same, with the added dexterity of flitting between points of view: often a chapter will commence with phrases such as ‘She leaned forward . . .’ or ‘He was not used to walking . . .’, leaving the reader to attend to minute clues of body language and state of mind in order to divine which character has come on to the page.

This would be exasperating were it not for Howard’s mastery of what the critic Hermione Lee has called ‘the stuff, the prosaic detail, the thinginess of fiction’. The ‘thinginess’ of these novels partly accounts for their absolute persuasiveness as being ‘real’: each object grows as freighted with meaning as a saintly relic. We come to know, for instance, that Rachel smokes Passing Clouds cigarettes, while the younger women favour de Reszke Minors; we know that Zoe wears green lingerie because it suits the lovely pallor of her skin. There is meaning in the cook’s use of puff pastry for a rabbit pie, in Villy’s search for an evening dress; the litany of Harrington squares, looking-glasses, waste-paper baskets and mufflers is not the mark of ‘women’s fiction’ (whatever is meant by that), but of a creator with full mastery of her creation.

Elizabeth Jane Howard was born in 1923 and lived for ninety years. To read her extraordinary memoir Slipstream when familiar with the Cazalets is to enter a room full of echoes: Edward and Villy in particular seem drawn, with unflinching affection, from Howard’s own parents. She married a noted naturalist at 19, thinking the marriage would keep her safe from ‘all the things I’d pushed so far down I need no longer acknowledge them’. She left him four years later. Soon she encountered Robert Aickman: she did not find him in the least physically attractive but was entirely in his thrall. Laurie Lee and Cecil Day-Lewis also were her lovers; she married Kingsley Amis, and loved him because he made her laugh; as stepmother to Martin Amis she was, he said, a guiding force in the development of his literary life, and he ranked her as a novelist alongside Iris Murdoch. In 1951 she was awarded the John Llewellyn Rhys prize for her début, and she wrote, besides the beloved Cazalets, other much-admired novels including Falling. In later life – her marriage to Kingsley broken down – she decamped to the Suffolk house which she bought ‘in about ten minutes’, and lived there until she died. When I think of her death, I think also of the last days of one of the Cazalet wives, surveying her garden as she contemplates her end: ‘She would see no more swallows or roses or new green leaves, or mornings when blackbirds stabbed away at the fallen apples . . .’

Naturally enough, a series of novels written by a woman which painstakingly unpicks family life has not – yet – been warmly embraced by those mysterious forces which compile the canon. In 1985, Margaret Drabble omitted Howard from the Oxford Companion to English Literature; the author professed herself ‘puzzled’. Shrewd to the last, Howard described the Cazalet Chronicles as likely to be read by ‘women and educated men’, deliciously suggesting that a man must be trained in reading skills which come naturally to women. In fact, it was a man – an educated one at that – who encouraged her to write The Light Years: dithering between a proposed contemporary setting of Sense and Sensibility and a trilogy about a family during the war, Martin Amis had no doubt where his stepmother should direct herself: ‘Write that one,’ he said – and she did.

The Cazalets require an investment of time: the Chronicles run to some 3,000 pages and cannot be skimmed lest the reader overlook the little signifiers – the Passing Clouds cigarettes, the necklace of garnets, the stump of a severed arm concealed in a black silk sock – that give each scene their full weight of meaning. By the time I reached the end of my second reading the Cazalets had accompanied me to Berlin and London and Prague in a mild winter; they’d been there when I woke on my birthday, and as my father-in-law roused himself from an operation; they’d sat with me in train carriages and doctors’ waiting-rooms and cafés serving strong tea.

A new year came and still they were with me: Juliet pining for her half-brother, Villy concealing her bitterness with her too-bright lipstick, Clary scribbling in her notebooks. I grew to have the curious sensation that I might at any moment turn the page and find myself there – an onlooker in a long coat perhaps, or some new student of Sid’s nervously holding my old violin. And it struck me that were I to choose an author to write the rest of my life I would not take any of the Brontës, with their fondness for scenes; not Hilary Mantel, who might conjure up a devil at my deathbed; not even Jilly Cooper, since I’ve neither the energy nor the wardrobe for Rutshire. No: if I were to be a character in ink-and-paper let me be written by Elizabeth Jane Howard, with her wisdom and shrewdness and near superhuman power of empathy. She’d make no promises, conceal none of my faults, allow no rose to grow without a thorn; but it would be an examined life, and a good one, with Howard a most sage and kindly Creator.

© Sarah Perry 2016, Slightly Foxed Issue 52

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  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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