Elizabeth Jane Howard is an English author, born in 1923. I picked up her autobiography Slipstream: A Memoir at the Clyde Quay School Book Fair earlier this year, enjoyed it tremendously, and have subsequently read her best-known books, the four volumes of the Cazalet Chronicle: The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion and Casting Off.
The four books follow the members of the Cazalet family – a large, ramifying upper-middle-class family living in southern England – during the ten years from 1937 to 1947. The Light Years opens with the shadows of war beginning to fall on the family and their servants. By Casting Off, the war is over, and the world into which the characters emerge has changed fundamentally.
The Cazalet household, which sees out the worst years of the Blitz in rural Sussex, consists of matriarch and patriarch the Duchy and the Brig; their three sons, Hugh, Edward and Rupert, their wives Sybil, Villy and Zoe, and their children; their servants; and several outsiders whose lives and fortunes become entwined with those of the family.
Over the four books, Elizabeth Jane Howard gives us the chance to get to know all the family members, and the outsiders; but the central characters are three of the children, Louise, Polly and Clary, who are girls in their early teens at the beginning of The Light Years, and women in their early twenties by the end of Casting Off. Casting Off ends in marriages rather than deaths, and thus the series may be accounted a comedy; but the comedy is often painful, for marriage in these books is just as likely to end in adultery, bitterness and divorce as it is in happily ever after.
The great strengths of The Cazalet Chronicle are its delineation of the characters of these young women and their parents, and of the way in which the social changes wrought by war and its aftermath affect their lives and their post-war prospects. The actual conduct of the war is largely off-stage, and the portrayal of the male characters, especially of the younger males, is less rich — though the three Cazalet brothers, and Rupert’s friend Archie, are distinct and complex characters.
From reading Slipstream, it’s clear that elements of The Cazalet Chronicle are strongly autobiographical. Howard appears to have parcelled out her own experiences between Louise and Clary. Knowing this didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the books, however. There’s something Tolstoyan about the complex cast of inter-related characters and the background of conflict, and though these books lack the philosophical depths of Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Howard’s core characters are no less memorable than those in War and Peace. The Cazalet Chronicle really is that good.