Casting Off by Elizabeth Jane Howard – the fourth volume of the Cazalet Chronicles

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Casting Off by Elizabeth Jane Howard

 

The fourth volume in a big series in every sense was at one point the place where it all seemed to finish. Happily, I am convinced that you can read it as a standalone book (though I would strongly suggest that you track down the first three) and Howard actually did write a fifth book later, which ties up lots of loose ends. This is the Cazalet Chronicles, the addictive, huge and intimate portrait of a family beginning in the late 1930s in the first volume. This novel begins with the family adjusting to a peacetime world in July 1945 when men are returning home from fighting, imprisonment and other challenging circumstances to find a country that has been continuing without them, as teenagers have grown into adults and discovered the joys and sorrows of love, and where big decisions have to be made. Even those who have lived at Home Place for the duration are thinking of moving on, finding new places to live and new pressures in a new world with few or no servants. The Cazalet family, though never actually rich, have been able to employ cooks, gardeners, nannies and maids, but now must learn to do without, in a world where food and drink are still rationed. New beginnings for some and the discovery of awkward truths for others means that this book, with its beautifully intimate views from characters both central and on the fringes is a fascinating and addictive read for all 626 pages.

 

The novel opens with a problem familiar for many decades; Miss Pearson, Hugh’s devoted secretary is having to leave to look after her mother. He then goes onto lunch with Rachel and Sid, whose unresolved relationship causes problems as the question of where to live in London is unresolved for each generation. Hugh’s loneliness is in contrast to those wishing for independence, particularly Edward who is striving to come to terms with the result of his long term affair. Rupert and Zoe are existing in parallel worlds of secrecy, not made easier by the arrival of Zoe’s mother. This is now a London life of small houses as so many have been destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, a condition beautifully evoked by Howard as she describes scratch meals made in inefficient kitchens by inexperienced cooks and desperate attempts to add decoration and even heat in a country afflicted by deepening shortages. Even the young and beautiful Louise’s unhappiness in her marriage and motherhood is becoming deeper, while the lonely Christopher has to make decisions. Clary and Polly both struggle unhappily with love and adult life for different reasons; but this is not a book of straightforward romantic problems of young adults as they come of age as each generation has its own difficulties and quiet joys.

 

If you are at all interested in mid twentieth century writing, this is a book which transcribes all the little difficulties and big challenges of life in such an honest way that finishing it truly feels like a farewell to family friends. As a first read there is so much to discover here, as a re read it again brings to life the characters in their realistic settings. Howard’s skill is in the complete honesty with which she describes every character’s thoughts and feelings. I truly enjoyed this reread, and am looking forward to rediscovering volume five as soon as possible.      

  

Last night a friend and I went to see a live streaming of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s  production of “As You Like It”, having already seen it live in Stratford. I saw new things and it seemed to flow better – whether that is because I knew what to expect or because the production has now been running for a couple of months rather than a few days when we originally saw it. Either way, do try to get to a cinema to see these live productions – they are shown around the world and are an excellent way to experience some great plays!

Confusion by Elizabeth Jane Howard – The Cazalet Chronicles Volume Three

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A family at war – not with each other, but a family and those important to them during the Second World War. This is the war that seems to go on; not lessening in its effects of separation, reported death and shortages, damaged houses and jobs for the duration. There are half truths and lies, unstated love, and marriage. While much continues from the previous book which covers the early part of the war, this continues into the grim continuance of a state of being in which nothing is guaranteed, and much trauma is to be discovered. Opening in March 1942, this book exposes all the truth of the pain of growing up and being adult, when there are so many unanswered questions and much sadness. Despite this there is a certain element of humour, perhaps grim, perhaps sometimes against people, but always realistic. I enjoyed reading this book over the past few weeks.

The book begins with Polly clearing out her mother’s clothes and personal items while thinking about her death just a week before. As is often the case, there are unresolved issues, things that Polly wished she had said and done. She has to take responsibility for her siblings and her father, who has been left utterly bereft. Like her cousin Clary, she feels the pain of reaching adulthood in the circumstances, being mainly stuck in the large country house which is offering a refuge to so many. “She sometimes wondered whether she had outgrown the house as well, without, so far as she could see, growing into anything else”. Rachel’s relationship with Sid continues to torment both of them in various ways, as Rachel sees her duty to her parents and Sid is desperate to spend time with her. Later in the year the news breaks that Louise is to marry the older Michael, and while some rejoice, others are worried that they want different things. His naval career consumes his time and interests, especially given his obsession with his mother. Hugh’s grief is overwhelming, while he is suspicious of his brother Edward’s affair with Diana, who in turn despairs of ever being with Edward for more than a few brief hours. Both Villy and her sister Jessica have had some romantic interest, and this is to continue. As with the previous two novels, the focus moves from one individual to the family and back again. The strength of this book is in its fluid movement of perspective, as the minutiae of one person’s life and feelings is examined before the scope of the picture broadens out into the interactions between various characters.

This book is given a short foreword which helps to remind the reader where most of the characters are and their understanding of their experiences. I have always found these books to be powerful in their detail, the dialogue between the characters, and the atmosphere of a blighted world. There are layers of loss, but also stirrings of hope, flashes of enjoyment in the unintentional humour of conversations. The people are more than relatable; there is the feeling that these are real people with lives that we are occasionally witnessing. These are characters, people, who change and develop in real time, find love and lose love, maintain hope in the face of tough reality. If you have not discovered the Cazalet Chronicles yet, this is perhaps not the best book to begin with, but wherever you begin, you will feel plunged into a family and associates that are truly unforgettable.

 

This is one of those books that I read during breakfast every morning, which is an interesting way to start the day, especially if it is a sad section. Having said that, I can usually read on until there is a more optimistic passage.  I enjoyed it hugely and cannot wait to read volume four. When I first read this series there was a long gap before volume five appeared, and though I read it soon after it appeared I must admit to have forgotten some of what had gone before. So I will be reading straight through this time – and happily I still have two thick volumes to get through!

Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard – The Second of the Cazalet Chronicles -1939 – 1941

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The second volume in the Cazalet Chronicles moves an extended family into war. At least three generations are living in a large family house, but it is the children who have come into focus as the decisions of their parents, the actions they take, have a profound effect on these young people and their daily lives. As in the first book in this series, what is unsaid is often as powerful as what is said in a gloriously realistic portrait of not only a family, but those people who come into contact with them. This is a picture of a world going into a War that everyone expected, but that no one understood what it would mean on a daily basis. While the young people fight all the normal battles of growing up, the increasingly shabby setting of a world of shortages and loss begin to creep into a desperately realistic portrait of life.

The novel opens with the announcement of the beginning of the Second World War in September 1939, and the immediate aftermath of the news broadcast on the radio. The Brig, the patriarch of the family, acknowledges silently that his older two sons have fought in the First War, and that Hugh still bears the physical and mental scars. We see the scene from Polly’s view, as she begins to assimilate the implications of this new conflict. Evacuation of children, movement of adults to the countryside, shortages of food and the difficulties of getting in and out of London all begin to bite, in this novel seen through the eyes of young people. Even three houses and associated buildings become crowded as elderly relatives, servants and Miss Milliment all congregate at Home Place. They are not secluded from war, as a plane comes down in a local field, and Christopher takes control. Louise finds alternative places to be, though becomes bitterly confused by the nature of love as she feels betrayed by her member of the family.

Howard cleverly portrays the long term issues through the novel, as love and even lust continue, devotion and concealment keep people together and apart, as illness and hope defy logic. She manages to describe the settings so vividly that sounds, smells, textures and impressions dominate the narrative to make the experience of reading this book so immersive that the considerable length feels necessary and natural. Some books in various series can be read in isolation, but to really appreciate this book reading the first would truly help and make the characters understandable to the reader. This book is a tremendous experience of reading about people who feel real. Real life is messy, throwing up lots of questions about relationships, especially for teenagers who are bored, isolated and forming temporary alliances. There are two sections which look at the family as a whole, compared to six sections which detail events from the point of view of the older girls. Little things become important, especially for the girls who feel poised, waiting for life to begin. There is a desperate love, a despairing among some of the adults, amid the compromises to duty they must all make on a daily basis. There is also humour, some hope, and lovable, understandable characters and actions. The Cazalet Chronicles are Howard’s great achievement, and this second episode is such a well written novel in any sense.

We have had a busy Remembrance Day or indeed weekend. We sang in a concert on Saturday evening featuring many songs with war themes, then several services yesterday. Daughter and I sang in a service containing the main pieces of Karl Jenkins “The Armed Man”, which is a challenging but wonderful thing to sing. We also went to see the film “Bohemian Rhapsody” about Freddie Mercury and the group Queen. Having loved their music for as long as I can remember, I was (very quietly) singing along at many points. I don’t think anyone heard me….