The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings
A CurtainUp Streaming Feature
The Cazalet Chronicles — The kind of novels nobody writes or reads any more — but well worth spending time with now. . .
By Elyse Sommer
As consuming streamed entertainment became more a main meal than a dessert or snack for me it did bring its own special pleasures — chief among these has been to ferret out some never- seen gems while browsing the over-stuffed main pages of platforms like Netflix. (The number of bad movies that get made is amazing!) Despite the many goodies I found and wrote about, streaming fatigue was inevitable.
Since my first and enduring love affair with story-telling came from books, the best way to avoid overdosing on the many streamed diversions was to ratchet up the time I spend with books. It worked. What's more, as Netflix and its competitors pile on so that you have to dig deep to find the good stuff, so Amazon's lineup of what they tag as not- to-be-missed good deals has even fewer gems to discover. But once in a while you can strike gold. Case in point a bargain- Kindle edition of Elizabeth Jane Howard's The Cazalet Chronicles. The 5-book, epic about a wealthy, upper middle class British family spanning 20 years between 1937 and 1957 has cropped up briefly several times.
While I had read a few of the novels of Kingsley Amis, the man to whom Mary Jane Howard was married to for a long time, as well as those of her stepson Martin Amis, I never read (or even heard about) The Cazalet Chronicles, Howard is indeed outstanding.
The books that make up the "Chronicles"were written between 1990 and 2013. Each is structured to stand on its own and was individually published). So while the bargain priced Kindle edition is only available now and then, the individual volumes are available to download at the New York Library. In whichever format you read them, these interlinked novels provide a wonderful opportunity to meet many well-drawn characters who make these interlinked novels reminiscent of Balzac's The Human Comedy.
As Balzac's novels depicted French society during e the 1815-30 Restoration, The Cazalet Chronicles depict the effect of the two world wars and subsequent social and political changes on the lives of the Cazalets from the Gilded Age of the matriarch and patriarch — a.k.a. as The Duhy and The Brig — to the shrinking of the British Empire and the rise of the Labor government.
True to such family sagas, the timber business The Brig founded was worked by the men — and supported a large family farmhouse in Sussex as well as London residences. The men's sister Rachel remains devoted to the family's needs but is not without her own personal romantic drama. The men's marriages and the resulting offspring move the saga forward through the war and its aftermath. The final part jumps forward a full decade and pretty much ties up the various plots.
But in the age of texting and tweeting, five novels full of details about what people wear and eat and talk about may seem too daunting. And with the 2001 BBC adaptation available on YouTube and said to be coming to Netflix, anyone — especially readers too young to have been raised on finely detailed, lengthy stories — may prefer a more Downton Abbey style experience. (Hugh Bonneville actually plays one of the Cazalets.)
But the problem with the BBC series is that it covers only half the books, coming to a rather abrupt halt in 1947. Thus, if you want to know what happens during the 1950s you'll need to go to the last three books. What's more, one of my favorite chaacters is missing, and though the series has a fine cast and offers plenty of on-the-mark images of thatched roof houses, period costumes and details, it just doesn't capture the warmth of Howard's writing. The first of the six one-hour episodes is frustratingly difficult as it presents all the characters and their relationships in a way that feels rushed and lacks nuance. The later series do pull the viewer in more but then there's that finale that leaves us hanging.
When presented all together, the whole comes off greater as at least some of the parts. For example, there are so many children that you'll find yourself referring to the Family Tree at the beginning of each book (called "part" in this all-in-one edition) to keep their parentage sorted out. You might even skip past some of the 1950s child-focused chapters. However, if you take your time and don't try to binge-read, you'll find yourself deeply enmeshed in their lives and actually wish Howard had lived long enough (she died in 2014) to bring them into the present.
The attention to the minutiae of these characters' lives make these thousands of pages well worth the time spent with them. Though these books are hardly page turners, the lives of three generations of Cazalets, their friends, lovers, and servants do include plenty of personal and work-related plots.
The way Howard juggles this large ensemble through twenty years of high drama as well as endless cups of tea and meals often cobbled together during years of food shortages is a feat of exceptionally affecting and effective story telling.
Postscript: If you want to see as much of the filmed adaptation now available, here are the links:
Search CurtainUp in the box below
©Copyright 2021, Elyse Sommer.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from email@example.com