Pour a stiff drink

Tessa Hadley

Elizabeth Jane Howard had been a novelist for forty years before she published The Light Years, the first volume of the Cazalet chronicles, in 1990. The fifth and final volume, All Change, was published in 2013, and she died in January this year, aged ninety. Her stepson Martin Amis advised her to embark on the Cazalet books, when she was hesitating between possibilities. It was good advice – and not only because they brought her solid sales and secured her popularity. The material of the chronicles seems like Howard’s natural and inevitable subject: the tangled but ordinary enough private lives of a fairly undistinguished upper-middle-class family, loosely based on her own, between the 1930s and 1950s.

The Cazalet family money comes from importing timber (as the Howard family money did). Three sons, Hugh, Edward and Rupert, follow into the business after their father, who is called the Brig because he’s never been in the military, in one of those family in-jokes that aren’t really funny, just tenderly well-worn. The Brig’s wife is the Duchy, another joke. Edward and Hugh are scarred survivors of the First World War and Rupert goes missing in the Second; their sister, Rachel, stays at home to care for their ageing parents. The family codes of behaviour are conventional and fairly stuffy; middle-class respectable rather than aristocratic stylish, they unbend uneasily as the rigidities of the old hierarchy adapt to a new age. Villy, Edward’s wife, has married beneath her; Villy’s mother disapproves of Villy having her old governess sit with them at dinner, Villy disapproves of her daughter Louise wearing trousers. She encourages Louise to think she is clumsy and ugly, because it’s good for her; and, besides, the family ‘did not mention, let alone discuss, people’s appearance’ – a problem when Louise’s beauty starts attracting men.

No one talks serious politics, and the older generation share an unexamined conservatism – Edward drove a bus during the General Strike. (Later, the more relaxed class-consciousness of the younger generation will seem equally conventional.) The boys go to school and the girls are educated at home, until they’re sent away to be ‘finished’. When Louise goes reluctantly to study domestic science, she gets into discussion with her new, clever, Jewish and vaguely socialist friend Stella, and realises ‘she had no experience, no knowledge, no machinery of thought to contest’ Stella’s ideas. An aura of art hovers round the family, conferring its high-mindedness: there’s a grandfather composer, lots of piano, ballet, visits to the theatre, a society portrait painter, books, daughters who want to write or act. But at their core the Cazalets are fairly philistine and definitely unintellectual; the art they like sets a seal on their comfortable presumptions rather than disrupting them.

The love of Rachel’s life is a woman, Sid, although across several volumes Rachel can’t bring herself to go to bed with her. Writing at the end of the century, Howard can describe Rachel’s and Sid’s lesbianism without making anything of it, when it couldn’t have been handled so blandly at the time; the novels’ disinhibition is useful for rendering an inhibited world. Yet the sexual prohibitions in the Cazalets’ world aren’t rigid, or charged with much angst, and Howard isn’t interested in making their world strange; she wants to communicate instead its intimate familiarity. She can give flat utterance to things which were more or less understood between her protagonists, but which they didn’t have a language for. They rub along in their sexual lives without too much guilt, sharing a good-mannered reluctance to bring up bodies at the dinner table; they aren’t much like the Victorians, but in their closed codes they aren’t much like our contemporaries either.

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