A human laboratory

I read an article by Hilary Mantel urging everybody to read Elizabeth Jane Howard, did so, and entered a treasure trove. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/30/hilary-mantel-elizabeth-jane-howard-novelist I’ve already written something on The Long View (marvellous) https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2016/03/15/why-the-long-view-is-a-great-book-with-wonderful-quotes/ and After Julius (disappointing), but now I’ve read The Light Years, the first of the Cazalet Chronicles, which has delighted me and made me give thanks that I have four more to read.

The book might be called a soap opera, which sounds disparaging, in that it’s filled with people going about their lives, but I prefer to think of it as a human laboratory (or perhaps aquarium) in which Howard acutely observes men, women, children,  and the relationships among them, particularly marriage.


Howard had three husbands and multiple lovers, including Cecil Day-Lewis, Cyril Connolly, Arthur Koestler, Laurie Lee, and Kenneth Tynan. She seemed to go for literary men, and one of her husbands was Kingsley Amis, with the consequence Martin Amis was her stepson. It was she who encouraged Martin Amis to write. Her marriage to Amis was described by Mantel as “happy and companionable” and by Martin Amis as “dynamic.” But Mantel observed that “the husband’s work was privileged, whereas Jane’s was seen as incidental, to be fitted around a wife’s natural domestic obligations.” (I reread Lucky Jim recently and found it disappointing: for me, Howard was a better writer.)

There are five marriages in The Light Years, and only one is wholly satisfactory. The oldest couple are fossilised in their marriage, each pursuing their own activities. She, as you expect from “a good gal,” didn’t like “that sort of thing” and so he had a regular and comfortable relationship with a cheerful prostitute. With the youngest couple the chronically indecisive man has married a younger woman primarily because of her beauty. All she has is her beauty, which she has been trained by her mother to work at constantly. Sex is what unites this couple, but the woman has what might be called a “near-rape experience,” which matures her.

With another couple the wife endures rather than enjoys sex, and the husband, a shallow but completely charming man, is a persistent philanderer. Indeed, at another point that gives the book edge he kisses inappropriately his teenage daughter. She is horrified and doesn’t know what to do–but is sure that she can’t tell her mother. That story line was left hanging, showing presumably that Howard knew she was going to continue the story in other books. The book is set in 1938/9, and the coming of the war provides a narrative line, and when I was reading the book I wasn’t sure when it was written. I found it wholly convincing of 1938/9 (not that I was there), but the modern edge made me think she must have written it much later–and she had, in 1990.

We see less inside the marriages of the other two couples, but one seems to be blissfully happy; in the other a beautiful woman has married a man who promises everything but delivers nothing. Together with him and their four children she lives in relative poverty compared with the richest. Money, poverty, and loneliness all feature in the book, and the First World War provides a backdrop with the coming war the future.

The teenage girls are remarkably convincing, and the teenage boys only slightly less so. The youngest children provide comic relief, just as they do in real life. The many women, all of them surely containing something of Howard, are strongly drawn, but the men are much shallower characters–perhaps as they are in reality.

Other joys are the description of the Sussex countryside. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2016/11/08/a-wonderful-description-of-sussex-in-summer/

Here’s something of what Mantel wrote about Howard:

“She had acted in Stratford as a girl, and she would have liked what the day offered: the dark wintry river, the swans gliding by, and behind rain-streaked windows, new dramas in formation: human shadows, shuffling and whispering in the dimness, hoping – by varying and repeating their errors – to edge closer to getting it right. In Jane’s novels, the timid lose their scripts, the bold forget their lines, but a performance, somehow, is scrambled together; heads high, hearts sinking, her characters head out into the dazzle of circumstance. Every phrase is improvised and every breath a risk. The play concerns the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit of love. Standing ovations await the brave.”

And here are quotes I took from the book–not many, as the pleasure of the book is in the characterisation and acute observation of human psychology and behaviour not in the prose, which is clear and fast moving.

The darker, more intricate veins of temperament that distinguish one person from another,

Minutes [were] ticking by, and all that was happening was that she was breathing and getting older.

His blazing temper and his congenital inability to stick to anything did not emerge until you’d put your money into his chicken farm or, in Jessica’s case, married him.

If it was true that she had everything, why wasn’t it enough?

Mothers are an awful hazard – wearing silly clothes and showing their feelings. [View of a 12 year old boy]

This duel of consideration for one another that they had conducted for the last sixteen years involved shifting the truth about between them or withholding it altogether and was called good manners or affection, supposed to smooth the humdrum or prickly path of everyday married life. Its tyranny was apparent to neither.

There was Dottie, but she was a girl so he never knew where he was with her. [View of a 15 year old adolescent]

Worrying pleasurably about the country going to the dogs. [A pleasure of old age]

Sybil got up from bed and went to the open window; the air smelled warmly of honeysuckle and roses, there were the metallic sounds of blackbirds settling down for the night and the sky was turning apricot streaked with little molten feathery clouds.

The understatements, discretion, and withholding were an integral part of the Cazalet family life, existing only to uphold affection and good manners.

She was not aware that the secret lies are the ones that endure.

‘I don’t think we’ve particularly elected the wrong people. I think the general climate is bad: opinion, ignorance, prejudice, complacency . . .’

Do you know what I love about you best? Your doubtfulness. All the things you don’t know.’




One thought on “A human laboratory

  1. Pingback: In praise of the Cazalet Chronicles | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

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