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Freyda

Elizabeth Jane Howard

‘The Light Years’

The first in a 4-novel sequence looking at the years of, and surrounding, World War II and its effects on a deeply conventional upper-middle-class family: not only of the war and its strains but the social changes, the challenges and opportunities, particularly for the women. ‘The Light Years’ covers the summers of 1937 and 1938, when Britain was on the brink of war but stepped back at the last moment – a short golden hiatus until the real thing began, which is covered in the next novel, ‘Marking Time’. Howard depicts a range of reactions to the situation from the complacent, the ignorant, the thoughtlessly gung-ho, the nervous, and the dread of those who were damaged in the previous and for some all–too-recent war. She studies adults and children, men and women, and in a small space manages to convey a wide range of responses which change subtly over time.

This quartet of novels (unfortunately, to my mind, tagged 'The Cazalet Chronicles') might be damned with the term “family saga”, and put in a compartment of “women’s reading”, but it is much stronger and more complex than that simplistic label. I’m not sure if it is quite as good, but it certainly deserves to stand with Olivia Manning’s six novels about the war experience of men and women in exile around the Mediterranean from a female point of view. Howard examines the home front, anticipating the possibility of war, then its reality: bombing raids, shortages, men and women in desk jobs, driving ambulances, running canteens, etc, or stuck with small children, waiting to hear from loved ones in the forces. Manning was a young woman who experienced what she wrote about two decades later. Howard’s method is the same – she was younger, a teenager when war broke out, then a young wife and mother, and transformed this into fiction in the 1990s.

I read a number of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s single novels e.g. ‘After Julius’, ‘A Sea Change’, in my twenties. I enjoyed them but think I found them a bit precious, set in a rather privileged and narrow world compared to my own circumstances as a penniless student and later harassed young mother (without a nanny!). But when I came across the sequence about the Cazalet family, I found it much more rounded and sympathetic, perhaps a more mature work. Although I did not keep my other EJH books I have kept these and I’m not sure if this is my second or third time round reading them. They stand up well to it. But I find it interesting to note changed reactions on this time of reading, my sympathies with different characters and profound irritation – which I don’t remember before – with some.

The Cazalets are “trade”, but - to me - enormously posh, inhabiting a lost world of moral certainty, unquestioning male authority, almost Victorian in many ways, although the younger generations struggle weakly against this from time to time. They have London houses and the grandparents have a place in the idyllic Sussex countryside where the wives and children all retreat for the summer months, and where most of ‘The Light Years’ is set. A fleet of loyal servants support the elderly Brig and Duchy, the grandparents. (These are family nicknames, which I found very irritating this time round. He is not a Brigadier, nor the matriarch a Duchess.) They have three sons: Hugh, a loving and conscientious husband and father, who was shrapnel- wounded and lost a hand in the first war and still suffers bad headaches; handsome, womanising (though married) Edward who had a “good war” and seems to glide through life with no conscience nor much imagination at all; and Rupert, too young to fight, a would-be painter who works as a schoolmaster. His back story is that his first wife died having their second child, and he is constantly trying to balance the demands of his two motherless children and Zoe, his vapid, beautiful, immature second wife. The book contains a family tree with birth dates which I did have to resort to, as each son has several children, who feature heavily.

There is also Rachel, the middle-aged spinster daughter, very put-upon and virginal, who has a passionate but unconsummated friendship with another woman, something which, like Queen Victoria, she does not really understand. This friend, named Sid, wears shirts and ties, has her hair cut at the barbers, and, short of a monocle and a dinner suit, presents like one of those glamorous 1920s “inverts”, but no one else in the family seems to twig this at all. They are all – it strikes me more this time round – very ignorant, innocent, and complacent, when not distracted with their own individual concerns. Stiff upper lip and never mentioning unpleasant things are implicit in their family culture. Girls, particularly, are kept in complete ignorance, and are made rather vulnerable because of it. Howard does not flinch from the nastier parts of life, even if her characters can seldom communicate these things: illness, sexual assault, gruesome childbirth, grief, loss, bullying, abject fear and powerlessness. But her message of the mismatch between experience and ignorance/innocence is never hammered home in a clumsy way. It is often simply stored up for future character development, - as in life, really.

‘The Light Years’ dips into the action from many characters’ points of view, even at times the cook, the chauffeur, and the long-suffering governess, though always in the 3rd person. But it is hardly ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’. I get the impression that they are supposed to be a fairly typical, comfortably-off, pre-war English family network, with some more shabby-genteel relations and other more pretentious, aristocratic, if faded, branches. The family business is timber, and they have a wharf and office in London where the Brig and two older sons work. Boys automatically go to boarding school – prep and public school, but not named ones. Two of the male cousins loathe and fear this, but Edward’s son Teddy is a sort of unthinking Boys’ Own boy, seeing everything, including war, as a “wizard adventure”. Girls are barely educated at all, doing haphazard lessons with the elderly governess of one of the mothers. When she tentatively asks about preparing two of the brightest girls for university she gets short shrift. It is hard to see how Rupert was ever “allowed” to train as a painter in this largely philistine environment. The wives, Sybil and Villy (Viola) - another irritating nickname, - do a lot of sewing and shopping but hardly ever look after their own children and have never cooked a meal in their lives. Neither do the women discuss the business, or politics, and barely read a newspaper – it is not seemly. Sid, half-Jewish and working as a music teacher for a living, has a far greater idea of what is going on in Europe and knows another war must come but she, out of tact for Rachel's sweet innocence, fails to discuss it or educate her (grrr!). Through Sid, Howard touches on this class's habitual unthinking anti-Semitism. Hugh fears and dreads war, though he knows he won't be fit to fight; he is one of the few who appreciates it will not be confined to the soldiery this time. Edward simply sees it as an opportunity to further escape the marital leash, although he is already cavalier about working hours and always has a mistress on the side, though only Hugh seems to know and no one else suspects.

I found the Brig pretty insufferable this time. A Victorian paterfamilias, petty tyrant and windbag, he expects everyone to do his bidding with no recognition of their own needs or desires. And they comply, (another ggrrr!) with fond but unspoken exasperation. He’s a bit like Captain Mainwaring, used to having absolute authority, whether or not he deserves it. He is losing both his sight and his grip, but was obviously once a man of great energy and enterprise, and is busy with projects, partly to accommodate his large family, partly in preparation for possible war. In the 15 months of the novel he builds or converts (he seems to have the local builder in permanent employ) a farmhouse and some dilapidated cottages into extra family accommodation, a flat over the garage to house his chauffeur’s family, a squash court, and an air raid shelter. This last has to be dug by family members and servants. The Brig sees only the bigger picture and drives his wife mad because he never thinks of the practical detail, which she has to mop up. He invites strangers he met on the train to dinner and fails to warn anyone, then convinces himself he only asked them for drinks – much to their embarrassment and hunger; he orders 24 camp beds and thinks a batch of trainee nurses can live in the squash court with no other facilities.

He and the Duchy seem to communicate only through the devoted Rachel. Duchy is modest, ascetic, absorbed in her garden and her family, but habitually bossy. The poor wives largely have to fit in with family culture (she “disapproves” of aspirin so they can’t be found taking it; they mustn’t shriek in childbirth); the grandchildren even more so. I was struck by the fact that no one except Edward seems to have any friends outside this family clique, and the girls, educated at home, meet no one other than their siblings and cousins. Horizons are severely limited, yet this is the late 1930s. At one point Sybil reflects that she has hardly socialised with any men not related to her in the last 20 years – it is like purdah in deepest Sussex. The war is going to make huge changes for them all.

I appreciated the way Howard tells us what things cost – a stamp, dress material, a tea shop meal, a present. There is necessary penny-pinching and worry amongst some of the poorer characters, in contrast with unthinking expenditure elsewhere. Though wealthy, no one except the Brig, and Edward and Villy, seem to have much in the way of material possessions, or even physical comfort. She details the food they eat, and which the servants prodigiously prepare, like in Enid Blyton. The growing children, particularly boys, are obsessed with food, always scrumping from the kitchen garden between meals or eating Crunchies and Walnut Whips (nostalgia!). There is also inedible and horrid food, which reminds me how big a thing this is on a child’s horizon. The children are always being told what to do, wear, eat and say; and chafe against this regime. But I found the two youngest ones, Lydia and Neville, indistinguishable and annoying. They are both mouthy, bumptious and over-confident, while the older siblings are much more varied. It is not explained how the younger two grew up like this or get away with it, given the same regime as their elders.

The greatest strength of this novel, apart from a fairly subtle delineation of a variety of characters, is the depiction of the emotional journeys of the characters, which I found very convincing, especially the very mobile feelings of the older children, and the tensions, sensitivities and rivalries in such a close-knit family. There is nothing stereotypical or predictable in how they develop, and she makes a very nuanced picture of the stresses and strains of adolescence in the shadow of an uncertain future. Clary, who lost her mother, is full of anxiety about the war, and foreshadowed loss, which her father understands but can never quite deal with. But the most interesting journey is her step-mother Zoe’s. Raised simply to trade on her looks, she can’t imagine anyone valuing her for anything else, and instead of finding herself powerful, she is weakly dependent on Rupert, using a repertoire of sulks, tears and sex to get his undivided attention. Howard makes her (only 23, and married at 19) shallow, but capable of greater depth, after an episode which taxes her to the utmost and changes her whole attitude towards her husband and his needy children. Even then she doesn’t get it right. Her tentative steps towards being a more worthwhile person are touching and convincing.

I have already begun on the next volume and it will be treat to follow the whole sequence again.

Sorry for such a long post - it is a complex novel!! I could have written even more. Please do comment, anyone who has read this author.
Evie

I haven't read her, Freyda, let alone this particular novel, but thank you so much for that post.  I have long intended to read her, especially after seeing the adaptation of The Cazalets on TV - your detailed review has made me want to read her more than ever, so I will have to get hold of this now.  If it's anything approaching as good as the Olivia Manning wartime novels, it will be a treat in store.  Thanks again!
TheRejectAmidHair

Oh, please don't apologise for the length of your post - that was fascinating. I very much enjoyed reading your detailed review.

I found particularly interesting your initial distaste of the social milieu these novels depict. I often feel the same way about certain books dealing with people in privileged classes, although I know such feeling is completely irrational: if the novelist depicts her characters with insight and can structure her material well, then why should it make any difference what social milieu these characters occupy?

I do get the impression (maybe I am mistaken) that British fiction seems more interested in the effects of WW1 than of WW2. Off the top of my head, I can certainly think of more titles dealing with the former than with the latter.
Gino

WWII versas WWI

The explanation is quite simple, we suffered far less in WWII than in WWI, for most of the time we kept out out of the worst of the fighting, avoided being occupied and having to send our men to fight on the Russian front.
Our largest loss was the loss of our Empire that had reached its sell by date anyway, our greater loss was financial with the dollar dropping from 5 to the pound to 1.6.
Castorboy

TheRejectAmidHair wrote:
I do get the impression (maybe I am mistaken) that British fiction seems more interested in the effects of WW1 than of WW2. Off the top of my head, I can certainly think of more titles dealing with the former than with the latter.

You will agree that you are not well up in 20th century fiction so I will assume that you refer to the WELL KNOWN titles of WW1. I am not saying your top of the head assumption isn't correct but as someone of Gino's generation, I have recorded reading seven books dealing with WW2 out of 14 novels read precisely because I wanted to read about some other war than the first Great War!  To back up my extensive research (!) I notice that the number of large print novels in the large print section of the library dealing with WW2 equal those about the other one.
As usual Himadri you have made us think about our reading and I enjoy it when you poke that head above the parapet!  Laughing
Evie

Yes, I can think of loads of novels about WWII, both of the mid-20th century and of more recent times with a WWII setting - as you say, Castorboy, not always the most well-known - many of the books I love by women authors of the mid-20C deal with the impact of WWII or the imminence of it, as well as the better known novels.  Plus there are all those novels about

But WWII was not as shocking in its impact as WWI, it seems, and the effect on British society of the first war was surely very much greater, so perhaps its impact on literature was greater too.
Sandraseahorse

The death toll of soldiers in WW1 was higher; when I attend Remembrance Day services I am struck by  how the list of names from the First World War seems to go on forever but the names from WW2 are far fewer.

However, the cost to civilians in WW2 shouldn't be underestimated.  There were some civilian casualties in Britiain in WW1 but nothing like the number in WW2.  Then there was the trauma; to this day my mother feels physically sick whenever she hears a siren go off or the sound on TV or radio of a V2 bomber.
Evie

Yes, the utter carnage of WWI is what is so shocking - 1.5 million killed during the Somme battles alone - unthinkable really, except that it actually happened - and for what?  At least people could see what was being fought for in WWII.  And that then had, of course, a huge impact on subsequent society, with so many men killed - and the profound difference between Britain before and after WWI has been well documented, in novels as well as in the history books and biographies.

But WWII is, as you say, Sandra, still within living memory for many people, and sirens and fireworks still traumatise many, I know.  I live about 5 miles from Coventry, and the impact of its destruction is still felt by many.

There is, I think, a lot of literature about WWII - in fact, sometimes I get fed up with its hold on the imagination!  And not always in direct ways - Sebastian Faulks' programme last night made the connection between Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast and WWII, with Steerpike as a Hitlerian figure.
TheRejectAmidHair

Oh, I'm sure that there are many books written about WW2. But I do get the impression that the ones dealing with WW1 tend to be better known, and loom larger in the public imagination. Also, on Remembrance Day, it's WW1 that we probably tend to relate to more.

As I say, it's just a thought off the top of my head, and I'm crtainly not insisting on it. And sorry to have diverted Freyda's thread!
Green Jay

I found the Cazalet quartet really absorbing. I think I've read them twice, too! Such a vivid picture of another era. I remember being struck by the absolute crassness of some of the boys in the pre-war scenes, where they are excited and boastful about guns, and killing, and imagine successfully fighting off an invasion with whatever comes to hand. They are completely unaware of anyone else's reactions while they are talking such nonsense. I think Elizabeth-Jane Howard was rather good on that kind of boyish insensitivity, also on how some people are over-sensitive to each other and then end up doing the wrong thing out of extreme tact. One of the older boys is much more sensitive and struggles with becoming a conscientious objector, and is a naturalist, while another gleefully takes pot-shots at rabbits. As you say, Howard covers a lot of bases with her range of characters.
MikeAlx

WWI was really the first time for total war on the industrialised scale, and its social consequences were enormous. It's true however that the terror for civilians was far greater in WWII. But in terms of social effects, the transitions that happened after WWII really had their roots in the post WWI era - particularly the depression, and the failure to deliver the promised "land fit for heroes".

A recent novel that deals very interestingly with post-WWII social changes is Sarah Waters' "The Little Stranger" (which manages to be a highly engaging mystery novel at the same time).
Sandraseahorse

I watched "The Cazalets" series on TV and found it moderately entertaining.  However. someone in our book group who is a huge fan of the books said that she hated the TV series  as the characters in the books are far more rounded and complex than the way  they were portrayed on screen. Freyda's review gives a good indication of the depth of characterisation in the novels. Thanks for that, Freyda.

Perhaps WWI and WW2 in fiction should be the subject of a separate thread?
MikeAlx

Yes, sorry, didn't mean to derail the thread - will read Freyda's post when I have time to read it properly.
Green Jay

Sandraseahorse wrote:
I watched "The Cazalets" series on TV and found it moderately entertaining.  However. someone in our book group who is a huge fan of the books said that she hated the TV series  as the characters in the books are far more rounded and complex than the way  they were portrayed on screen.

.....Perhaps WWI and WW2 in fiction should be the subject of a separate thread?


I'd agree with that Sandra, I was quite disapppointed in the televising - I can't remember now if they just "did" the pre-war years or squashed the whole sequence into a short series - I know they left an awful lot out, and such a lot of the novel(s) content is people's shifting awareness and attitudes, particularly the various Cazalet children as they move from incredibly naive early and mid-teens to young adulthood. It is  almost impossible to show this kind of interior life on TV, specially for numerous characters.

Perhaps it would be good to start a new general thread - people seem to have quite a bit to comment about, which is always good.
Freyda

‘Marking Time’

Volume 2 in the 4-volume sequence covers the years from the outbreak of war in September 1939 to winter 1941. Unlike the previous book, it is told almost entirely from the point of view of the three adolescent cousins, Louise, 16 at the start, Polly and Clary, both 14, with only short sections in between which deal with other members of the family and their circle.  It’s told in the third person, although parts of the journal of Clary, the would-be writer, are included in her chapters.

The girls, and everyone, in a way, are ‘marking time’. They feel that they can’t get on with their "proper" lives in this curious limbo period, as the war starts rather slowly making it effects felt. If it were peacetime things, they sense, would be very different at this stage in their lives. Having read the whole sequence it is interesting to look back and see that the frustration, fear and stultification they feel precedes such huge changes, and they really can only conceive the world in terms of getting back to normal. Of course, "normal" won't ever be the same again, after the war.

The whole extended family decamp, including inlaws and aged Victorian spinster aunts, to the grandparents’ Sussex country house –or houses , since the Brig has extended and converted everything sight – for the duration of the war. Except the men, who seem to camp out in closed-up London houses or their clubs, apart from weekends, running the timber firm or in the case of wily Edward, running an airbase at Hendon while chasing uniformed “skirt” - ideal for him. The sense of discomfort, all having to muck in, not getting on but having to make a good face of it, living demanding but restricted lives, is very strong, for the women especially. The men, on the whole, seem to gain from the upset in ordinary rules at this point. During ‘The Light Years’, one of the Cazalet daughters-in-law, Sybil (the “nice” one, I kept feeling, from the well-suited married couple) falls pregnant when her other two children are growing towards adolescence; this time round another daughter-in-law, Villy, Edward's vaguely unhappy wife, has also had a menopausal baby, the third of her four children. While she had hoped that a war might somehow set her free to do new things, this baby puts her firmly back in her place.

Louise, a real teenager in the recognsiable sense, having spent a few months at cookery school, escapes to a bizarre drama school which has been evacuated to a bleak rundown house in the west country. There she is befriended by a much more cosmopolitan girl, Jewish, intelligent, cultured, who throws a contrasting light on the smug and limited world of the Cazalets.  Her family knows directly what is happening in Germany, unlike Louise et al, and does not trust politicians and leaders. Louise has always pretended to a veneer of sophistication and begins to see how shallow hers is.

The younger girls, who seem very immature, continue with their ancient governess, now also lumbered with teaching the younger children who’ve been added to the household. But Miss Milliment does manage to make more money from this extra workload. She’s a figure of fun, and contempt, really, in her vast, food-stained, tatty and slightly smelly clothes, but when she does talk to the children individually and give advice it is always very tactful and wise, so much more understanding than their parents; so I think inside we see a more admirable person who has been dealt a bad hand in life. A clergyman’s daughter, her father died and left her penniless in her mid-50s, in need of earning her own living for the first time, and with no pension or state safety net to help her. She seems to be in her late 70s in the book, creaking along, worried about money and her future and having no security, just the whimsical patronage of richer people. Things had not moved on much for women, economically, since Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte’s times. Part of her unappealing exterior is because she does not think it her place to ask for things such as access to laundry facilities, or a heater to keep her warm or dry things on, when her hosts have overlooked them.

There are lots of tedious chores associated with war, from blackout curtains to gas masks, the scarcity of things previously taken for granted, and the gradual erosion of all the little comforts in life. The youngsters are less affected in some ways, having less of an idea of what might possibly happen. Two of the boys have adventure story ideas about being involved, or seeing planes shot down, as happens over the Sussex countryside, but one, Christopher, more sensitive and a pacifist to start with, is stricken.

I was really struck by how limited one's horizon would be without televsion, and the "wireless" being a narrow preserve of grown-ups, and never looking at a newspaper or meeting other children at school one could gossip with. Our wall-to wall info society of today is so different, but even when I was growing up the the 60s I could not escape from the daily radio and TV news, newspaper headlines, and parental talk. These youngsters are in a world as narrow as a Victorian village! Even the middle class women don't seem to lift a newspaper, and the cook has no idea what her man friend, the chauffeur, is talking about every night at tea when he discusses the ongoing "situation". I can't believe every household was so wilfully blinkered, but Howard seems to be setting out a typical middle class businessman's family, where the men seemed to think their role was to shelter everyone else from reality.   Reminds me of the quote from the Lady Chatterly trial, something about 'would you let your womenfolk or servants read this stuff?' Why, do they not have the ability or the right to choose for themselves?

It is hard to talk about these books without including...

SPOILERS

Zoe, the shallow beauty married to Rupert, youngest Cazalet son, has a baby who dies. She is seen by the rest of the family to be eaten up by grief, but it’s really relief because the baby was a child of an affair she had which turned out quite horribly, and she can’t bear herself any more; she becomes pregnant again with Rupert’s baby, born just as they receive news that he is missing at Dunkirk. His absence takes up the rest of this book and the next, for Clary, his daughter, refuses to believe he might be dead, and everyone else slowly adjusts to the possibility. Clary begins to write a diary for him on his return, and truly keeps the light burning for him, which forces her to grow up rather and separates her from the more fortunate children. She has already lost her mother at a young age, and has never got on with her step-mother Zoe. But at the end of this volume unexpected news of Rupert’s survival, but now stuck, hidden in deepest occupied France, comes to haunt them both.

Louise gets taken up by society painter Michael Hadleigh and his formidable mother and is flattered by their attention, then sees her life slipping out of control and into Michael’s grasp while she sleepwalks away from all her grand career aspirations. Edward’s most serious squeeze, Diana, evacuates London to a cottage in Sussex, with her older sons and her baby by Edward, making his machinations to see her and avoid Villy finding anything out even more complicated. He lies and makes promises to both women and slips and slides from one to the other, but emotionally has left Villy behind years ago. Rachel's would-be lover, Sid, tries to push their relationship into a morer mature mode, hoping that Rachel will use her newfound mobility - she has to help her increasingly blind father at his London office, instead of staying in the country all the time - but Rachel is still too innocent to understand. And is too willing to be put-upon all the time. This painful relationship is dealt with very carefully and well throughout the books, so that we understand everyone's position even when we can't help being frustrated by it.

End of SPOILER

These are only some of the plot strands that interweave to make it such a satisfying read. Nothing is entirely predictable, but not unconvincing either. It has the slide of inevitability, but is fascinating for all that.
chris-l

Thanks, Freyda: I missed this when you first posted. Looking at the date, I was pretty preoccupied with other things at the time. It is some time since I read 'the Cazalet Chronicles', but like you, I approached them as something of a guilty pleasure, feeling they were not quite the sort of thing I should be reading, but still enjoying them very much. I'm such a snob!

After that, I read an autobiography by EJH, I think it was called 'Slipstream'. She certainly lived in the slipstream of some fairly influential men, having been married to both Peter Scott and Kingsley Amis, and was fearfully well-connected. What did strike me, however, was how much of her real-life experience had gone into this sequence of books. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I found them more readable than some of her earlier work. Like you, I had only read After Julius and one other, but, as you say, they come across as rather precious.

I will now follow up the other thread on post World War Two novels - it sounds an interesting area for discussion.

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