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)

11 comments:

  1. The Cazalets became all consuming for me. EJH writes as if we were all there, together. I was born in '46 and Marie biscuits were part of my life and I recall Tangee lipstick in Cyclamen (awful colour) but I think that age might have precluded me from knowing about Volpar! Clothes moths were hated but all my jumpers and cardigans were taken apart and re-knitted as I grew. Oh, happy days!

    My Christmas read this year is Philip Pullman's Book of Dust - I am quite dreading it so I have a bottle of decent French fizz to go with it, just in case.

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    1. Your French fizz comment made me laugh...and then want some. I would be a dedicated listener to stories from your childhood, Toffeeapple! A woman came into the library the other day, about your age, and we started talking about our books. She remembers Tangee lipstick in Cyclamen and thought it was awful too!

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  2. Loved this review! Have just finished reading the Cazalet series for the first time and just adored it! Ms. Howard created a world that I fell into -- excellent characterization & portrayal of those times. I will certainly be rereading them again and again! Hope your review will turn more folks on to it!

    Kate

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    1. Thank you, Kate! EJH really does place you right into each scene and I love that she writes about 'nosy' details such as the Duchy's opinion on certain shades of stockings for each age group. It's those nuances that make women better authors than men (most of the time)...but that's a discussion for another day.

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  3. Clearly this is something I need to get my hands on. Can't imagine how I've avoided these books all these years, if they are as absorbing as they sound. And a BBC series too! What riches.

    But--first things first. Christmas looms large. Looks like a January project for me.

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    1. There. Five holds placed at the library.

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    2. That's wonderful, Susan! Don't even crack the cover if you have things still to do for Christmas...the hours will melt away before you know it. Enjoy!

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  4. So happy you're loving these so much Darlene! They're so absorbing, aren't they?! I must re-read next year... x

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  5. This series is a little bit of heaven, but I'm already dreading the fact it has to come to an end, Rachel. It's easy to see why these books are as rare as hen's teeth in second-hand shops...I'm never parting with mine!

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  6. "Social history at its most entertaining" indeed! That's an excellent description. And reminds me that it's probably time for a re-read!

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  7. There's a part of me that's really enjoying the 'nosy' factor in this series. EJH had a way of sharing without being gratuitous...I really appreciate it and have learned a lot! Thanks for stopping by...

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