The Paris Review

Cooking with Elizabeth Jane Howard

In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.

The old-fashioned matriarch in the Cazalet Chronicles believes in just adding more bread crumbs to the rissoles if there’s not enough food for twenty dinner guests.

The English writer Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923–2014) is best known for the Cazalet Chronicles, a series of family dramas set around World War II that overflow with scenes of meals being prepared for a large English country estate. Published between 1990 and 2013, the books are five floral-covered bricks totaling nearly three thousand pages and centered on the children and grandchildren of a rich English timber merchant, known as “the brigadier,” and his Edwardian wife, “the duchy.” The story concerns the Cazalet family at large as well as their lovers, spouses, children, governesses, great-aunts, cooks, and cousins, all of whose struggles for love, fulfillment, and a place in the world make for page-turning reading.

It was the opinion of Howard’s contemporaries that this was not great literature, and though she hung out in elevated literary circles—most notably as the second wife of Kingsley Amis and the stepmother of Martin Amis—she was often dismissed as a writer of “women’s fiction.” But Howard’s books hold up. She has a dazzling ability to depict a character at a moment of crisis, catching a young woman midstream as she gives up one dream for another or drilling in on a telling lie, a glint of cowardice. It also takes enormous technical virtuosity to keep her huge cast of characters distinct in the reader’s mind, and a master class could be taught from the timing of her interlinked plotlines.

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