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.
There are shadows: Edward kisses his teenage daughter Louise on the lips and touches her breasts, while Villy hates sex altogether – all her sensuality is poured into choosing clothes. The writing seems to hint that Villy’s unwillingness causes Edward’s inappropriate lust – even though he’s amply provided with girlfriends. We know from Slipstream, Howard’s autobiography, that Louise is a self-portrait. Something like this seems to have happened with her father, and perhaps she blamed her mother (women’s ‘frigidity’ has been made to answer for a lot), though the shadow fades in the later books, almost as if it’s been forgotten. And the treatment of both Louise’s parents is nuanced and sympathetic, however disastrous their parenting. Mostly the sex in the books is jolly and consoling: husbands suggest a ‘a spot of Christmas love’, or a roll in the hay, and that’s all we get on the page (they ‘just managed to finish’ before the children rushed into the room).
So far, so fairly dull. And yet these books aren’t satire, or an angry indictment, and the protagonists aren’t unlovable. No doubt there’s something to be said for not making a fuss, doing your duty, getting on with things, not indulging yourself, pouring a stiff drink instead of moping; now that our stiff upper lip has relaxed beyond recovery, we can admire the old standards from a safe distance. Keeping up appearances has its usefulness: it’s easier to have a role to act out when sorrow and disruption come. And it’s poignant – if exasperating – that Hugh and his wife, Sybil, love each other with such scrupulous consideration that each deceives the other over what they really want; only when Sybil is dying do they find their way to talking truthfully. The Cazalets aren’t church-goers (‘church only at Christmas and for christenings and so on’), but there’s a strongly self-sacrificial inflection in their way of thinking and the standards they set themselves. Some of the Duchy’s preferences are fairly frightening: tepid baths – they’re not ‘meant to be pleasant’ – and hard toilet paper; boiled mutton and blancmange.
The books don’t take much interest in the timber business, which operates offstage and remotely. The treatment of the Cazalet men is very full but it’s their personal lives we get, and the pressure they’re under at work rather than the day to day substance of what they actually do. The business only matters at the very end, when it fails, as fail it eventually must, both in order to provide a climactic finale, and because the end of the chronicles marks the end of an era when such an enterprise could plausibly prosper: based on the extraction of raw materials from an empire and run by family members with no particular aptitude for it, paternalistic and lacking entrepreneurial vision. The Cazalet men imagine trade as if it’s something personal and timeless; the women don’t imagine it at all. By 1958, when All Change ends, the era of good hardwood furniture and aspirant wood veneers is all but over.
Home, not business, is at the centre of the novels’ world. Their pages fill up with an endless round of family get-togethers: dinner parties and holidays and (so many) Christmases; christenings and weddings and funerals. Though they have houses in London the family’s heart is in the country, at Home Place in Sussex; and the beginning of the war gives Howard an opportunity to gather the clan together. Home Place is at once a shabby, botched, rambling 17th-century gentleman’s house and a mythic place of origin; the first owner was a Mr Home but now it’s the Home, for all time. The Cazalets’ sense of value derives from their own family traditions; an ideal of safety and decency has been built in childhood into the bottom-most layer of their consciousness. And sometimes Howard’s prose reads like a hymn to household management; no detail is too small to be included, so charged with significance is the material envelope of that lost world: ‘The medicine cupboard in the bathroom had a roll of Elastoplast that had yellow lint on one side of it, but the only stuff she could find to put on the spots was friar’s balsam with hardly any left in the bottle.’ ‘We’ll need three pounds of sausage-meat, two pounds of chestnuts, and I’ll order two extra loaves for stale bread … We can get two meals at least off the turkeys.’
Housework is a way of life and a vocation. The household routine runs in a groove as deep-worn as religious ritual. ‘Rachel’s parents sat now at the gate-legged table on which the Duchy was making tea from the kettle that boiled over a spirit lamp’; she ‘filled the silver teapot and received her daughter’s kiss, emanating a little draught of violets’. The Duchy and Rachel are elevated into a saintly ordinariness. They are a mostly vanished English middle-class type: girlish into old age, unsexual (the Duchy sleeps alone because the Brig snores, and Rachel’s yielding to Sid feels like more sacrifice), disciplined, conscientious, narrow, invaluable in a sick-room, always putting their own interests last. Since they’re not churchy, their strong spirituality only finds expression in snatched moments when they’re alone: gardening or playing the piano. The Duchy dies in the opening scene in All Change, and it’s the best thing in the book:
Rachel found a bottle of Malvern water in the bathroom, but when she returned with it, her mother was dead.
The Duchy had not moved from her position, propped up by the square pillows she had always favoured; one hand lay on the sheet, the other clasping the plait of her hair that Rachel did for her every morning. Her eyes were open, but the direct, engaging sincerity that had always been there was gone. She stared, sightless, at nothing.
Standing beside the deathbed, Rachel remembers her mother laughing until she cried at silly rhymes. ‘Boy gun, joy fun, gun bust, boy dust’: it’s an unexpected move, comical and sturdy. And the Duchy made apple-pie beds, too, when she was a girl.
Most of the actual housework is of course done by the servants. The Duchy and Rachel and Villy and Sybil and the others don’t wash floors, or clothes, or look after babies all day, or cook – though Villy’s and Sally’s daughters in time will have to learn to do some of those things. Howard makes an effort to write the servants into the story; they’re seen convincingly enough when they’re functioning as part of the household, but she can’t find the right tone to give them inner lives, and resorts to working-class voices out of central casting. Mrs Cripps ‘had been hard at it since seven o’clock, making sandwiches … There was now time for a nice cup of tea before Madam came with her orders.’
Domestic arrangements are set out with the same exhaustive tediousness as if Howard herself were responsible for making sure all her characters had a place to sleep. ‘Hugh and Jemima could have Edward’s old room. Archie and Clary could have the Duchy’s room. Juliet and Louise could share the small room they’d had last year. The day nursery, which was large, could just about take Teddy, Simon, Henry and Tom.’ There’s even more of this in All Change than in previous instalments. How can Polly (Hugh’s daughter) and her husband, Gerald, make the ugly old house he’s inherited into a viable business? What will everyone buy for everyone else’s Christmas presents? Where will Rachel live if they sell Home Place? Perhaps Howard was by now weary of managing her fiction; a lifetime’s effort at the typewriter may have blurred at times into that other effort, keeping house and home, keeping up with life. ‘The recipe said tinned salmon,’ she writes, but Clary ‘only had a tin of sardines. If she put mashed potato with them, and a splash of tomato ketchup and an egg to bind the mixture, it ought to make four quite large and unusual fishcakes.’ And so on, and so on.
How to characterise this writing, which feels so close to a mere transcription of daily life? It isn’t obviously very beautiful, or very deep, and there’s a good deal of slack:
Zoe had got some stale bread from the baker’s without coupons so that Juliet could feed the ducks – one of her favourite occupations. Mrs Headford, invited to come, said she would have a little rest.
Home before it was dark. It had been freezing in the park, and standing about, while Juliet fed the ducks, she had nearly told Rupert about her mother, but each time she was about to Juliet claimed their attention.
Realism in novels has an interesting relationship to the mere notation of life – like the jottings in a dull diary, say, which are only intended to be the nudge that brings back the whole experience, not to stand in for the experience itself. Even at the height of the mimetic achievement, at the point where it seems real presence has been captured (for example, in that sentence where the dead Duchy ‘clasps the plait of her hair which Rachel did for her every morning’), plain notation is only ever a step away from banality.
The relationship to that banality varies, even among the realists, from writer to writer. Elizabeth Bowen never risks it, all her matter is transformed by her style: something interesting must always be done with what’s there. ‘The child entered this room unknown to her with an inhuman absence of awe or interest. She took her bearings, but in an abstract way – the draped dishevelled big bed, prodigal dressing table, strewn sofa …’ Alice Munro is at the plain end of the spectrum of style. ‘Maury was in the front bedroom looking for his swimming trunks, though everybody had told him that the water would be too cold for swimming. He said the store would not be open.’ The facts themselves, undressed, intoxicate her; ordinary things turn out to have strange power to move us, banality itself is mysterious, accumulations of detail take flight into commentary and insight. Anita Brookner is more like Bowen than Munro. ‘One Sunday, when an iron cold and stillness had settled over London, when the false early spring was less than a distant memory …’
Readers vary too. And lots of readers love their books to sound ‘just like life’; to sound, even, like their own shopping lists and litanies of domestic worry. Best not to underestimate fiction’s bottom-line charm: to make us recognise what’s familiar. The Cazalet books are interesting enough, but it’s not an interest you can catch at work, sentence by sentence. They would be less good if there were fewer of them: the sheer accumulation across five volumes confers its own solidity and conviction. But what makes the chronicles worth having is first and foremost that they are a true record of a real thing. Howard is all the time testing what she writes against what she can remember. It’s truth-telling, within the bounds of a fairly limited fictional convention. Howard’s virtues as a writer, it turns out, are inside knowledge, exactitude, plainness, unsentimentality: virtues which bear a certain resemblance to the Cazalet family virtues.
None of her other novels has the ease and inevitability of the chronicles – though some are written with more density and panache. Reading Louise Cazalet’s story – or Howard’s autobiography – anyone could hazard a guess as to why it took her so long to come fully into her authority. Poor Louise, told she wasn’t worth much, was unprepared for a world of men who found her beautiful. Jane Howard’s was quite a life – there were so many lovers, among them Arthur Koestler, Laurie Lee, Cecil Day-Lewis, Romain Gary – but its headlong adventures weren’t conducive to whatever self-possession it is that helps in writing. When she sold The Beautiful Visit, her first novel, in 1950, Jonathan Cape invited her to lunch then chased her round the table, warning that he could still change his mind. Her second novel, The Long View (1956), which tells the story of a marriage backwards from middle age, may seem more sophisticated than the chronicles but it’s sodden with sexual and romantic love, distorted by its heroine’s need for her master’s approbation. Other novels have the chatty, domestic appeal of the Cazalet books but their material is forced inside the wrong genre forms, as with the awkward poisoning plot in Something in Disguise (1969). Or the writing is thin, as if casting around for a theme to address. And not all her themes have worn well: Getting It Right (1982) can’t get over its delight when a hairdresser actually reads good books and likes classical music. We know from Slipstream that Howard was haunted by doubt about her work for decades. Probably marriage to Kingsley Amis, who gave his approval at first (‘I am so relieved. I was afraid you wouldn’t be any good. It’s really good, Min’) and then withdrew it (‘I was withering from his dislike’) didn’t help. In old age she came into her own.