Casting Off, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Second paragraph of third chapter:

‘I didn’t – but ages. He was sort of a friend of Angus’s.’

Once again I have hugely enjoyed this, the fourth volume of the Cazalet Saga, set in 1945-47, about an upper-class family recovering from the war, particularly concentrating on the women and especially on the three cousins Clary, Louise and Polly, though with one very sympathetic male character, Archie, who is a close family friend. The dismay of the slow realisation that life will not return to the old ways, encapsulated by the Labour election victory, rang very true, as did the disintegration of Louise’s marriage, clearly and painfully based on the author’s marriage to Peter Scott. There is one particularly lovely chapter about Polly unexpectedly finding her destiny, and the Archie/Clary thread twists through the book, along with many other sidetracks into the extended family. I don’t think you could read this without having read the previous three, but I do recommend them all. One left now, All Change; but you can get this one here.

Confusion, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Second paragraph of third chapter:

It was being a thoroughly grown-up evening, and she [Clary] didn’t want him [Archie}to think that she didn’t know about conversation – particularly as Polly wasn’t helping at all: she simply smiles and chose things to eat and ate them. She looked awfully pretty in a pale yellow dress with a lace collar and a little black taffeta bow with streamers.

Third in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s brilliant family saga of the Cazalets, set during the Second World War, with the young and middle-aged women who are the central characters falling in love and having plenty of (off-stage) sex, not always with the right people or the same people. I almost feel that we had 900 pages of set-up in the first two volumes, which then explodes into lots and lots of plot here, which is maybe a little unfair as the first two were hardly without incident. Howard’s own gruesome first marriage (to Peter Scott) is unsparingly mined for material, with two particularly memorable passages involving very small babies.

Along with the turbulent love lives of the various viewpoint figures, there are some gems of observation about women’s roles in the society of 1940s England, and a quietly devastating subplot about the Holocaust and the uncovering of the concentration camps. Howard is tremendous at showing a society on the verge of tremendous change – mostly of course from the viewpoint of the privileged, but you write about what you know. And again there is an unlooked-for twist at the end which has my appetite whetted for the fourth volume.

This is not a fast-paced series, but I’m hugely enjoying it. You can get Confusion here.

Easy Bechdel pass – in the first chapter Polly and Clary talk about the afterlife and Polly’s dead mother.

I also listened to the middle part of the excellent BBC radio adaptation, which went out as a series of fifteen-minute episodes in 2013 (ten for each of the five books). The BBC moved around some of the internal narrative – the lesbian subplot is much earlier, and the twist at the end signalled much more in advance – but it’s faithful to the spirit of the original. Everyone is good but I was particularly impressed with Alix Wilton Regan, playing Louise, the character closest to Elizabeth Jane Howard herself. You can get it here.

Marking Time, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Second paragraph of third chapter (a very long ‘un):

‘Look after Zoë for me,’ he had said the night before he went, which really was a funny way round. After all, who was the stepmother? But sh couldn’t imagine him saying, ‘Look after Clary for me.’ She rather doubted whether Zoe had ever been asked to look after anybody. It might be a good idea to give an only medium-demanding animal for her next birthday to get her started on looking after something – or else her baby was in for a rather rotten time. (Of course, it was Ellen who really looked after all of them.) At Sports Day at his school, Neville had even pretended he hardly knew her. ‘You’ve hurt her feelings, you fool,’ Clary had hissed at Neville when they were meant to be getting plates of strawberries for the grown-ups in the tea tent. ‘Well, she hurt mine wearing that silly fur fox round her neck. If you ak me, that’s what feelings are for,’ he added while he skilfully transferred some better strawberries to the plate he had chosen. He had grown a lot, but his front teeth looked far too large for him and he had spent a lot of the Christmas holidays up trees that Lydia was afraid to climb. He didn’t seem to make any great friends at his school and he loathed games. His asthma was much better, but the night before Dad went, he quarrelled with everyone, drank what Emily said was the best part of her bottle of cooking sherry, unpacked his father’s suitcase, threw everything into the bath and turned on both taps. Dad found him and they had a sort of fight but in the end he was crying so much that Dad just carried him off to his room and they spent a long time alone together. He had asthma all that night, and Ellen stayed up with him because Dad had to be with Zoë because she was so upset. took after Nev, won’t you,’ he’d said to Clary next morning. ‘He kept saying last night that now he’d have nobody, and I kept telling him he had you.’ He’d looked so grey and tired, that she couldn’t say how much she minded his going, couldn’t say, ‘And who do you think I’ll have?’ or anything selfish like that because she could see that some kinds of love simply wore him out, so she just made her face smile and said ‘Yes, I will.’ He smiled back at her and said, ‘That’s my Clary,’ and asked her to come to the station with him. ‘Zoë doesn’t feel up to it,’ he said. Neville had gone to school as usual, and Tonbridge had driven them to Battle; she’d waited on the platform with Dad with nothing left to say and the train coming in was a relief. ‘Don’t wear any of those wet vests,’ she’d said as the most grown-up thing she could think of, at the end. ‘No, no. I’ll make His Majesty dry them for me personally,’ he’d said, bent to kiss her and got onto the train. He waved until he was out of sight and she’d walked slowly back to the car where Tonbridge was waiting, and got into the back and sat stiffly upright. Once, she saw Tonbridge looking at her in the driving mirror, and in Battle he stopped and went into a shop and came out with a bar of milk chocolate which he gave her, and although she loathed milk chocolate, this was a considerable kindness. She started to thank him and then had to pretend that she had a bad cough. He drove her back to Home Place without talking, but when she got out of the car, he said, ‘You’re a little soldier, you are,’ and smiled, so that she could see his black tooth next to his gold one.

I’m very much enjoying Howard’s Cazalet books, so much so that I’ve promoted them into a to-read list of their own for the New Year. Marking Time is the second of the series, set a year after the first, and concentrating very much on three teenage Cazalet girls, whose fathers are brothers. But it’s now war time – the book starts in September 1939 and ends with Pearl Harbour in December 1941, so it covers a long and crucial period of the girls’ lives; Louise, an aspiring actress, whose father is abusive; Clary, an aspiring writer, whose father goes missing after Dunkirk; and sensitive Polly, whose mother is very ill though nobody will admit it. Between the lines (and not only there) is a thoughtful reflection on the roles of women in English society of the time.

The cast of characters is huge – the family tree at the start lists eighteen living Cazalet relatives, and there are a half dozen more who get at least some viewpoint time – lovers, servants, in-laws. But Howard keeps them all under control, and although we know that parts of this are based on her own life, it doesn’t come across didactically. There is a minor twist at the end of the book which made me gasp, but in any case I would have been impatient for the next instalment; some very tempting plot lines have been set up. I’ll get to it soon enough! Meanwhile you can get Marking Time here.

I should say also that I am hugely enjoying the BBC Radio 4 dramatisation from 2012-2014, narrated by Penelope Wilton (Prime Minister Harriet Jones in Doctor Who). But annoyingly when I clicked through to the relevant page on the BBC website I got a couple of big spoilers for later volumes in the series, so I should have stuck with the audiobook on its own. You can get all twelve and a half hours here.

This was my top unread book by a woman and my top unread non-genre book. Both of those lists have now been drastically inflated by Christmas presents, and the next on each are Babel, by R.F. Huang, and Yellowface, also by R.F. Huang. But I’ve split off the Cazalets into their own stream.