Tag Archives: Elizabeth Jane Howard

Book Recommendations, Please

I know the people who regularly visit this blog are widely read, highly intelligent and have excellent taste, so could you please recommend me some books? But not just any books. I am looking for some very specific books – namely, books set in England, preferably London, in the 1950s or early 1960s, about middle-class or upper-class schoolgirls. The books can be novels, memoirs, biographies, autobiographies (or chapters of biographies or autobiographies) – I don’t mind, as long as they centre on the lives of schoolgirls and the author really knows what he (or preferably, she) is writing about. To be even more demanding, I’d prefer to read about girls at day schools, rather than boarding schools. A 1950s or 1960s version of A Long Way From Verona or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, set in London, would be perfect.

Here are some of the books I’ve recently read, or re-read, that didn’t quite meet my requirements:

An Education, a memoir by Lynn Barber, included some chapters describing how Lynn, a bright but naïve schoolgirl, was courted by a much older con man who convinced her (and her parents) that she should leave school and marry him. It was also made into an excellent film, written by Nick Hornby and starring Carey Mulligan.

Girlitude: A Portrait of the 50s and 60s, a memoir by Emma Tennant, looked promising, but wasn’t really about her life as a child. It’s about how the author, a spoilt, rich member of the aristocracy, drifted through the fifties and sixties, picking up and discarding husbands, lovers, friends and houses, dumping her child on her long-suffering parents, and occasionally deigning to work for a few months at a time at some fashion magazine or other (the jobs arranged for her by her family, as she’d left school at fifteen and had no qualifications or apparent skills).

I also read, or re-read, a few Noel Streatfeild children’s books, including the ‘Shoes’ novels (Apple Bough/Traveling Shoes remains my favourite), Caldicott Place (which was okay) and Gemma (which was dreadful). Then I read some grown-up novels by Elizabeth Jane Howard, All Change and Love All, as well as The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, which included schoolgirls as minor characters.

Any other suggestions, readers? Has anyone read the World’s End series by Monica Dickens or any of Mary Treadgold‘s children’s books, and would you recommend them? My only other proviso is that I’d prefer the books to be readily available. (For example, I’ve been intrigued by reviews of Antonia Forest‘s Marlow books for a while, but they’re in copyright yet out-of-print, and the last time I went online looking for a second-hand paperback copy of End of Term, it was listed for SIX HUNDRED DOLLARS, which is beyond my book-buying budget.) Thanks, everyone!

My Holiday Reading

I wasn’t supposed to be doing any holiday reading – I was meant to be finishing writing a book – but there’s just something about the week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day in Australia that forces you to lie about in a hammock, eating grapes and reading novels (and by ‘you’, I mean ‘me’). They were pretty good novels, though, and I guess I could argue that, as a writer, reading novels is an essential part of developing my professional skills. See, I wasn’t lazing about, I was working. Anyway, here’s what I read:

'All Change' by Elizabeth Jane HowardAll Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard was the fifth and final volume of the Cazalet Chronicles, a family saga set around the time of the Second World War. Although I’ve enjoyed this series very much, the fourth volume was the least compelling and I wasn’t sure a fifth novel was really necessary. It seemed to me as though the Cazalets had finally sorted out their lives for good – but no, in this book, everything falls apart, just as it did for a lot of wealthy English families in that post-war decade of upheaval. In All Change, bankruptcy looms for the Cazalets, although I must admit it was hard for me to feel much sympathy for them. The brothers have inherited a thriving timber business and numerous valuable properties from their father, but are too stubborn to accept business advice from their social inferiors (Hugh), too extravagant (Edward) or too indecisive (Rupert) to manage it effectively. Meanwhile, the women succumb to depression, dementia and terminal illnesses, have unhappy affairs and are exhausted by the demands of their badly-behaved children. There’s a whole new generation of characters that had me constantly referring to the family tree in the front of the book and there were quite a few continuity errors (for instance, Simon is described as having a dead twin, when that’s actually Will, who is mostly absent from this book). But I didn’t care! I devoured all six hundred pages in two days, thoroughly engrossed in the Cazalets’ story and sad that this was truly the end, as Elizabeth Jane Howard died last week at the age of ninety. She left behind a number of excellent novels and a lot of devoted fans of her work.

I also read Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson, an excellent children’s novel about an orphaned girl sent to live in Brazil in 1910. Among the characters Maia encounters are a stalwart governess with a mysterious past, a travelling troupe of actors, a kindly scientist, a missing heir to an English estate, a Russian count and a couple of evil (but fortunately, incompetent) private investigators. As always with Eva Ibbotson’s books, the heroine is a little too good to be true (beautiful, intelligent, a talented musician, a skilled dancer, friendly and kind to all people and animals, etc), but the story and setting were fascinating and I enjoyed following Maia’s adventures.

'A Long Way From Verona' by Jane GardamHowever, my favourite holiday read would have to be A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam, a brilliant coming-of-age novel set during the Second World War. Jessica is a bright, imaginative, melodramatic twelve-year-old who is utterly tactless and incapable of dissembling, yet convinced that she alone is able to understand others perfectly (meanwhile, wondering why she isn’t more popular at school). She gets into trouble constantly – for handing in a forty-seven-page essay that is not actually about ‘The Best Day of the Summer Holidays’, for eating potato chips on the train in an unladylike fashion, for hiding out in the library and reading ‘unsuitable’ books such as Jude the Obscure – and her idiosyncratic observations of her world are clever and hilarious. Here, for example, is her description of a stranger’s front parlour, in which she and her friends find themselves after a prank goes wrong:

“We tiptoed over it into a fearfully clean front room with the coals arranged on the sticks like a jigsaw, and the arm-chairs made out of brown skin and never sat on, and a terrified-looking plant standing eyes right in the window, wishing it were dead.”

Jessica is told by a visiting author that she is A WRITER BEYOND ALL POSSIBLE DOUBT, and although there are moments when her self-confidence falters, she triumphs in the end. I can’t recommend this novel too highly – it’s a work of genius. And it’s the first book I read in 2014, which I think is a GOOD OMEN.

Bookshelf Neighbours

I loved this article1 by Geraldine Brooks about her method for shelving her books, which even she admitted was “eccentric”:

“I start out conventionally enough, alpha by author. But while I take account of the first letter of the writer’s surname, I have other ambitions for my shelves that transcend the conveniences of mere alphabetical accuracy. It’s impossible for me to place one book alongside another without thinking about the authors, and how they would feel about their spine-side companion.

I arrange my shelves as I would seat guests at a dinner party. Anne Tyler and Anthony Trollope both seem devoted to a diligent scrutiny of manners. So I imagine them, shelved side by side, comparing notes on the mores of their respective eras . . .”

This sent me off to examine my own bookshelves. As organised as I am in many other aspects of my life, I have never attempted to shelve my books alphabetically, or by any other method recognised by librarians. I do tend to arrange books about similar topics in the same general area. For example, here is part of my ‘Indian fiction’ section, containing Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Rumer Godden (well, her biography) and Meera Syal, with Hanif Kureishi and Salman Rushdie lurking just out of sight:

Bookshelf One

(Mind you, Vikram Seth and the remainder of my Ruth Prawer Jhabvala collection sit on various shelves below this. I have no idea why.) I also have a ‘YA fiction’ section, a ‘dictionaries and other reference books’ section and two shelves of 1930s and World War Two books. I also try to shelve books by the same author together:

Bookshelf Two

Oh, I seem to own a lot of Anne Tyler’s books. I’m not sure how she’d fare if seated next to Nancy Mitford at a dinner party (Nancy was not very fond of Americans), but perhaps Elizabeth Jane Howard, on the other side, could draw Nancy into a discussion about Paris fashions. I’d be more interested in eavesdropping on a dinner conversation between these three women:

Bookshelf Three

Especially if they were talking about writing historical fiction. I also have Germaine Greer sitting next to Gloria Steinem, and Stella Gibbons beside Mary Renault.

But the rationale for the shelving of other books may be less obvious. For example, what do Frances Hodgson Burnett, Curtis Sittenfeld, Gerald Durrell, Andrea Levy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Sedaris and Alison Lurie have in common?

Bookshelf Four

They’ve written books that are the same height, of course!

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  1. Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the link.

My Favourite Novels About Britain At War

1. Small Island by Andrea Levy'Small Island' by Andrea Levy

Jamaican airmen stationed in England during the Second World War find that the ‘Mother Country’ is less welcoming than they’d expected.

2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault

A soldier wounded at Dunkirk and recovering in an English hospital falls in love with a conscientious objector working as a hospital wardsman.

3. Marking Time and Confusion from the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The Cazalet family’s privileged lives are changed forever when England goes to war.

'Westwood' by Stella Gibbons4. Westwood by Stella Gibbons

Plain, bookish Margaret and her beautiful friend Hilda are drawn into the orbit of a pompous playwright in Blitz-battered London – but who is exploiting whom?

5. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Four Londoners – all on the outskirts of society because they’ve fallen in love with the wrong people, all terribly damaged by the war – have their interlinking stories gradually revealed in a clever narrative that travels backwards through the 1940s.

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This series is one of my favourite comfort reads, and has the added benefit of being set before and during the Second World War (this means that I can pretend I’m re-reading it for ‘research purposes’).

It won’t be to the taste of those who expect novels to be tightly plotted, with a single protagonist whose goal is clearly stated on the first page and achieved by the last. However, for those of us who love rambling, realistic family sagas set in a fascinating period of history, these books are just about perfect.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane HowardThe first book, The Light Years, introduces the Cazalets, a middle-class English family who are rich enough to own houses in both London and Sussex; to send their sons to expensive ‘public’ schools and hire a governess for their daughters; and to have a large number of maids, kitchen staff, gardeners, chauffeurs and secretaries. The story is told from the point of view of all three generations of Cazalets, as well as various servants, friends and mistresses, which does make things confusing at first. Who is the eldest out of the Cazalet brothers? Is Christopher the cousin of Teddy or Simon? On my first (and even my second) reading, I often found myself having to refer to the family tree and the list of characters at the front of the book. However, once all that was sorted out, I was drawn to the teenage Cazalet girls: melodramatic Louise, who longs to be an actress; kind-hearted Polly, who dreads the idea of another war; and plain, clumsy Clary, who hates her stepmother, brother, cousins and practically everyone else in the world, but has a vivid imagination and a wonderfully honest outlook on life (as you can tell, she’s my favourite). The girls’ worries, resentments, dreams, tragedies and triumphs are beautifully portrayed. Their parents are equally realistic, but less easy to like. They vote Tory, believe the British Empire will last forever, think of women as weak, intellectually-inferior beings, have a vague dislike of Jews . . . all typical attitudes of their class and time, but it doesn’t make them very endearing to most modern readers. However, this attention to historical accuracy is one of the strengths of the series. The author describes everything, from what people ate for breakfast, to how they reacted to the Munich Crisis of 1938, so clearly yet so unobtrusively. (This may be because a lot of the story is autobiographical.)

The second book, Marking Time, begins when war is declared. The women and children move into the family’s country house and most of the men join the forces. By the third book, Confusion, tragedy has hit the family hard and the girls are embarking on adult life with various degrees of success and happiness. Both books examine war from the perspective of women and girls, and are absolutely fascinating. I also like some of the new characters who appear – for example, Stella Rose and her family, who moved to England from Austria before the war.

The final book, Casting Off, is set in the immediate post-war years, and wraps up the story for each of the characters, not always realistically. I devoured this book, just as I did the others, but it does consist mostly of ‘then X married Y’ – unless X had been unhappily married, in which case it’s ‘then X divorced Y’. Polly’s story is particularly silly, but even Clary’s happy ending doesn’t seem all that believable to me. Still, the male characters who’d been getting away with horrible behaviour for years (specifically, Edward and his nasty son Teddy) do get their comeuppance in this book, which made me very happy – however unrealistic it might have been.

The Cazalet novels were made into a BBC television series, which I haven’t seen, and I’m also curious about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s memoir, Slipstream.

EDITED TO ADD: BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a series based on the Cazalet books in 2013 (thanks to Jed for the link). This interview with Elizabeth Jane Howard also says, “It looks as if 2013 will be the year of Howard’s maturation: while the nation tunes into the story of the Cazalets, Howard will be finishing the fifth volume of the Chronicle.”

See here for my thoughts on All Change, the fifth volume of the Cazalet Chronicles and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s final novel.