The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Published by Pan Macmillan
7th November 2013
Home Place, Sussex 1937. The English family at home...
Every summer, brothers Hugh, Edward and Rupert Cazalet take their families back to their childhood home in the heart of Sussex for two glorious, sunlit months. But not even this idyllic setting can alleviate heartache, fear and loneliness.
Hugh, haunted by memories of battle in France, is terrified at the prospect of another war. Handsome, charming Edward who escaped from the war unscathed is more occupied by his continuous affairs, of which his desperately bored wife, Villy, is unaware. Talented painter Rupert finds he cannot both paint and be married to his beautiful, demanding wife Zoe. And their sister Rachel is so loyal to her family that she has no time to devote to the woman she feels so passionate about - lovely, half-Jewish Sid.
The day began at five to seven when the alarm clock (given to Phyllis by her mother when she started service) went off and on and on and on until she quenched it. Edna, in the other creaking iron bed, groaned and heaved over, hunching herself against the wall; even in summer she hated getting up, and in winter Phyllis sometimes had to haul the bedclothes off her. She sat up, unclipped her hairnet and began undoing her curlers: it was her half-day, and she'd washed her hair. She got out of bed, picked the eiderdown off the floor where it had fallen in the night and drew the curtains. Sunlight refurbished the room - making toffee of the linoleum, turning the chips on the white enamel washhand jug slate blue. She unbuttoned her winceyette nightdress and washed as her mother had taught her to do: face, hands and - circumspectly - under her arms with a flannel dipped in the cold water. 'Get a move on,' she said to Edna. She poured her slops into the pail and began to dress. In her underclothes, she removed her nightdress and slipped on her dark green cotton morning dress. She put her cap over her unbrushed-out sausage curls, and tied the apron round her waist. Edna, who washed much less in the mornings, managed to dress while still half in bed - a relic of the winter (there was no heat in the room and they never in their lives opened the window). By ten past seven they were both ready to descend quietly through the sleeping household. Phyllis stopped on the first floor and opened a bedroom door. She drew the curtains and heard the budgerigar shifting impatiently in his cage.
Quite frankly, what can be better than discovering a book that you really love? Well, for me, it's finding that the book you love is part of a series of books, and this is the way it is with the Cazalet Chronicles written by the late Elizabeth Jane Howard. Originally published in 1990, the books span a time period of what was initally a ten year period; the fifth and final instalment will be published later this year. Until the end of last year, I had never heard of them, but a friend recommended them and I decided to give them a go - how I wish I had found them sooner!
The books follow the lives of the Cazalet family, the Brig and the Duchy, and their four children, their spouses and their offspring. Added into this jumble of characters is the assortment of servants each employed by the various families. From the start, it is unbelievable to imagine that the books were written so recently as they spark of the 1940s era in which they are set.
The Light Years begins in the summer of 1937 and culminates in the summer of 1938 when preparations for another war seem imminent. We follow the daily lives of the children Polly, Simon, William, Louise, Teddy, Lydia, Clarissa, Neville, Angela, Christopher, Nora and Judy set amongst boarding school holidays (the boys), and having a governess at home (the girls). The holidays are a time for old rivalries to be remembered, and fond friendships amongst the cousins to be rekindled. It's also an opportunity for the wives to be brought together - Sybil, Villy and Zoe, all so very different but ultimately united only because of the men that they have married.
The Cazalet Chronicles is like slipping on a pair of your most comfortable slippers after spending the day in a pair of uncomfortable shoes. For me the journey into the lives of this family was a delightful one; it's not all bliss and happiness, but there is a real sense of kinship here, and the effects of what life was like before, during and after the Second World War. I'm already tucking into volume two, and have three and four at the ready!