I had never heard of The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, but after seeing Sophie’s tweets and everyone recommending the saga, I asked her for a review copy and she kindly sent me the first installment. Then, as I was immerse in the Cazalet world, Elizabeth Jane Howard passed away and despite her wonderful works, she was referred in the press as “Amis’ ex-wife” although she had had two other marriages. I devoted a Feminist Sunday to this issue – click here to read it – and now I am reviewing The Light Years.
In 1937, the coming war is only a distant cloud on Britain’s horizon. As the Cazalet households prepare for their summer pilgrimage to the family estate in Sussex, readers meet Edward, in love with but by no means faithful to his wife Villy; Hugh, wounded in the Great War; Rupert, who worships his lovely child-bride Zoe; and Rachel, the spinster sister.
I started reading The Light Years right after I sat my M.A’s first exam and I chose the book because I thought I needed something more domestic and tranquil than the usual crime novel. My paperback edition made the book seem quite long and I thought it would take me ages to finish it, but Howards’ description of 1937’s everyday life and issues is as addictive as a mystery to be solved. The Light Years is the perfect mix between Mrs. Dalloway and Downton Abbey.
Although the book’s description centers around the three brothers – and I have to say that put me off at first – the narrative actually focuses through very different characters, including their wives and children. And, by focusing through them, Howard explores “the nameless” problems that Victorian morals and manners still sanctioned. One of my favourite examples is the construction of female sexuality only in a heterosexual frame as something useful to bear children, but that brought no pleasure to women. The same happens with the curse which came unannounced and scared one of the children.
But, the real heart of The Light Years lies, obviously, in the characters. Howards took the perfect setting, a family, and created as many identities as were possible during the 1930’s. The Cazalet brothers represent different outcomes of those who enlisted to fight in WWI and their wives stand for the many and complex lives that wives and mothers – who were not allowed to be more than that – lead in their domestic environment. It is only natural then that every reader picks up a favourite. For those who have read it, I loved Hugh because of his devotion to his wife, although Rupert and his inner conversations about Zoë and his children nearly moved me to tears. But, my favourite above all was Villy. I think she represents a generation of wives and mothers who started to doubt women’s apparently natural destiny as simply mothers and wives, but who, at the same time, instilled the same ideas into their daughters. I found Villy’s inner discussions with herself are as complex and as real as these kind of struggles are.
I had one issue with the book, and it was really about the book and not about the narrative. The front cover- all pink with flowers – had a recommendation by Cosmopolitan. I think The Cazalet Chronicles are a very important work of art and the fact that they deal with domestic and private life does not make them “chick-lit” or whatever name literature who targets women has. I have long had issues with the distinction women’s/men’s literature because I find it pointless: just read what you want. But, sadly, this kind of labelling still exists. So, I urge everyone, men and women, to read The Cazalet Chronicles because they are a long, warm walk into 20th century everyday life and issues.