21 November 2017

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I've lost count of the times fellow bloggers have mentioned The Cazalet Chronicles whenever the topic of fiction set during WWII comes up.  There are five books in this series - my library was missing titles and it was wishful thinking that a complete set would pop up in a second-hand shop, so I placed an order.  Having just finished the first book I completely agree with those who find the story of the Cazalets, an upper-middle class family bridging the Victorian era and the twentieth century, to be unputdownable.

The Light Years begins with the early rising of the Cazalet household staff.  Flannels are dipped into washbowls, caps are pulled over curls and nightdresses are removed to make way for shifts and aprons.  As another day dawns on Home Place, the Cazalet's summer residence in Sussex, the draperies are thrown open, tea is made and the cover is removed from the budgerigar's cage.  Scenery filled with cotton and linens then turns to one of silks as the Cazalet women slip from warm beds into recently drawn hot baths.  If images from Downton Abbey are forming before your eyes, join the club!

The year is 1937.  Readers are aware that another war lies ahead but the Great War is still fresh in the minds of the Cazalets, especially for Hugh, who lost a hand while fighting in France.  Another tragic event has touched the family....Rupert's first wife died after giving birth to their second child.  Seemingly unscathed after his war duty,  Edward is debonair enough to be a matinee idol.  A shortfall of Edward's is his need for the attention of women despite having a perfectly lovely family to focus on. Rachel Cazalet, the senior Cazalet's only daughter, is steadfastly committed to her parents.  At thirty-eight years of age, her closest companion is a woman called 'Sid', a shortening of Margot's last name.  Her parents, affectionately known as 'the Brig' and 'Duchy', are supportive of Rachel's philanthropic work and not overly concerned that marriage and motherhood may pass her by.  There is a definite air, outwardly at least, that everyone knows their manners and place.

Villy, Sybil and Zoe have married into the Cazalet family, with Zoe breaking the mould in that she has no immediate plans for children.  In fact, she secretly employs a Dutch cap to keep any chance of  pregnancy to a minimum.  The most charming scenes come from the various children, ranging from infants to early teen years.  I laughed out loud at an experiment in making 'Wonder Cream' that involved raw eggs which, as you would expect, soon end up 'on the turn'.  The absolute cherry on top of this heaving household is the superbly drawn governess, Miss Milliment.  But credit where credit is due, the delight comes from Howard's sublime ability to characterize....

She clothed herself by covering her body with whatever came to hand cheapest and most easily; she bathed once a week (the landlady charged extra for baths) and she had taken over her father's steel-rimmed spectacle frames that served her very well.  Laundry was either difficult or expensive so her clothes were not very clean.  In the evenings she read philosophy and poetry and books about the history of art, and at weekends she looked at pictures.  Looked!  She stared, stayed, and revisited a picture until it was absorbed into those parts of her bulky being that made memory, which then digested into spiritual nourishment.

Having now cemented the members of the family and which children belong to whom, I'm jumping straight into the next book Marking Time.  Everyone, except Polly's cat, has been fitted for a gas mask and is taking up garden shovels to dig trenches near the tennis court.

A quick last minute note....I've just read an article stating that producer Sally Woodward Gentle, formerly the creative director of Downton Abbey, will be involved in a new project to dramatize the story of the Cazalets.  Very exciting!

The Yellow Balloon by Dorothea Sharp (1937)

15 comments:

  1. The Cazalets on TV? That sounds exciting. I finished reading all five books last year so will not be reading again for at least another twelve months. Enjoy the rest of the series.

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    1. It's also the same team that brought us The Durrells so my hopes and expectations are quite high! Glad to hear you're a fan of the Cazalet series, Toffeeapple. I've read a few reviews on Goodreads from people who just didn't get on with the books which made me want to reach for smelling salts!

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  2. I listened to the radio adaption of this and remember being fascinated by Miss Milliment. I think I need to start reading this series. Enjoyed your review.

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    1. I've already had a minor fantasy about a manuscript being found among Howard's belongings focusing on Miss Milliment's backstory.

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  3. Reading about these books in the blogosphere gives me such a warm feeling as I flew through them when I was pregnant with my daughter (now 20 and studying Eng. Lit. at uni). I thought there had already been a TV adaptation but I must have been mistaken. I didn't want to spoil my memories but maybe it was radio?

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    1. I just checked this, thinking the same thing. There WAS an adaptation in 2001, and it was pretty good, if memory serves. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0283280/?ref_=nv_sr_1) I need to re-read the book. (Hope it's ok that I jumped in here -- I'm a recent follower.)

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    2. You're not wrong...we watched two episodes of that series over ten years ago but weren't able to get the rest. And how wonderful that your daughter is studying Eng. Lit. - are you inspired by anything on her reading list?

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    3. Hi Sonia...thanks for jumping in, the more the merrier!

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    4. I'm trying to be inspired by daughter's reading list but so far I've only managed to read a couple of Jean Rhys (excellent but depressing). She's doing Nabokov for her dissertation (so far) so I may sit this one out!

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  4. This series is just wonderful! I was afraid that the later books wouldn't stand up but I loved them all, even the final book which was published years later in 2013. I have seen the 2001 mini series which had some minor changes but is excellent and well-cast. It's worth watching if you can track it down, it's getting hard to find.

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    1. You were one of the bloggers who mentioned this series to me, so thanks very much, Karen! Keep your eye out for the new series, it's by the same team who produced The Durrells so my expectations are pretty high.

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  5. Yay so glad you loved it so much - they're addictive, aren't they?! The 2001 series I have on DVD and it's fantastic (Hugh Bonneville plays Hugh) but they only did the first two books. So a new TV series would be much welcomed - I'm excited already!

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    1. Oh they are! My plan to read other books between each title to space them out has gone out the window. There doesn't seem to be any mention of possible cast members for the new series....are we tired of James Norton yet? Have a lovely day, Rachel!

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  6. That is very exciting! I read these many years ago but haven't yet read (though I own) the relatively recent fourth(?) one. Now I'm thinking I may need to do some re-reading before I turn to it.

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    1. Perfect cosy reading for long, cold winter evenings, Audrey! I hear we're in for a snowy season....ugh.

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