‘The Caxley Chronicles’ is a two-volume novel about a small village in England during the early to mid twentieth centuries. It centers around two middle-class families; the Norths and the Howards. Both shopowners as the first book begins (“Market Square”), the story follows their struggles and triumphs in a difficult period of history.
“Market Square” begins with Bender North and his hardware shop. His relationship with Septimus Howard, the baker across the street, has been established since their schooldays, although they are vastly different in both temperament and physical characteristics.
“The Norths were middle class. They were respected tradespeople, church-goers and, best of all, comfortably off. Bertie was glad he was not in the class above his – the gentry. Their children were sent away to school or had stern governesses. Their fathers and mothers seemed to be away from home a great deal. It would not have suited Bertie…
Other people – far too many of them for Bertie’s tender heart – were also poor. He saw them in his father’s shop, thin, timid, unpleasantly smelly, rooting in their pockets or worn purses for the pence to pay for two screws, a cheap pudding basin, or a little kettle. They were pathetically anxious not to give any trouble…
… It seemed strange to the listening boy, his head not far above the counter, that the poor whose money was so precious, should be content to accept shoddy goods, whereas those with plenty of money should make such a terrible fuss if there were the slightest fault in their purchases.”
The families become interwined through marriage and support one another when difficult choices must be made and financial upheaval affects both businesses.
When the first World War comes along, the author does not describe life in the trenches of Europe or give a picture of wartime life from the soldier’s perspective. ‘Market Square’ is just that; written from the perspective of the villagers, the book focuses on how the war affects the lives at home; food shortages, the wounded returning home, and the losses.
The second book, “The Howards of Caxley”, continues the story through the Second World War and beyond, and the fortunes of the various family members. The indomitable spirit of England as it stands alone for a time in the war is portrayed, each villager possessing their individual manner of persevering through the dark days of the war.
“The raids now began in earnest. The phoney war was at an end and the evacuees again began to stream from the stricken towns. Many of them spent the rest of the war away from their own homes. Many had no homes to return to. Many adopted the town of their refuge, grew up, married and became happy countrymen for the rest of their lives.”
Marraiges among both families take place, children grow up and take their place in the village (or not), and English village life changes and moves into a new period of history with women taking part in the workplace and businesses expanding. The market square has changed forever; Bender North’s hardware shop is now a restaurant and the bakery has expanded; motorcars have replaced horses and war evacuees return home to the city.
Although the war years in themselves are tumultuous enough, this book has been described as a ‘comfort read’, easy and relaxing, and I certainly found it so. Of the two, I enjoyed the first book more although I was engaged enough with the characters to follow along with the events in each family.