11 December 2017

Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard

And so life with the Cazalets continues at Home Place and in various boroughs of London in this second book of the Cazalet Chronicles.  The list of characters has expanded to include a few more extended family members, mercifully introduced in slow drips making it easy to keep everyone connected to the correct family tree.  Marking Time begins during the phoney war, when the build up to the declaration of war seemingly amounts to nothing at all, making citizens question the need for gas masks, evacuation, and sandbagging.  Infrequent sightings of planes flying high over the countryside barely register a thought and so the Cazalets go about their business as usual.

The title perfectly describes the sentiment expressed by some of the characters as common sense dictates that no large scale plans should be made, travel is limited, spending should be kept to a minimum, and making-do is simply matter-of-fact.  Although, as the young girls are sprouting into adolescence they'll require a few new articles of clothing from London.  As the days and weeks roll into months, the boys wonder (and worry) about the possibility of being called upon to enlist.  When bombing raids begin in earnest, the Cazalet men sign up for assignments while Hugh, disabled in the last war, struggles to run the family's lumber business.

My affection for Miss Milliment continues to grow as she plants the seed of higher education with the younger girls.

'I had been meaning to suggest this little plan to Clary's father and your parents but circumstances have made that difficult or impossible in dear Clary's case.  But a university education could do so much to widen the possibilities of a useful and interesting career'.  She peered at Polly through her tiny, thick steel-rimmed spectacles.  'I do not sense very much enthusiasm,' she said, 'but I should so much like you to think about it'.

Having lived a fairly meagre existence, it would be easy for Miss Milliment to view the young girls' privilege with resentment.  But her subtle suggestions regarding further education show the depth of caring she has for her charges.  I absolutely adore her and, in my mind, she's become a bit like Nurse Phyllis Crane from Call the Midwife with her words of comfort and advice.   Although, frustration may lie ahead for Miss Milliment as at least one parent is not at all interested in having a Bluestocking for a daughter.

Without giving away too much, one of the characters is diagnosed with a serious illness.  Elizabeth Jane Howard's skill at writing dialogue for inquisitive children as they question what they observe, but don't understand, is touching and very well done.  Whether intentional or not, I was struck by just how much the children spoke about the mysteries of life, while the adults remained silent and secretive about certain situations. 

Being very much a novel of time and place, my education surrounding life in 1940s England has delightfully increased.  The mention of such things as senna pods sent me straight to google (for regularity) as did Marie biscuits (very like a Rich Tea biscuit) and Volpar Gel (a spermicide).  Tangee lipstick in cyclamen was extremely popular, and you were very lucky if your jumper survived more than a few years due to moths in the cupboard.  It's details such as these, dotted throughout, that make such novels so much more than kitchen dramas; this is social history at its most entertaining.

Under the category of First World Problems I've wondered about turning to Christmas reading for the rest of December, but I just can't tear myself away from the Cazalets.  So it's on to book three....

Woman Knitting by Mavis Blackburn (1923 - 2005)

30 November 2017

A Book List for Cambridge (with a dash of envy)

The provisional list of books for the Women Writers Summer Course next July at Homerton College, Cambridge.

With a staircase and flooring project underway there's little no chance I'll be signing on, but it's definitely something I plan to do at some point!  If you're at loose ends for something to do on your summer vacation, feel free to make me green with envy. 


Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847)
George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (1860)
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)
Katherine Mansfield, The Garden Party and Other Stories (1922)
Elizabeth Bowen, A World of Love (1955) [title to be confirmed]

27 November 2017

A Christmas Carol at the Cinema

A fun time was had by all yesterday at The Man Who Invented Christmas, a delightful film to begin this festive season.  Dan Stevens plays Charles Dickens earnestly trying to overcome recent flops and writer's block while the bills at home continue to mount.  Watching Dickens take inspiration from scenes of poverty and curmudgeonly service staff, while scribbling notes for his unrivalled Christmas classic, is an absolute delight.  It's not all puddings and mulled wine though, for the blacking factory and memories of debtors' prison will never be distant enough in Dickens' past.

I was thrilled to see Miriam Margolyes and Simon Callow in the cast, but it was Miles Jupp's performance as William Makepeace Thackeray that came perilously close to scene-stealing whenever he appeared.

The photo above shows Dickens and company peering through the window of Hatchards at a pre-order sign for a worringly unfinished book.  Surely I wasn't the only one in the room whose thoughts were of just how far their Christmas window displays have come!

21 November 2017

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I've lost count of the times fellow bloggers have mentioned The Cazalet Chronicles whenever the topic of fiction set during WWII comes up.  There are five books in this series - my library was missing titles and it was wishful thinking that a complete set would pop up in a second-hand shop, so I placed an order.  Having just finished the first book I completely agree with those who find the story of the Cazalets, an upper-middle class family bridging the Victorian era and the twentieth century, to be unputdownable.

The Light Years begins with the early rising of the Cazalet household staff.  Flannels are dipped into washbowls, caps are pulled over curls and nightdresses are removed to make way for shifts and aprons.  As another day dawns on Home Place, the Cazalet's summer residence in Sussex, the draperies are thrown open, tea is made and the cover is removed from the budgerigar's cage.  Scenery filled with cotton and linens then turns to one of silks as the Cazalet women slip from warm beds into recently drawn hot baths.  If images from Downton Abbey are forming before your eyes, join the club!

The year is 1937.  Readers are aware that another war lies ahead but the Great War is still fresh in the minds of the Cazalets, especially for Hugh, who lost a hand while fighting in France.  Another tragic event has touched the family....Rupert's first wife died after giving birth to their second child.  Seemingly unscathed after his war duty,  Edward is debonair enough to be a matinee idol.  A shortfall of Edward's is his need for the attention of women despite having a perfectly lovely family to focus on. Rachel Cazalet, the senior Cazalet's only daughter, is steadfastly committed to her parents.  At thirty-eight years of age, her closest companion is a woman called 'Sid', a shortening of Margot's last name.  Her parents, affectionately known as 'the Brig' and 'Duchy', are supportive of Rachel's philanthropic work and not overly concerned that marriage and motherhood may pass her by.  There is a definite air, outwardly at least, that everyone knows their manners and place.

Villy, Sybil and Zoe have married into the Cazalet family, with Zoe breaking the mould in that she has no immediate plans for children.  In fact, she secretly employs a Dutch cap to keep any chance of  pregnancy to a minimum.  The most charming scenes come from the various children, ranging from infants to early teen years.  I laughed out loud at an experiment in making 'Wonder Cream' that involved raw eggs which, as you would expect, soon end up 'on the turn'.  The absolute cherry on top of this heaving household is the superbly drawn governess, Miss Milliment.  But credit where credit is due, the delight comes from Howard's sublime ability to characterize....

She clothed herself by covering her body with whatever came to hand cheapest and most easily; she bathed once a week (the landlady charged extra for baths) and she had taken over her father's steel-rimmed spectacle frames that served her very well.  Laundry was either difficult or expensive so her clothes were not very clean.  In the evenings she read philosophy and poetry and books about the history of art, and at weekends she looked at pictures.  Looked!  She stared, stayed, and revisited a picture until it was absorbed into those parts of her bulky being that made memory, which then digested into spiritual nourishment.

Having now cemented the members of the family and which children belong to whom, I'm jumping straight into the next book Marking Time.  Everyone, except Polly's cat, has been fitted for a gas mask and is taking up garden shovels to dig trenches near the tennis court.

A quick last minute note....I've just read an article stating that producer Sally Woodward Gentle, formerly the creative director of Downton Abbey, will be involved in a new project to dramatize the story of the Cazalets.  Very exciting!

The Yellow Balloon by Dorothea Sharp (1937)