Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This, the second in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, continues the story begun in The Light Years, taking us through the early stages of the Second World War. It’s been almost exactly a year since I read the first book, but I found that I could still remember the characters and storylines and jump straight back into the story. If I’d needed a reminder, though, the book opens with a useful family tree, character list and summary of the previous novel.

Marking Time begins just as Britain declares war on Germany in September 1939 and ends just two years later, in 1941. The Cazalet family – who include ‘the Brig’ and his wife ‘the Duchy’; their daughter, Rachel; their three sons, Hugh, Edward and Rupert, with their wives and children; and an assortment of other relations, friends and servants – are gathered again at Home Place in the Sussex countryside and this is where most of them will be based during the two years the novel covers. As an upper middle class family, they are sheltered from some of the worst deprivations of the war, but eventually it does begin to affect each of their lives in all sorts of ways.

One of my criticisms of The Light Years was that the number of characters was overwhelming and the constant changes from one perspective to another made it difficult to focus. Marking Time has a slightly different format. There are still several chapters which deal with the whole family, spending a few pages with one family member, then a few pages with another, but there are also some longer sections which concentrate on one character at a time.

The characters who are given their own chapters are the three teenage girls – Louise, Polly and Clarissa (Clary) – who happen to be three of the characters I singled out as favourites in my review of The Light Years. I was delighted to have the opportunity to spend a more substantial period of time with each of the girls, getting to know them better. Louise, the eldest child of Edward and Villy, is an intriguing mixture of sophistication and innocence. In Marking Time, we see her leave home to become an actress, fall in love for the first time, and make an unwelcome discovery about another family member. Clary’s chapters are written partly in the form of diary entries and this gives her a particularly strong and distinctive voice. Clary receives some bad news quite early in the war – although we don’t yet know exactly how bad – but there are some positives to come out of this, such as an improvement in her relationship with her stepmother, Zoe. Meanwhile, Polly – Hugh and Sybil’s daughter – overhears a private conversation which throws her life into turmoil.

Despite all the problems various family members are experiencing, the novel isn’t entirely depressing; there are some funny scenes too, mainly involving the younger children, Neville and Lydia, and we see the beginnings of a touching romance between two of the Cazalet servants. Although the lifestyle of the Cazalet family is entirely different from my own – partly because of the time period in which they live, but also because of their class – I still feel that they are people I understand and care about. I enjoyed this book much more than the first and am pleased I still have another three Cazalet novels to read. The next one is Confusion and I’m looking forward to finding out how the family fare throughout the rest of the war.

This is book 14/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

13 thoughts on “Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard

  1. whatmeread says:

    Quite a few years ago I read at least three books in this series (don’t know if that is all or there were more). I don’t remember anything about them at all, now.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you enjoyed them at the time, even if you can’t remember them now! There are five in the series, so I have another three to look forward to.

  2. joulesbarham says:

    I started to read this, but for various reasons I put it to one side. As I enjoy reading about wartime experiences, at least fictional ones, I think I must find my copy again. Such an immersive read from what I remember. A helpful review!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, you do become very immersed in the lives of the characters. I can’t wait to find out what happens to the family in the remaining years of the war.

    • Helen says:

      They’re the perfect sort of books to binge on over the winter. I resisted the temptation to start the third book immediately after finishing this one, but I’m sure I’ll pick it up soon.

  3. piningforthewest says:

    I did more or less binge on this series as I find it easier to keep track of characters that way. I ended up loving it.

    • Helen says:

      I thought I might have left it too long between reading the first book and this one, but I did just about manage to remember the characters and their relationships to each other. The character list at the front of the book helped!

  4. Elle says:

    I do adore the Cazalets. It’s very binge-worthy; I think I read the first one, waited a year, then read the next three all at once, and stayed up awfully late to finish. They’re delightful.

  5. buriedinprint says:

    It’s so good to read about your experience with this series and the commenters’ experiences too. I am about to finish the 16-volume classic Canadian Jalna series by Mazo de la Roche, a family saga which moves from the late 1800s to the 1950s. I know I will miss all those characters and the comfort of returning to a familiar scene, and the Cazelets sounds like a terrific plan in lieu of the Whiteoaks family.

    • Helen says:

      A 16 book series sounds like a big commitment – congratulations on finishing it! I’m not surprised that you feel you’ll miss the characters after spending so much time with them. I think you might enjoy reading the Cazalet series and getting to know another set of characters.

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