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.

27 thoughts on “The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard”

  1. I am at the very end of “The Light Years” and am glad to see that I am not the only one who has to keep referring to the family tree – now I don’t feel quite so dim! It wouldn’t even be of help if the author used both first and last names as just about everyone is a Cazalet. Still deciding if I am going to continue on with the series.

    1. Oh, good, it’s not just me, then! It does get slightly less confusing as you go on, although I never did sort out all the servants’ names. I really enjoyed the series, though, especially the middle two books.

  2. I absolutely adore the Cazelet family once I had figured out who belonged to who by referring to the family tree e ery few minutes in the Light Years, I have just finished reading Marking Time and am hot footing it out to the beek shop to find Casting off and Confusion. I really feel like I have lived along side them all with the wonderful writers description. It’s a long time since I have enjoyed reading so much.

    1. Yes, Elizabeth Jane Howard has a remarkable talent for writing characters who are flawed, yet endearing. (The family relationships can be a bit difficult to follow, though!) Hope you enjoy the final two books in the series.

  3. Howard is little more than a Barbara Cartland: an arrant and conceited snob;* an extraordinarily over-rated writer, who has little, if any, original talent. Her books should be thrown on the heap of worthless fiction with which we are bombarded, this day and age……………………..
    *I have ‘inside’ knowledge!

    1. Well, thanks for your comment on the books, although I disagree with you about Howard’s writing skills. As for the author herself, I know little about her, but if we’re dismissing books written by snobs, we’d also have to discard the works of Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford and Virginia Woolf, just for a start, and I think English literature would be the poorer for it.

  4. The fact that she is an arch snob only goes to emphasise more strongly still that she is a worthless writer, much like Nancy Mitford! Waugh was narrow-minded, even ignorant in a curious way, for he dismissed the work of the only REALLY good writer that you mention – Virginia Woolf – as being ‘gibberish’! Her “snobbery” really is of the period, and generally amusing and harmless: she even accuses herself of being one, but actually the genius of the woman (a quality that Howard, Mitford and Waugh don’t even remotely suggest in their work) transcends all of that twaddle. Woolf is just outstanding and a million miles away from the feeble drivvle of EJ Howard and Mitford.

  5. I am now very much enjoying The Cazalets dramatised on BBC radio 4. Even better than the TV series. Excellent cast and production. Strongly recommended, and available to listen again all year online. There are currently 15 episodes available. During the coming year all the Chronicles will be broadcast. I judge a novelist by their novels: whether she was a snob or not is totally irrelevant.

  6. I hope you get time to listen to the Cazalets on BBC Radio 4. I am massive Radio 4 fan. Are you familiar with it? I also much enjoyed this wonderful erudite discussion about Waugh’s Decline and Fall which demonstrates what an incredibly creative and gifted writer he was.

    1. By a coincidence, a friend in Scotland just emailed me the Cazalet link, as well as a Radio 4 link featuring an interview with Jeanette Winterson, another favourite writer of mine. It can sometimes be a bit difficult listening to BBC broadcasts from outside the UK (some of them seem to be blocked to non-UK residents; also, I have an extremely slow internet connection), but that discussion of Decline and Fall sounds fascinating. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

      1. BBC TV is blocked outside the UK (unless you use a proxy UK server), but thankfully BBC radio is NOT blocked. I am outside the UK and don’t mind at all not being able to get BBC TV online because I much prefer BBC radio (especially 3 & 4). A few of the BBC radio podcasts cannot be downloaded outside the UK (mostly music), but the vast majority can. From Jed (Number One BBC radio fan).

  7. I am loving hearing the Cazalet Chronicles, having read them many years ago. I wanted to contact Eizabeth Jane Howard then, but wasn’t sure how best to, and wonder if this might be a way through?. The books , with their snesitivity to adolescents remind me of an encounter I had with Ms Howard, as an unsophisocated 14 year old in 1964. I was spending an easter holiday with my godfather John Arlott in Alresford, where Jane and her then husband Kingley Amis were also guests. It my first stay with the Arlotts since early childhoodand I was rather daunted. At dinner the first evening we were served Artichokes which I had never seen before. Jane clearly picked up my anxiety, and walked round the table to show me how to eat them, with great sensitively and without causing me any embarressment whatsoever. I was forever greatful. Nicki

    1. What a lovely story, Nicki – Elizabeth Jane Howard sounds very kind. I’m afraid I can’t help with her contact details, though, as I’m simply a fan of her books. Perhaps you could try contacting her UK publishers, Pan Macmillan?

  8. Howard’s 90th birthday is on march 26th this year
    I recommend slipstream and also After Julius, but the Cazalets are my favourite’s

  9. I read somewhere that there may be a fifth Cazalet book coming. Do you know if there is any truth in this?

    1. This interview with Elizabeth Jane Howard 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.”
      So, it does seem as if another book is on its way!

  10. I am listening to this book on audio. Could someone help me with the family tree as I’m getting in a tangle.

    1. Hi Jan,

      I’m not sure where you’re up to in the story, but this is the family at the start of the series:

      William (the Brig) is married to Kitty (the Duchy) and they have four adult children:

      Hugh, married to Sybil, with two children: Polly and Simon

      Edward, married to Viola (Villy), with three children: Louise, Teddy and Lydia

      Rachel, unmarried

      Rupert, married to Isobel, with two children: Clary and Neville. After Isobel died giving birth to Neville, Rupert married Zoe.

      Then there’s the Castle family. Villy’s sister Jessica is married to Raymond Castle and they have four children: Angela, Nora, Christopher and Judy. Villy and Jessica’s widowed mother is Lady Rydal.

      Miss Milliment is the girls’ ancient governess. The Duchy also has two unmarried sisters, Dolly and Flo.

      Hope that helps!

      1. Oh that was a tremendous help.

        I am about to start reading the second book, Marking time.

        Are there any other family members I should know?

        Thank you again for the help.

        1. By the start of the second book, there are some new babies – William (son of Hugh and Sybil) and Roland (son of Edward and Villy). Diana, Edward’s mistress, also has a young son, Jamie. There’s also Rachel’s dear friend, Margot Sidney, known as Sid, and Rupert’s friend, Archie. I think they’re the main ones.

          There are a couple of dozen servants, too, but the only ones I could ever remember were Mrs Cripps the cook and Tonbridge the chauffeur.

        1. Hermione is Lady Knebworth, a glamorous friend of Villy’s, who owns a dress shop in London and allows Villy to cheat on clothes coupons. I have a vague recollection that she had some sort of flirtation with Edward, or at least was a lot more aware of Edward’s infidelities than Villy was.

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