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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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