The Light Years, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

That was the beginning of that summer…

When I was a kid, my parents used to take my brother and me on holidays in Devon with my mother’s entire extended family: her parents, her three siblings, their spouses, and their kids. Eighteen of us would rent out one huge house–never the same one twice; there seems to be a glut of rentable mansions in Devon, possibly the result of the landed nobility in this country realizing how difficult it is to maintain the fabric of an estate and consequently flogging their hunting lodges to Helpful Holidays–and we’d be there for a week or so. It was like living in a wonderful fantasy of freedom. The cousins, of whom I am the oldest and whom I therefore bore some responsibility towards in those days, would lay elaborate plots to fool the grown-ups into thinking we had gone to bed. Once, very early on, when I was about seven, my next oldest cousin Sarah and I planned to sneak out of our rooms while the adults were eating dinner, and to roam about the fields in the dying light, bothering cows and picking blackberries. We didn’t get further than the hall door before we were spotted from the dining room, scolded, and returned upstairs. There were other plots: to row downriver to Totnes (something one cousin actually managed in the company of several uncles, at about five in the morning; they returned with bacon sandwiches for breakfast and the morning papers.) Excursions to neighboring farms, which had puppies and calves. Games in the swimming pool and on the green, manicured lawns, with the shadows of boxwood hedges lengthening over them in the evenings. Always something happening in the kitchen; always, somewhere, cake and tea. Visits to the seaside which were always excitingly uncomfortable; they generally involved bladderwrack, sandy cheese sandwiches, and sea anemones in rock pools, and tended to culminate in soft serve ice cream topped by a Flake, a seagull attack, misery, being comforted, and falling asleep in the back of the car on the way home, wrapped in a sun-warmed towel.

I mention all of this because Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel The Light Years is about a similar tradition in the Cazalet family: each summer, the three grown-up sons descend on Home Place, in Sussex, where their parents and unmarried sister Rachel still live, with wives and children in tow. There, for three months, they are all together: playing, quarreling, the men going back and forth to manage the family timber business in London, the women coping with boredom and pregnancy and forming unexpected friendships with one another. This first book is set in 1937 and 1938; the shadow of war is looming on the horizon, and the subsequent four books (it’s part of a series) will take us through the war and out the other side.

Howard is a marvelous writer. She was married to Kingsley Amis, which made me expect her to be tough as nails and possibly even a bit nasty (as I think he was), but instead, she captures with absolute grace and warmth the dynamic of a large extended family. Amongst the three sons, Edward is a charming cad, Hugh sensitive and kind to his wife (and in almost constant pain from injuries suffered during the First World War), and Rupert in some difficulty after having married a very young, very beautiful and very demanding woman for whom his career as a painter is going to have to be sacrificed. Their wives–Villy, Sybil, and Zoe–struggle with the limitations of life as a woman in the 1930s; Zoe in particular is rather tragic because, at the age of twenty-two, she knows perfectly well that her beauty is her only positive characteristic. She lives in fear of becoming pregnant or aging in any way, convinced that once she has “lost her looks”, neither Rupert nor anyone else will continue to love her.

There are many children, all of whom are drawn with precision and many of whom are given dialogue that repeatedly made me giggle out loud for the way it captures the precarious, dignified, loony logic of preadolescents. Neville, one of the youngest at about five or so, wants to bring a jellyfish home from the beach:

‘And anyway,’ Polly said, ‘it’s not a pet! You couldn’t, by the wildest stretch of imagination, turn a jellyfish into a pet!’ ‘I could,’ Neville said. ‘I shall be the first person in the world to do that. I shall call him Bexhill and live with him.’

She is also very good on fear: Polly is terrified of the next war, while Teddy is so afraid of being made to go away to school that he tries to infect himself with chicken pox, which would put him in quarantine for several months. The interactions between parents and children are beautifully understated: the Cazalets are a very middle-class family, with all the emotional repression that entails, but Hugh’s attempts to comfort his daughter at the death of her cat made me rather teary, with his awkward sadness for his daughter’s sadness competing with her attempts to be brave.

The Cuckmere Valley in Sussex, painted by Eric Ravilious

Other characters are given the chance to air their thoughts through free indirect speech, too: Tonbridge, the driver, whose budding romance with Mrs Cripps, the cook, is never explicitly alluded to but which takes the form of cups of tea and sympathy, progressing to an evening in a pub, and (we can only hope) further. Meanwhile, Miss Milliment, the remarkably ugly but gentle governess of the older girls (Louise, Polly and Clary) is portrayed with great sympathy and poignancy: the only man she ever loved was killed in the Boer War, she asks for very little out of life, and she retains a delight in the aptitude of her pupils which marks out the best of teachers. The final scene in the book is Miss Milliment’s; having promised the girls that she would give something up that she really loved if Chamberlain managed to preserve peace with Germany, she finds herself having to keep the promise when appeasement is announced. She buries her dead fiancé’s letters in the woods, then

[…] shut her eyes to recall him for the last time on the evening before he had left for South Africa…He had taken her out in the garden, seized her hand, and recited to her the end of ‘Dover Beach’.

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new…

…and then she could not remember how the poem went on, and as she groped towards the darkling plain, it diminished, and was silent.

It’s like Downton Abbey without the melodrama or the loathsome stereotyping, and its sense of gorgeous golden days being threatened by the shadow of another European war is absolutely unparalleled. I adored it, and will be reading the rest of the Cazalet Chronicles in short order.

8 thoughts on “The Light Years, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

  1. It sounds lovely! You have such wonderful talent – a clear, exciting and insightful style with just enough unsaid to make one rush out to buy the book!

    1. Thank you! I recommend it so highly–it manages to be both escapism and really satisfying literary fiction, such a rare combination.

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