Should Elizabeth Jane Howard have brought back the Cazalets?

Reviewing All Change was the ultimate luxury

23 November 2013

9:00 AM

23 November 2013

9:00 AM

All Change Elizabeth Jane Howard

Mantle, pp.400, £18.99, ISBN: 9780230743076

Some years ago, a woman wrote to Dear Mary, at the back of this periodical, with an unusual problem: she was a keen follower of new fiction but felt guilty to be seen lying around on sofas reading novels in the presence of her domestic staff. Mary advised that she should let it be known she had taken up fiction reviewing.

If there is anything in publishing to melt the realities of book reviewing into this delicious scene it’s the prospect of a new Cazalet novel. Not only do I get to read it in plain sight, but the 19-year break since the last one necessitates a re-read of the whole lot. Days and days, that means, immersed in the lives of that many-petalled flower of the home counties, the Cazalet family. So that’s 2,500 pages, ten whole Christmases at honey-coloured Home Place (1937-47) with the Brig, the Duchy, the self-sacrificing Rachel and her adoring friend Sid, the trio of handsome sons, extensively wived and mistressed and the impassioned granddaughters, Polly, Clary, Louise and Lydia et al, sharing secrets and sticks of tangee lipstick in the frosty morning light. All this, in the name of work. Bring me my bed jacket, my chocs in fluted paper cases. This is luxury.

It really is a long time since the last of these books appeared, and fans will probably have two questions. First: do we need another Cazalet novel now, when the last one, Casting Off, seemed to leave most questions answered, most relationships resolved and had an air of terminus about it? Then they may also wonder, not discourteously, whether Howard (now aged 90) can bring off such a sustained and delicate trick.

On the first point, there is a purpose to this volume. Re-reading the earlier books, I was struck more than before by the vanished privileges of the Cazalets’ position in society: no one has any particular accomplishment and everyone expects an income. The family timber firm is left to run itself while the Cazalet brothers spend their days in conversation and lunching in West End restaurants. You wonder how such people, whose entitlement to flush living has never yet been at odds with their scorn of materialism, would manage if circumstances were less benign; and this is the question Howard has decided to ask herself.

All Change begins in 1957 and could well have been called ‘Coming Down’. It isn’t, of course, a book about money. Howard has never been interested in that and takes a punitive line with avaricious characters like Diana, Edward’s new wife, who thinks her long apprenticeship as mistress has earned her the right to illimitable good times. Her concerns are rather the saving grace of love and the importance of honesty.

Pitching the Cazalets into this postwar world exposes them to new truths that must be faced or, in some cases, ignored in the hope that they will all go away. Of course the younger generation — now grown up — adapt better than their parents: Clary writes, Polly tries to turn her husband’s hideous dormitory of an Edwardian house — itself a symbol of misplaced confidence — into a wedding venue, and the too-beautiful Louise feels the pull of luxury in the shape of a rich married lover. The older ones, meanwhile, have to contend with this exposure, and to  even worse ones, of illness and death.

The Cazalets are a large family and their creator has her favourites among them, those who shine from the page most brightly. Some — like Clary — have always been special pets, while others go in and out of favour. In All Change the brutish Edward stands out. His self-deceptions, weaknesses of will and new, self-inflicted sufferings have earned him the authorial energy now departed from his contented settled brothers.

Sometimes Howard appears faintly bored by the older crowd and eager to turn her attention to the next generation. This, perhaps, is where her seniority is most in evidence. The Duchy may die in the first chapter, but a whiff of the dowager still presides, in the sense that the family has now expanded beyond the point where Howard — their ultimate matriarch — can be equally interested in all of them. A newly-grown grandchild might attract her, or an in-law like Archie Lestrange have more to entice her than a blood relative. There are a number of new children — brilliantly alive, as Howard’s children always are, but perhaps a little similar to their parents when they themselves were young.

That said, Howard has lost none of her creative imagination, none of her insight, none of her comedy and none of that rare and miraculous ability to magic us into a room with the characters. Also, since All Change is the final shout in this series, I would like to praise another of her gifts: the perfect evocation of the past. This seems particularly remarkable now, when self-conscious nostalgia surrounds us at every turn.

What we learn in the comparison is that no amount of period detail compensates for nailing the moral priorities. A television series like Mad Men, for instance, is bang on with the lampshades but can’t help filtering the 1960s through the preoccupations of the present day, so that every drink, cigarette and bottom-pat is an occasion for prurience and spectacle. When Cazalets light cigarettes — and they often do — they light them, well, lightly, like Lord Peter Wimsey drawing on a Whifflet. Likewise, the attitude to food — which is often scarce, sometimes nasty, almost always desirable and occasionally too rich — invokes an alien but accurate gastronomy.

Howard has made this past her element, and through her we experience it as natives, not tourists.

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