The Cazalet Chronicles

Posted by on May 22, 2023 in Book review, Class, Literature, Nostalgia, society | 2 comments

Elizabeth Jane Howard, Pan Books

The Cazalet Chronicles/Books, paper, scissors

Both Dame B and I have mentioned in recent weeks having become hooked on Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, so it seems only right that as I near the end of the fifth and final volume I should try to put my finger on what makes them so satisfying. I can guarantee there will be no spoilers, though.

The Cazalet Chronicles are in the mould of the family saga, the natural successors to The Forsyte Saga, in that they cover upper-middle class life in London and the South East. My heart sank a bit as I started the first volume, as I feared a rather blinkered view of the tumultuous period covered (!937 to 1958). I needn’t have worried. Howard’s interest is not confined solely to the inhabitants of the ‘big house’, so to speak.

The opening section follows not only the Cazalets on their shopping expedition, but also the housemaid Phyllis, engaged in complex mental arithmetic as to what she can afford – not an exercise her employers have ever had to undertake. It also follows one of the books’ minor, but most marvellous characters, the children’s governess/tutor Miss Milliment as she has a cheap tea at the ABC café.

Occupying the classic nomansland of being neither servant not family, Miss Milliment displays a stoicism unrecognisable today.  Hers is genteel poverty in the extreme: she cannot afford new clothes and her living circumstances don’t enable her to wash the ones she has often enough. She looks like a toad (she has over heard someone say that). Yet the children adore her – she inspires in them all a genuine love of literature and painting, and more than holds her own at the Cazalet dinner table with her knowledge of art. Her wisdom and patience make her the repository of the most unlikely confidences.

The presence of a large tribe of these children means that the measured, wry narrative is always at risk of being punctured by some rudery or silliness: here is Lydia observing her father leaving the breakfast table with his newspaper: ‘He’s gone to the lavatory. To do his big job.’ She is swiftly reproved by Nanny.

And thanks to sundry nannies, the Cazalet ladies mostly have a life of ease: no cooking, little child care and constant visits to the theatre and dinners out. These dinners often seem to be followed by dancing at a nightclub somewhere. Meanwhile in one morning doughty cook Mrs Cripps has to ‘make four pounds of pastry, poach the salmon, get two huge rice puddings into the oven, mix a Madeira cake and a batch of flapjacks and strip and mince the chicken for the rissoles.’

Howard excels at following a character’s line of introspection to though to its logical, and often awful, conclusion, whether through tortured nights of solitary musing or though the shifting dynamics of awkward conversations. The mistress who got what she wanted is no exception: ‘… she reflected on how often they said this [I love you] to one another these days. It was a kind of ritual refrain, not so much a declaration as a staunching process; without it everything might leak away. This thought frightened her: it seemed extraordinary, almost inconceivable, that something she had wanted for so long was not making her deliriously happy.’

The First World War casts a long shadow over the book: Miss Milliment is one of thousands of women whose chances of love and family disappeared in the trenches; Edward Cazalet has flashbacks to the horrors shelling and hand-to-hand combat, and his brother Hugh lost a hand and received a head injury that leaves him with chronic pain. When it comes, the Second World War sweeps away much of what the Cazalets took for granted, among them plentiful food and staff. (By contrast plentiful heating is conspicuous by its absence: however grand or mean, the houses are uniformly cold throughout.)

Family saga, social document, examination of changing mores, soap opera, or just a damn good read – the Cazalet Chronicles mean many things to different readers, as is evident in the range of people supplying quotes for the covers: everyone from Queen Camilla to Hilary Mantel, via Joanna Lumley and Sybille Bedford.

If you haven’t read them and you haven’t decided on your holiday reading yet, look no further.

2 Comments

  1. A perfect holiday read or re read.

    The BBC adapted the first 2 novels in 2001 . Worth a look?

    • Yes, I’m very keen to get my hands on the TV adaptation. Apparently it’s available on DVD. I also heard some of the radio adaptation in 2014, but not enough to piece together what was actually happening.

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