“The Light Years” is the first book in a five book series by Elizabeth Jane Howard, chronicling one family’s story in early twentieth century England.
The Cazalet family’s story begins just as World War 2 is looming on the horizon; a period that I love to read about. The changes just around the corner that would so deeply affect everyday life within the maelstrom of impending war is a topic I think I will never tire of.
William Cazalet (‘the Brig’), is the head of the family, and he and his wife Duchy are minor characters in this first book. His sons Hugh, Edward and Rupert and daughter Rachel take more of a center stage, and the grandchildren also are well-drawn. With servants, extended family and an aging, impoverished governess, the author has deftly woven a believable story.
It has been a family tradition to take a summer holiday in the country at the ‘Home Place’, and with such a large cast of characters, there is plenty going on to engage the reader. Even the school-age children have their own particular foibles, problems, and pursuits, and are depicted sympathetically and true-to-life.
I enjoyed the realistic portrayals of each character (although I did not admire some of them!) There is Villy (Viola), Edward’s wife, and her hidden regrets for the life of the stage; the young, self-absorbed Zoe (Rupert’s wife) who finds it difficult to accept her step-mothering responsibilities, and Hugh’s wife Sybil (seemingly the most content of the three). Rachel, the spinster daughter, is self-sacrificing and always seems willing to be inconvenienced for her family’s sake. Rupert as the youngest son had escaped military duty in World War 1 but his brothers Hugh and Edward have not. Edward seems to be the most resilient of the three brothers but on the other hand, Hugh’s injuries will never let him forget his wartime experiences.
And of course, there are the children. Angela who finds her first unrequited love, Christopher who isn’t athletic but intensely longing for his father’s approval, Simon’s dread of boarding school and Teddy (who most seems to be like Edward). Cousins Polly and Louise are friends until Clary (whose mother has died in childbirth and now has the inexperienced Zoe for a stepmother), comes along. Each child has their place in the family and each one is dealt with so that the reader is caught up along with them in their frustrations, challenges and joys.
When Louise’s mother has had some painful dental work, her young teen daughter Louise, finds herself useful: “She had helped Villy upstairs, helped her to undress, found bedsocks and her lacy jacket: her mother was very cold. She had lit the gas fire, drawn the curtains, rushed out the door when Phyllis knocked and taken the hot water bottles blocking her view of the invalid. She had administered the aspirin and arranged the pillows, drawn up the eiderdown and throughout her mother had seemed acquiescent and grateful….
She sat on the stairs for ages, on the curve so that she could hear if her mother called and see when her father returned, wondering whether perhaps she ought not to sacrifice her career to become a nurse. She was gliding about darkened wards at night with a lamp, relieving the agonized sufferings of wounded soldiers with a touch of her delicate but experienced hands, soothing their last moments with her gentle voice…”
The attitudes of post-Victorian England are portrayed with tongue-in-cheek humor:
“(Lady Rydal) disapproved of any reference to religion made by anyone other than herself (levity); she considered politics an unsuitable subject for a lady (Margot Asquith and Lady Astor were not people she would invite to her house); any discussion of the Royal Family’s private life was vulgar (she was probably the only person in London who, from the outset of that affair, had ceased mentioning Edward VIII and who had never pronounced Mrs. Simpson’s name); any reference to the body – its appearance, its requirements and, worst of all, its urges – was utterly taboo (even health was tricky since only certain ailments were permissible for women).”
I finished this first book in the Cazalet family chronicles with somewhat mixed feelings. I became so caught up in the personalities and lives of the characters that I was eager to pick up the next volume. I decided to read a few reviews to help me ascertain exactly what the author’s purpose in writing the series is. When I discovered that the books were largely autobiographical, the pieces began to fall into place. I have to admit I was a little taken aback by the treatment of some sensitive topics. The author’s seemingly blithe attitude toward adultery and tacitly resigned tolerance of especially one character’s promiscuity caught me off guard (although not explicit or graphic in nature and the fear of discovery is a moral statement in itself). However when I read about the author’s family life and background the connections made were easily recognisable.
The human experience, the various ups and downs of country life, the small frustrations and the momentous (to the characters themselves and therefore, to the reader also) difficulties that arose were woven together realistically for the reader. The servants seem to be run off their feet (especially the cook, but no less the housemaids) and their employers oblivious to the discrepancy in roles. The author certainly had talent in crafting a large sprawling story with several characters, all from different walks of life and different ages. I found it very absorbing and although am eager to start the next book in the series (“Marking Time”), have to admit it is also with a little trepidation for the unknown. Certainly Elizabeth Jane Howard is not to be taken for granted!