World War One inspired the British to short, shocked poetry, perhaps because chivalry was one of the first casualties. The literary monuments of World War II and the end of empire, however, are extensive prose sequences: Waugh’s Sword of HonourTrilogy (1952–61), Anthony Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy (1956–59), Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War six-pack (1960–65 and 1977–80), Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet (1965–75), and J. G. Farrell’s thematically linked Empire Trilogy (1970–78). Again, the stylistic correlation between subject and form is suggestive.

The British fought a multi-theater war in a spirit of prosaic disillusion. The 1945 election confirmed that while Churchill had been talking of defending civilization and the Empire, the electorate saw the dividends of victory as indoor lavatories, free healthcare, and the reduction of the upper classes by punitive taxation. In 1957, just over forty years after Harold Macmillan had read Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound while lying wounded in a shell hole on the Somme, Macmillan the prime minister told his fellow Conservatives that “most of our people have never had it so good.” Two years later, Macmillan’s victory in the 1959 election confirmed that most Britons were glad to have exchanged the poetry of historical grandeur and industrial poverty for the prose of material comfort and managed decline.

They exchanged the poetry of historical grandeur for the prose of managed decline.

The war profoundly altered relations of class and sex in Britain. But the fictional cycles that narrated these changes did not focus on domestic life on Pudding Island, as Lawrence Durrell called it. Paul Scott’s characters stay east of Suez; it is in India that “the British came to the end of themselves as they were.” Olivia Manning’s Harriet and Guy Pringle are expatriated in Romania, Greece, Egypt, and the Palestine Mandate. Waugh’s Guy Crouchback begins the war exiled in Italy, and returns to Britain to enlist, not to reintegrate into society. While Crouchback’s pursuit of an honorable death takes him to Dakar, Egypt, Crete, Yugoslavia, and a remote Scottish island, his domestic connections, his on-off wife Virginia and his Uncle Peregrine, are killed by a flying bomb. Waugh permitted Crouchback to remarry and have children in Unconditional Surrender, but then revised the text to deny Crouchback the consolation of domestic posterity, and left Crouchback in a childless marriage.

Farrell set Troubles (1970) within the geographical British Isles, but the novel’s location and timing, a hotel at Wexford in southeast Ireland during the Irish war of independence, reflect another kind of secession from British society and the British Empire. Farrell died in 1979, swept off a rock while fishing in the Irish Sea. His death was bracketed by those of Scott in 1978 and Manning in 1980. After that, it seemed likely that the domestic experience of the War and its aftermath would never find a chronicler capable of working on the large canvases of a novel sequence. But in 1990, the publication of The Light Years, the first volume of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicle, announced a late and last entry into the canon.

TheCazalet Chronicle is a familiar and familial story, the making and unmaking of a dynasty in three generations and five volumes. The Light Years (1990), Marking Time (1991), Confusion (1993), and Casting Off (1995) cover 1937 to 1947. All Change (2013) jumps forward nine years to 1956, and ends in 1958. Between 1937 and 1958, an upper-middle-class English family is subjected to the vagaries of life and the indignities of history. Its members respond with the increasingly hollow stoicism of their class. Duty is done to the nation, the family, and the family business, but too much of it is done in bad faith, especially by the men who are in charge of the family’s destiny. In this sense, The Cazalet Chronicle is a counterpart to Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. Against the background of the Second World War, the officer class of English society forfeits its moral authority, mostly through its own polite, self-serving incompetence.

The Cazalet brothers—Hugh, Edward, and Rupert—have houses in the right parts of London. They work in the family business, importing and dealing in exotic hardwoods. Hugh is thoughtful but ineffectual, and lost a hand in the Great War. Edward is talented but dissolute, and won a Military Cross. Rupert would rather be a painter, but works for the firm because he should. None of them visits the unwholesome regions of the British Empire that supply their wood, or enters the no less dangerous thickets of domestic life without a stiff drink. Their sons are at boarding school, their daughters educated at home by governesses. Their wives do not work.

On weekends and holidays, the brothers and their families stay with their parents, William and Kitty, and their unmarried sister Rachel at Home Place, a country house near Battle. The village is named for the site of the Battle of Hastings, where the Anglo-Norman ascendancy began, and where the class ascendancy of the Cazalets will make its last stand. William and Kitty’s children call them “The Brig” and “The Duchy.” The Brig was never in the army, but he likes giving orders. The Duchy is not a duchess; her nickname is a joke about her dislike of luxury. The nicknames suggest that the alignment of form and content in the Cazalets’ lives is already ironic. The Cazalets are becoming rentiers without realizing it.

The Duchy is busy with planning menus, running the house’s staff of cook, maids, chauffeur, and gardener, and avoiding emotional contact with her children. The Brig is losing his sight, and is using the last of it to assemble an encyclopedia of tropical hardwoods. His sons, either unable to agree on how to modernize the company, or unwilling to do the work that would be required, are starting to rely on bank loans. The signs of rot are there, but their father, half-blind and obsessed with his samples and his book, is unable to see the trees for the wood.

When the sequence opens in 1937, the Cazalets are as substantial as brown furniture. Their habits are fixed immovably in Edwardian privilege, and their values are ostensibly Edwardian too. The Duchy’s frugality is as much emotional as financial. “The Duchy did not believe that baths were meant to be pleasant: the water should be tepid.” She considers the taking of toast with both butter and marmalade to be an indulgence, and insists that Mrs. Cripps the Cook reuse the leftovers from the family’s meals.

The Duchy leads by example, sharing in one moral economy with her servants. Leadership carries perks as well as responsibilities, but in her house no one, mistress or servant, is permitted a hot bath or soft lavatory paper. The family may have a roast on Sunday, but on Monday everyone, servants included, has to eat Mrs. Cripps’s lukewarm rissoles and greasy croquettes. The Duchy restates the clauses of this social contract in her menu negotiations with Mrs. Cripps. The pressure for renegotiation comes from below, and the insistence on proper restraint from above.

The Duchy inspected the remains of a boiling fowl that Mrs. Cripps did not think could be stretched into rissoles for lunch, but Madam said that with an extra egg and more breadcrumbs it could be made to do. They fought their regular battle over a cheese soufflé. Mrs. Cripps, who had got her place as a plain cook, had, none the less, recently mastered the art of making soufflés, and liked to make them on any serious occasion. The Duchy disapproved of cooked cheese at night. In the end, they compromised on a chocolate soufflé for pudding.

The Cazalets’ supreme ethic is the maintenance of correct form—especially in front of the servants. This drama always required the maintenance of a social gulf. For the second generation of Cazalets, it is wide enough to permit the employers to satisfy their obligation to the servants in form only. The Light Years opens with the morning routine in the London home of Edward, the Duchy’s second son, and his wife Villy. Two servant girls wake in an unheated attic room, dress after washing with a cold flannel, empty their slops into a bucket, and tiptoe down to the basement. There, they make two pots of tea, Indian for downstairs, China for upstairs. When Villy and Edward have had their tea in bed and their hot baths, they join their children and Nanny for breakfast, “kidneys, scrambled eggs, tomatoes and bacon.”

Then Edward is chauffeured to work, or a series of activities which oblige him to impersonate it. A “couple of hours in the office,” then lunch at the club with “a couple of blokes from the Great Western Railway which would, he was pretty sure, result in a substantial order for mahogany.” After lunch, decisions will be deferred in a “directors’ meeting” with his father and brother, and then, before returning home to dress for the theater, there will be time for “a cup of tea with Denise Ramsay, who had the twin advantages of a husband frequently abroad on business and no children.”

Edward won the Military Cross as an officer in the First World War, but now leads his servants only in a material sense. While his older brother Hugh wears the war as a physical wound, marked by a black sock on the stump of his wrist, Edward carries a moral wound. Unable to discuss what he experienced in Flanders, he remains emotionally adolescent. This trauma does not manifest in a nervous breakdown, or in dramatic alienation from his class, as exemplified by Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That. Instead, Edward has become a genteel nihilist. Glamorous and exploitative, he expects the servants to carry on regardless, and the money to keep coming in, but observes only the form of his obligations.

The children of the third generation have no reason to believe that this world and their place in it should ever change. Instead, they become the last generation to move from childhood to adulthood without the commercial detour of adolescence. The children of the Thirties become the war brides and conscripts of the Forties. Meanwhile, the war exposes the decay of the family, by accelerating the decline of the business. The secrets and failings accumulate: adultery, incest, lesbianism, a secret child, unwise marriages, and unwise business plans.

By 1947, the Cazalets are shabby genteel. The servants are leaving, the marriages faltering, and the business is on its last loans. A decade later, as the Suez Crisis shows that the British Empire is a luxury that the United States can no longer afford, the Cazalets are effectively what the Russians used to call “former people.” All that remains of the family is snobbery without property and bohemianism without art.

Snobbery without property and bohemianism without art.

A plebeian bank official notifies the brothers that the company is finished, and that Home Place will have to be sold.

The trouble, he thought, as he boarded his bus, was that none of them were businessmen. He felt sorry for them in a way, but had lost respect. He would not personally have put any of them in charge of a sweet shop. He opened his paper and decided to take the afternoon off and go to the motor show.

The third generation pays the financial and emotional price for the slow undoing of the family and its class position. The women pay more than the men, as they always have. The Cazalet wives dislike “the bed side of life,” but do not show it. “Sex was for men, after all,” Villy reflects. “Women, nice women anyway, were not expected to care for it.” Mothers do not talk to their daughters about it, either. The democratic emergency of war has freed the third generation of Cazalet women from Edwardian mediocrity, but they are unprepared for adult independence. A trio of female cousins—Hugh’s daughter Polly, Edward’s daughter Louise, and Rupert’s daughter Clary—stumble in the atomized postwar world, survivors of a family that have “come to the end of themselves as they were.”

The relation of life to art is best appreciated in reverse. Art before life: first the novels, then the autobiography and the letters, and then the biography. Better to read Oliver Twist before discovering that Bob Fagen was a kind older boy who looked after the young Dickens in the blacking factory. Certainly better to read The Cazalet Chronicle before reading Howard’s autobiography, Slipstream (2002), or Artemis Cooper’s biography, A Dangerous Innocence (2016).1

Howard (1923–2014) chose “Cazalet” because she wanted her family to have a Huguenot name. The choice also shows how precisely she evokes the vanished world of upper-middle-class comfort and duty. Like the fictional Edward Cazalet, the real Victor Cazalet (1896–1943) was a second son, with two brothers and a sister who was the third born. Like the fictional Edward, the real Victor won the Military Cross in World War One. Between the wars, Victor Cazalet became a Conservative MP, an anti-appeaser, an ally of Churchill, and a campaigner for Jewish refugees. He died in a plane crash in 1943. Victor’s older brother, a real Edward Cazalet, was killed in World War One; in the Chronicle, Howard allows Hugh, the oldest of the Brig and Duchy’s children, to survive the trenches, minus a hand. Like Rupert, the youngest of the fictional Cazalets, Victor’s youngest brother, Peter, was too young for World War One, but served in France in World War Two.

Peter married P. G. Wodehouse’s stepdaughter Leonora—a union of life and literature that anticipates Howard’s fiction. After the Second World War, Peter trained racehorses for George VI’s widow, Elizabeth the Queen Mother. His children include another real Edward Cazalet. This one is a high court judge, and also presides on the committee of the P. G. Wodehouse Society. He has not been accused of adultery and incest. “I did happen to meet Elizabeth Jane Howard on one occasion,” the judge told Artemis Cooper. “She was very much on the defensive. . . . She simply said that people would not think it referred to me.”

Not, that is, unless they had read Slipstream. Howard’s paternal grandfather was nicknamed “The Brig,” and lived at Home Place. His sons worked in the family business, importing and dealing in exotic timber. Howard’s mother, like Villy Cazalet, was a dancer before she married. Howard’s father, like Villy’s husband Edward, was a war hero and philanderer. The tribulations of the cousins Polly, Louise, and Clary are Howard’s own, divided into three. In the novels, Louise makes a disastrous wartime marriage to Michael Hadleigh, an artistic naval officer with a possessive mother who threatens to murder her. In reality, Howard made a disastrous wartime marriage to the artistic naval officer Peter Scott, whose mother threatened to murder her. Peter Scott was the son of Robert Falcon Scott, the Edwardian hero who kept his upper lip stiff as he and his party froze to death in the Antarctic. In 1946, Howard bolted.

As Slipstream disarmingly admits, and A Dangerous Innocence scrupulously confirms, Jane Howard’s adult life was a series of romantic abasements. She had a great deal of sex with every species of cad and bounder, and many men of letters too, but she enjoyed very little of it. Her third marriage, to Kingsley Amis, promised to break the pattern, but instead turned into a cruel and extended variation on it. They were perfectly matched. He was a sadist, she was a masochist, and they came from opposite ends of the middle class. After years of his drinking and bullying—she left him in 1981—she still could not bring herself to dislike him.

Kingsley seems to have managed this, and to dislike Jane even more. “You lower-class turd,” the protagonist’s wife says in Stanley and the Women (1984). “I don’t know why I’ve put up with you for so long, with your gross table manners and your boozing, and your bloody little car, and your frightful mates and your whole ghastly south-of-the-river man’s world. You’ve no breeding and so you’ve no respect for women.” In The Folks that Live on the Hill (1990), an aspirated “h” provokes Harry Caldecote to diagnose his posher sister-in-law as “an irremediable third-rate genteelist bullshitter.”

After Kingsley—the name sounds like a Jane Howard novel—she resumed writing. In 1986, while Kingsley won the Booker Prize for The Old Devils, Jane was working on a cookbook. Now, more of her books are in print than his. In 2001, the bbc aired a six-part television adaptation of the first two Cazalet novels, but then dropped its option on the next two. Others have picked it up. Between 2012 and 2014, the five-volume Cazalet Chronicle was adapted for a forty-five–episode bbc Radio series. A full television adaptation is in the works, and will surely bring Howard’s novels—there are eight others in addition to the Chronicle—to American audiences.

“Speaking as a very slow learner,” Howard wrote in Slipstream, published as she approached her eightieth birthday, “I feel as though I have lived most of my life in the slipstream of experience. Often I have had to repeat the same disastrous situation several times before I got the message. This is still happening.”

The Cazalet Chronicle is a roman à clef, but Howard seems to have lived without the key to her own life. Or is it that, like Saul Bellow, she kept repeating until she had finessed life’s errors into the material of literature—as if each mistake were a redraft, and only the final version got put to paper?

1Slipstream: A Memoir, by Elizabeth Jane Howard; Macmillan, 493 pages, £20;

Elizabeth Jane Howard: A Dangerous Innocence, by Artemis Cooper; John Murray, 376 pages, £25.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 7, on page 23
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