Tag Archives: Pan

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The big question for members of my reading group was this: were any of us going to read the four subsequent novels in the series known as The Cazalet ChroniclesThe Light Years is Volume I and over 500 pages long. Did we like it enough to want to read more?

The Light Years

The Chronicles appeared from 1990 onwards and follow the fortunes of the Cazalet family from 1937 through three generations. They are an upper-middle class family, whose money comes from the timber trade. 

The Brig and the Duchy live in Home Place, looked after by their unmarried daughter and their servants. Home Place is a much-extended house in the Sussex countryside in the south of England. It is the family tradition that the three sons will bring their wives and children to spend two months of the summer on the farm. The sons will spend some of that time in London, pursuing the family business. 

In 1937 this life, this pattern of the year, seems likely to continue for ever. The horrors of the First World War are nearly two decades behind them. Two of the sons fought in the trenches. Hugh lost a hand and is fearful of any return to war. Edward emerged unscathed. But as the family assemble for their summer holidays such considerations seem far behind.

The three sections of the book follow the members of the family as they prepare for the summer in 1937, and then through the two summers that follow. It culminates in the relief of Munich. There will not be war in 1938.

What we noticed

It’s a long novel, about 500 pages. But we all found it easy to read, well-written and always interesting. The short sections and the many characters kept one’s interest.

There are many characters: the Brig and the Duchy, their four offspring and three wives, and eight grandchildren. There are also many servants and some aunts, friends and cousins who appear at Home Place. We all appreciated the family tree. Those reading on Kindle revealed that they had photographed it on their phones to consult while reading. 

The novel has very little narrative, no big overarching storyline. Instead, as in any family, there are trails and sequences, themes picked up or lost. A baby is born, another conceived. The grandchildren make and break friendships. Rachel, the unmarried daughter has a female friend who is able to visit from time to time. They are very much in love, but this is not openly acknowledged by the family.

Jane noticed that there are many single women, who did not live happy lives, in The Light Years. Rachel is expected to remain caring for her parents as they age. She keeps them company, solves many domestic problems and is seen as indispensable. Her own wishes do not figure. There are aunts who come to stay. And the governess, Miss Milliment, who had lost her soulmate in the first war has a very bleak existence in Stoke Newington until summoned to attend to the grandchildren, first in London and then at Home Place. These are the ‘surplus’ women of the inter-war years.

We were attracted to different characters. We enjoyed the episodes that revealed the relationships between them. And we could see Elizabeth Jane Howard’s skill in developing believable and changing characters and relationships over time. 

Will we read on?

One member of the book group had read The Light Years in preparation for our meeting, and then immediately gone on to read the other four novels, finding them a good distraction from episodes of sleeplessness. Another had finished The Light Years and immediately looked at the BBC TV 2001 series (The Cazalets). A third has ordered the next two volumes from the library. A fourth has decided to finish reading The Light Years

And me? Well, you will have to wait and see. I noted that the next book in the series is called Marking Time. After that there is ConfusionCasting Off and All Change.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1990) Pan. The Cazalet Chronicles (I) 554pp.

Thank you, Marianne, for your recommendation.

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Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

There are no sweet old ladies in Quartet in Autumn. Barbara Pym takes an unflinching look at two women and two men as they end their working lives, and face their futures in London in the late 1970s. All four are single. All four have small lives. Barbara Pym herself knew what it meant to be overlooked in later life, when her publisher turned down a novel because it was not adequately commercial. 204 4tet in Autumn cover

The Story of Quartet in Autumn

The four share an office and have jobs that are utterly dispensable. We never find out what their jobs are or the nature of the business in which they work. Whatever it is, computers will replace them. We are introduced to the foursome through their lunchtime habits and learn something of the smallness of their lives as they contemplate the prospects for their summer holidays. Their plans show that their connections to the world outside the office are almost non-existent. Edwin has his church activities, and Letty her widowed school friend with whom she will live when she retires. Marcia always spends her leave at home.

Change moves slowly through their lives. The women retire and Letty’s plans to join her friend fall apart because Marjorie becomes engaged. Letty moves out of her room to avoid the noise of her new landlord’s Pentecostal church. Edwin and Norman miss the women as they wait for their own retirement but still take their time to invite them to lunch.

In retirement Marcia retreats into her house, continuing to neglect it, the garden and her self. She has recently undergone surgery and the focus of her life is her visits to the surgeon, Mr Strong. Her death brings together the other three for only the second time since the women retired.

Ultimately Letty learns that her friend has been jilted and would like her to revive their plans of cohabiting. She has a choice of where to live for the first time and understands that this makes her significant in the lives of other.

In many ways Quartet in Autumn is a dismal story, as no one seems to care about these older people (see also Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont). But the final words of the novel are ‘life still held infinite possibilities for change’. 204 B Pym writer Gerson_cropped_op_298x311

The older women in Quartet in Autumn

Letty Crowe

Single women need to be ‘drearily splendid’. Barbara Pym was reflecting on her own situation when she used this phrase. Letty could be described as ‘drearily splendid’ as she comes to understand how little she matters to anyone in her old age. Her only family connection is a cousin she has not seen for years and who lives in the West Country. She has invested in her friendship with Marjorie and is deflated but not defeated by Marjorie’s plans to remarry.

She is discerning, is concerned for others and has spirit. She sets about making the best of everything with good cheer. Her new landlady is less than welcoming on her arrival but by the end of the novel the two women have developed a kind of friendship, based on sharing the kitchen and watching tv together.

204 B PymIt is Letty who will do best in this quartet, for she has created a situation where change is possible and it about her story that Barbara Pym makes that final observation that her ‘life still held infinite possibilities for change’.

Marcia Ivory

Marcia is a more troubling older women. She is ill and somewhat odd. Her oddness is represented by her cherished milk bottle collection kept in her garden shed. Marcia troubles the voluntary social worker who has decided to take her on. Janice, a do-gooder, is determined to get Marcia to eat better and to become more connected to the other older people of the neighbourhood. She is unable to understand Marcia’s resistance.

Marcia is inscrutable to the reader as well. She is a little like the old woman seen by Letty early in the novel who slumped on the tube and when approached by a friendly young woman was roundly told to ‘Fuck Off!’ We steer clear of such people, aware that they don’t invite or need our friendliness, and we don’t want to catch their eye in case they engage us in some crazy and embarrassing talk. We want to believe that someone else is looking out for them.

Marcia is not cut off entirely from the world. She had perceived Norman’s lack of any resources to deal with life while they worked together. It is her kind bequest that releases him from his retirement difficulties and makes choice and change possible for him.

204 My cover 4inAMarcia herself is neglected, avoided and abandoned as many older people are. She is a stark reminder of what it means to be alone, old and overlooked. There are more Marcias today than there were in the 1970s.

Barbara Pym and her Writing

The darker themes of Quartet in Autumn do not obscure Barbara Pym’s close and humorous observations of the small but significant moments in life, which skill brings inevitable comparison with Jane Austen. She admired her and studied her technique. And like Elizabeth Taylor she has an undeserved reputation for being rather twee, but they both are quiet and perceptive in their observations of the social interactions.

Here is a delightful example that tells the reader and Letty everything about Father Lydell, Marjorie’s fiance who has come to the country for his health. When they are introduced Letty asks if the country is doing him good.

‘I’ve had diarrhoea all this week,’ came the disconcerting reply.

There was a momentary – perhaps no more than a split second’s – pause, but if the women had been temporarily taken aback, they were by no means at a loss.

‘Diarrhoea,’ Letty repeated, in a clear thoughtful tone. She was never certain how to spell the word, but felt that such a trivial admission was lacking in proper seriousness so she said no more.

‘Strong drink would do you more good than the eternal round of parish cups of tea,’ Marjorie suggested boldly. ‘Brandy, perhaps.’ (34-5)

In the 1970s there was much talk about ensuring that less fortunate members of society should not ‘fall through the net’. All four people will fall through the social net, even if they do not need the services of the welfare state. Barbara Pym describes here a general attitude towards older people as they came to retire:

If the two women feared that the coming of this date might give some clue to their ages, it was not an occasion for embarrassment because nobody else had been in the least interested, both of them having long ago reached ages beyond any kind of speculation. Each would be given a small golden handshake, but the state would provide for their basic needs which could not be all that great. Elderly women did not need much to eat, warmth was more necessary than food, and people like Letty and Marcia probably either had either private means or savings, a nest-egg in the post office or a building society. It was comforting to think on these lines, and even if they had nothing extra, the social services were so much better now, there was no need for anyone to starve or freeze. And if governments failed in their duties there were always the media – continual goadings on television programmes, upsetting articles in the Sunday papers and disturbing pictures in the colour supplements. There was no need to worry about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory. (86)

This passage draws attention to assumptions about older women: their uninteresting social lives, their needs, their financial circumstances and that other people would look out for them. Older people are perceived as ‘other people’ even today. In this passage Barbara Pym makes it impossible to accept this prevailing view by showing us life from their perspectives. By referring to the continual horror stories in the media she warns us that we do need to worry about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory, and indeed the two men who have not yet retired. 204 B Pym + cat

Barbara Pym knew what it was to be neglected. Famously her reputation was resurrected when Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil both nominated her as the most under-rated author in 1977 in the TLS. Quartet in Autumn was published later that year. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Related posts

This is the 17th review in the series on older women in fiction. You can find them by clicking on the relevant category or by going to the page on the older women in fiction series.

An appreciation of Barbara Pym’s novels on the centenary of her birth by Philip Henscher was published in the Telegraph in June 2013

From the LA Review of Books 16th July 2015 by Mayotte, A Nice Hobby like Knitting surveys Barbara Pym’s career and novels.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym, first published in 1977 by Pan/Picador 186pp

 

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews