by Libby Sternberg
Years ago, my daughter and I became entranced by a short series shown on PBS called The Cazalets. The actor who played the older brother in the show was none other than Hugh Bonneville, who went on to great name and face recognition as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, in the popular Downton Abbey series.
But the two stories have more in common than just a lead actor. Both tales involve the struggles of a British family and their servants through the life-changing experience of war. In Downton Abbey’s case, it was the First World War that played a pivotal role in the first two seasons.
In The Cazalets, the family is immersed in the fear and tension of British life before World War II. While The Cazalets ended its run with the actual outbreak of war, the books upon which it is based took the families through the global conflict and beyond. So, if you’re craving a Downton Abbey “fix” while waiting for the series to return for its next season, I recommend losing yourselves in the following excellent books by Elizabeth Jane Howard:
- The Light Years: the years just prior to the war
- Marking Time: the “phony war” period when nothing much seemed to be happening
- Confusion: the depths of war
- Casting Off: the aftermath of the war
I only became aware of these books on the recommendation of my sister. After I’d expressed my enjoyment of the PBS series, she pointed out that they were based on a series of novels. The author, Elizabeth Jane Howard, might not be a household name, but she’s written more than a dozen novels and is the mother of novelist Martin Amis.
The cast of characters in her Cazalet books is as varied and numerous as those in Downton Abbey–maybe even more so. The Cazalets, however, are not members of the aristocracy but rather, successful British industrialists. Each book includes at the beginning a family tree as well as a list of the servants and the households to which they are attached. These come in handy as Howard moves seamlessly from story line to story line, following everything from the cook’s romance with a chauffeur through marriages and romances for the estate owners themselves.
A notable difference between the Cazalet series and Downton is the inclusion of the viewpoint of children. At the outset of the series, the Cazalets’ brood of children is large and ranges from infants to preteens. By the time the books finish, the teens have matured into adulthood. We follow their lives, as well, including the troubled and talented Louise Cazalet, who aspires to be an actress. Louise’s narrative arc makes one wonder if the author was telling her own story–they both share a birth year, and Elizabeth Jane Howard herself was an actress and model before settling down to writing.
Period detail enhances Downton Abbey. It permeates the Cazalet series, too, in small and significant ways. The author didn’t need to do historical research–she was writing about a period she’d lived through. So you, the reader, are given a window to peer through at the ordinary lives of British citizens as they struggled with rationing, air raids, shopping for underwear, getting perms for their hair, dealing with parents, children, and the meaning of their lives in the midst of upheaval.
Howard doesn’t focus at all on the battles of the war. They are scarcely mentioned. Instead, her narrative is about the effect of the war on families. Her observations in this regard lift the books from mere melodramas into something more, as in this passage when the beautiful and cossetted Zoe Cazalet goes to see her mother and reflects on her visit on her way back to her Cazalet home:
She had thought that a weight would be lifted once she had got into the train with the visit behind her, but the pall of boredom and irritation was quenched now only by guilt, as she thought of all the ways in which she might have given her mother more pleasure, been kinder, nicer, more patient. Why was it that, in spite of all these years during which she felt that she had grown from being a spoiled and selfish girl into a thoroughly grown-up wife and mother and responsible member of a large family, she had only to be with her mother for a few minutes to revert to her earlier, disagreeable self?
These insights abound, as do wonderful revelations about life in Britain in the 1940s. These books are a must-read for any author wanting to pen a tale set in that time and place–no amount of research on the time would provide you with as much useful detail of everyday life.
Sad to say, but the books appear to be out of print, so they’re a bit pricey as you try to find good used copies. But if you pick up the first book, you will likely be hooked.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Buy her books so she can buy more books, too!