In praise of the Cazalet Chronicles

Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles are perhaps the most readable books I have ever read. They are not the most profound, lyrical, poetic, insightful, or searing, but they almost never disappoint. I finished the third of the five this morning and am tempted to jump straight into the fourth. Chicken has been reading them too and has the same reaction as me–as do many others. She’s just finished the fourth and is determined to ration herself rather that start the fifth straight away: she can’t bear to have reached the end,

I’ve already written one enthusiastic blog after reading the first book, but I’m not entirely sure what makes the books so special. Describing a book as “readable” might sound patronising, implying shallowness. Les Misérables, which I finished before the third Cazalet Chronicle, is a much greater book, huge in its ambition, but a tough read at times, particularly in the long sections that seemed to have only the most tenuous connection to the story.

That’s one thing that’s marvellous about the Cazalet Chronicles: every sentence moves the story forward. Somerset Maugham in his analysis of great novels thought that a central feature, although his conclusion was that you can’t pin down what makes a great novel (perhaps meaning that a computer will never be able to write one.) And Howard is clever in the way she tells the story, leaving you longing to know what happens next when you end a section–and then jumping forwards and taking you back. I like too how she hints at developments, flattering the reader who sees them coming.

I think, however, that what makes the book special is its humanity. You care about all the characters, even the horrible ones, and you relate to them as people like you and me trying to do their best but making all sorts of mistakes. Nobody in the book is perfect but all are recognisable.

It’s a book about relationships, particularly love and marriage. As I observed before, almost all the marriages are unhappy in some way, showing how marriage is a bloody business. The one marriage that did seem to be happy was ended by the death of one of the partners. Because of the failure of the marriages there is lots of adultery, but it’s striking that sex remains painful, unfulfilling, and a chore for almost all the women; and the men don’t seem to notice. There is a great deal too of unrequited, unconsummated, misplaced, and lost love.

One failure of the book for me is that the men are much less well drawn than the women. Perhaps that is inevitable when the author is a woman, and Chicken doesn’t find it such a problem as me; and perhaps the books are simply reflecting the reality that men are simpler creatures than women.

The book feels autobiographical, and both Chicken and I think that we will read a biography of Howard once we have finished the Chronicles. Howard did have three marriages and multiple lovers, but she can’t have ben all the women in the book. She perhaps has the curiosity and urge to write of one, the beauty of another, and the actor instincts of a third.

There must be some people–perhaps very serious men or men who can’t be bothered with things that belong to women–who would not like these books, and perhaps they are too English, upper class, and 1940s for some, but they are wonderful books, as much on the plus side of life as Schubert.



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