The Cazalet Chronicles
by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Elizabeth Jane Howard who died early last year aged 90 is a writer whose work I first came across as a teenager when my father gave me ‘A Beautiful Visit’, her first novel, published in 1950. I never read it despite its prize winning status. (It won the John Llewllyn Rhys memorial prize). The intellectual snobbery of youth meant that I quickly assumed the condescending attitude of her critics who described her as a writer of ‘women’s novels.’ They might just as well have said ‘magazines’. As an aspiring English Literature student I was looking for the higher brow.
It was not until twenty years later that I came across her again when her Cazalet Chronicles were republished after the event of her death. Looking for an ‘easy’ read I came across Volume One, The Light Years, began reading and was pleasurably gripped by the novel and its four successors (Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off and All Change) for the next few months. Howard combines pure story-telling brilliance with an enviable elegance of style.
Jane, as she was known, was born in London in March 1923. Now recognised as an acclaimed novelist in her own right, she was formerly referred to purely as Kingsley Amis‘ wife or Martin Amis‘ stepmother. Margaret Drabble famously omitted her from the 1985 edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, a slight which she took with commendable equilibrium. Married three times, she sadly described herself as a ‘tart for affection’ having had a troubled relationship with her mother, re-enacted with her own daughter Nicola by the Naturalist Peter Scott, her first husband.
Marriage to Peter Scott, Naval Officer and Naturalist in 1942
Perhaps the appeal of the novels for me lies in their Englishness. A large family country house in Sussex, a kindly matriarch and her ageing husband ‘The Brig’, three brothers and their spinster sister, troubled marriages, growing children, boarding school angst, coming of age, unrequited love and the onset of war. The details of upper middle class England are minutely observed alongside the repressed emotions of its inhabitants. These books are a delight. There is a time for everything under the sun and there is a time for reading for the pure pleasure of enjoying a story.
Her work doesn’t come into the category of improving reading, there being no Victorian moral didacticism nor any particular heroic protagonist to emulate. Instead, we are introduced to an array of humanely portrayed, utterly credible characters crafted lovingly with failings and idiosyncrasies, insecurities and foibles with which the reader is only too able to relate. Getting to know their personalities and what drives them, seeing their motives and their regrets is an education in patience, compassion and human understanding.
Her autobiography ‘Slipstream’ if read after this family saga reveals how much of her own life she drew upon for her Cazalet novels. It is an ‘achingly honest’ portrayal of her life, her marriages, her mistakes and her writing. Writing was clearly a form of therapy for her alongside the formal psychotherapy she received in her later years.
Fascinatingly, Janet Watts in her Guardian obituary of 2 January 2014 writes:
Jane once admitted that writing was the most “frightening” thing she did, and that she did not enjoy it. “I find it much too anxious a business”, she said. She once tried to give it up altogether. But she couldn’t.
It is terribly moving to see how frankly she faces up to the ‘mess’ she made of her life. With three failed marriages, an abandoned daughter and a string of affairs one can see why she might have felt this way. However, with such a legacy of literary work, a final reconciliation with Nicola, her daughter and a long life ‘full of years’ she has also left a valued mark on the landscape of English fiction and is to be admired for her courage, her perseverance and her insights into the English psyche.