I have become quite fervent in my pursuit of the ‘feed-read’; now I will not give in to Vita’s wails or body-twisting hints until I have my book, specs and a glass of water at the ready, and my telephone with its distracting flash of emails is well out-of-reach. As so much of my time is spent feeding, I decided that I might as well enjoy it, and while of course there are some feeds that must be discounted as too impractical for reading, eg. in the pitch black small hours, or on the bus, I can get nearly an hour of feed-read time a day, which is not bad at all.
So why so slow on the blog? Well, I have been busy organising this year’s Daunt Books Festival. There’s been a bit of a push in recent weeks to get the programmes out and line-up announced, but ta da here it is!
It goes without saying that I would adore to see you at the festival. Talks include such treats as Choosing Your Heroines with Samantha Ellis, Anne Sebba and Alex Clark; and Spies in Fact and Fiction with Charles Cumming, Christopher Andrew and James Naughtie; with speakers including Michael Palin, Antonia Fraser and Owen Jones; plus some jolly children’s talks, music recitals, and a special walking book club around Regent’s Park discussing Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. So come along, and come and say hello if you do!
The other reason for the delay is that it takes so much longer (well, twice as long) to type things one-handed. And, these days, everything is done one-handed.
So I am sorry to have delayed telling you all about the blissfully enjoyable book in which I’ve been ensconced: The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Those of you of my age and older may well remember when the ‘Cazalet Chronicles’ were first published in the 1990s. I distinctly remember being on holiday in Devon in the late-nineties with my cousins. All the grown-ups were talking about how wonderful these books were, so I decided I would read them too. I was only about fourteen, so felt terribly precocious. And I was relieved to find that I too loved them. I remember particularly loving the way the children are so well imagined. Polly, Clary and Louise are all at that difficult age of eleven to fourteen and they all felt like different aspects of myself. These girls are given so much space in the book that I almost didn’t believe it was a book for adults.
It’s a series that has stuck with me, and when Elizabeth Jane Howard published a fifth volume towards the end of 2013, sadly not long before she died, I thought it might be the perfect excuse to revisit the originals. They are such thick chunky books though that it felt like too much of a treat. It would have been too much like only eating ice cream and meringues for a whole month. So I watched enviously as people, clearly addicted, came into the bookshop and bought up the various volumes over successive days.
Needless to say, when buying books to take on maternity leave, this was top of the list. At last, the perfect time to read it had come. Some other excellent times to read this rather indulgent series, or at least the first novel in the series, include: on holiday, on a very long journey, when feeling broke – you won’t want to go out if the alternative is reading this in the bath, and when waiting for the new series of Downton Abbey… For although in various interviews Elizabeth Jane Howard said her Cazalet characters are middle- not upper-class, they are a middle-class of the late thirties, which is rather different to that of today. They have staff; they have a family business which earns them plenty of money even though all they have to do is go out for lunch; the men belong to clubs; the boys all go to boarding school and the girls are educated at home; they say things like ‘gracious’ and ‘blast’ and everyone calls everyone else ‘darling’.
Briefly, this is a great family saga which follows the Cazalet family with all its domestic dramas during the Second World War. The Light Years is set during the summer holidays of 1937 and 1938, which are spent down at Home Place – the family pad in Sussex. The Brig and The Duchy rule the roost (though they are not paid that much authorial attention) then come their four children: the sons Hugh, Edward and Rupert – all of whom have married and have children of their own, and Rachel, the unmarried daughter who is in love with a woman.
I suppose reading it now – as opposed to when I was fourteen – I ought to be more fascinated by Howard’s portrayal of the various marriages. Philandering Edward and Villy, who gave up her career as a ballet dancer; Hugh and Sybil, who have a baby in the opening chunk of the book; and failing artist Rupert and Zoe – gosh Zoe, what a character! She has been bred solely for her beauty, is jealous of Rupert’s relationship with his children from his first marriage, and dreads having a baby:
Even if she didn’t die, her figure would be ruined: she would have flabby breasts with the nipples too large, like Villy and Sybil whom she had seen in their bathing suits, her waist would be thick and she would have those fearful stripes on her stomach and thighs – Sybil again; Villy seemed to have escaped that – and varicose veins – Villy, but not Sybil – and, of course, Rupert would no longer love her. He’d pretend to for a bit, she supposed, but she would know. Because the one thing she knew for certain was that her appearance was what people were interested in or cared about: she hadn’t anything else, really, to attract or keep anyone with.
See how clever and nuanced Howard is in her depiction of her characters! Zoe’s is a revealingly shallow and childish view of having a baby – we are encouraged to think how silly and pathetic she is, but Howard doesn’t let us get away with this. Instead, she sets up this interpretation only to undermine it by then encouraging our empathy. Poor Zoe, she reveals, cares so much about her appearance because she is aware that this is all she has. ‘The one thing she knew for certain was that her appearance was what people were interested in or cared about’. How terribly sad this is. How awful to have reached the age of twenty-two and feel that your appearance is the only thing you have, the only reason people like you. Zoe is an unsympathetic character, and yet Howard allows us to sympathise. It’s quite a feat, and one she pulls off with all of them.
So yes, the marriages are interesting, but for me – still – the real joy of this novel is in Howard’s conjuring of the children. It is unusual for children to be so well portrayed in adult novels – Penelope Fitzgerald does it brilliantly as does Ali Smith, but I can’t think of many authors who succeed. Howard delights in her children. We have Louise, Polly and Clary approaching adolescence, arguing fervently about books, wondering about what they want to be when they grow up, grumbling about parents, and indulging in the petty meannesses of ganging up and leaving each other out. And there is Simon, who is just surviving boarding school, and Teddy who dreads having to go; sensitive Christopher whose father is so horrid to him that he wants to run away; Angela who is becoming a young woman and has an all-encompassing crush on oblivious Rupert and silly but kind little Lydia and Neville.
Howard writes about each of them with the respect and understanding of their worries which adults so rarely give children. She captures perfectly the jumble of things, the lack of proportion in a child’s topsy turvy world. Polly, for instance, is shown to adore her cat, spends all her pocket money on bric-a-brac ‘for my house when I’m grown-up’, makes pots of ‘wonder cream’ out of egg white to sell to the unsuspecting servants, but has a real fear of the terribly adult prospect of war.
I loved every minute of reading The Light Years, but I think I’ll hold off the other Cazalet chronicles for now. It seems silly not just to give in to the heaven of all of them at once, but I feel the need to exercise some restraint. As I said, it would be like only eating ice cream and meringues for a month. The characters are well drawn, the world is perfectly created, it is, as the great Penelope Fitzgerald said, ‘a dazzling historical reconstruction’, but it is all SO delicious that I feel it can’t be good for me. Like ice cream and meringues. Heaven every now and then, but it is important to eat some vegetables too.