(c) 1991 Newspaper Publ. PLC. All rts. reserv.

ELIZABETH JANE HOWARD makes characters with whom you can hold conversations. This is high praise, though she may deserve higher. Most celebrated works of modern fiction have voices in them, but they are no more social than the lunatics declaiming on the Tube. You can listen to them or run away, but you could not hold a conversation with them even if you wanted to. It is difficult to think of anything more subversive of current ideas of what an excellent novel should be (as exemplified by her one-time stepson, Martin Amis) than the 400 pages of Miss Howard's latest novel, in which well-bred women talk and work conventionally while great events happen at a remote distance:

"The sky was a perfect blue with no cloud at all, but it was not empty. " 'I can count seven,' Christopher said, and as he said that she could too: seven small pearly bubbles drifting down from the weight of the tiny rigid figures beneath them. Higher in the sky, apparently from nowhere, five bombers, black against the sun, occurred and above them, as frantic as feeding swallows, the fighters wheeled and dived, banked sharply and climbed to regain height, inscribing the sky with thread-like tracks of white vapour, their wingtips glinting tinny in the strong light. It was impossible not to watch."

That is as close as public history comes to the characters of Marking Time, the second novel in her tetralogy on an upper-middle class family from 1938 to 1948. The crucial events in their stories happen on a different scale:

"It was then that she had understood that he could not bear confrontations of this kind - of any moral kind, she suspected - and as her respect for him diminished (his attitude about the new baby and his wife continuing to be presented to her in a light she knew not to be true) so, curiously, her conscience shrank, and her intentions, her determination, emerged. If he was a poor thing, she had more right to call him her own."

This method of scrupulous observation, the way you would watch a child, is unusual enough. It takes characters who would in a lesser hand be cardboard, and works around their edges in finer and finer detail, until, like fractal landscapes, they acquire extra dimensions just from their elaboration. It is eight years since I last read The Long View, an early novel about a marriage surviving its protagonists. In the intervening period I have quite often forgotten their names, but the choices they made have become if anything deeper and more vivid.

The motive forces of her plots are more often the exercise of virtue than the ravages of vice. People in her books are weak and blind and stupid like everyone else, but that is not the interesting thing about them. After Julius is a novel about bravery; Something in Disguise about romantic love as opposed to being in love. Traditionally, a character driven by virtue comes to a tragic end. But in Miss Howard's novels they simply keep going, which may be worse for them but is also more realistic.

Her matter may be weighty but she is never ponderous. Her elements are combined lightly and swifly, as in the best pastry. The sudden feline pinning of a minor character is a pleasure that recurs in her books: "Miss Renishaw stood in the hall in one of her usual tweed suits, that were as full of large and regular incident as a ploughed field."

Yet with all these gifts and graces, it is still difficult for a conventional review to praise something as resolutely conventional as a "family saga", especially when this one comes prefaced with a family tree from which 17 names hang lifelessly, as if from a gibbet. I suspect that the Cazalet chronicles are one of those exceptional works which demand that we re-examine our prejudices. Had it not been for the author I would never have started it, and perhaps never made the requisite 50 pages in. Thereafter, and reading out of sequence, the 800 pages so far published took four nights to read. Anything this enjoyable has to be good. But it is still a worthwhile exercise to try to discover why.

The jokes are an important part of it. When I went to see Elizabeth Jane Howard in Suffolk, she told me with pleased disapproval a story of Rose Macaulay saying that she had finished a novel, and would now put some jokes in it: "We are all absurd, and if you don't have any of that, it gets dull and unbelievable. But I don't believe in the comic novel. I think that novels that have been called that, if they are successful from a comic point of view, always have other things in them: from P G Wodehouse onwards, they have acute observations."

The great advantage, for a novelist, of describing middle-class women at home is that it enables a realistic and unforced approach to all three things Bertrand Russell believed made life bearable: work, love and children. Rearing children and running a household remains work, however unsalaried or unappreciated; and it is work that will have a far more direct effect on character than the stuff that takes place in offices, where effort, reward, and moral effect can be almost completely dissociated from each other. To describe people as parents is to describe one of the most interesting things about them, and probably the most important. But it is not an eventful life, in the larger scale. It lacks sudden, final dislocations. Some kind of family life will survive and try to grow around any disaster, especially in the better class of families. "The boredom which that generation and class of woman endured was well- nigh insupportable," Miss Howard says, "because they didn't do things, as people do now, for themselves. They were only telling other people to do them."

No one has died yet in Miss Howard's war, though one of the Cazalet brothers is missing after Dunkirk. The wife of another is dying of cancer. She knows it, he knows it, but they cannot tell each other, or their daughter, though she has also guessed.

The opportunities for bravery and its disastrous consequences are all in place, awaiting the next book. But they will all be played out within the family; and if anything important happens it will be incorporated naturally into the problems the family faces. This is not because the Cazalets are a representative group, or a plot device, or anything else. It is because the sequence has now acquired a weight of moral and artistic authority which makes it clear that the interesting consequences of the war, and the reasons why we should care about it, are to be found in the sort of decisions that the Cazalet families will have to make.

If there is a criticism to be made of her central characters, it is that they seem just a little too scrupulous and delicate to be true. The standards of behaviour they exact and live up to are very high indeed. But that is the way the conventions were; and nothing could be stronger than a conventional novel in showing how good behaviour is transmitted and built upon. Bad behaviour, too, since Miss Howard's womanisers are among her most impressive creations. They move through her novels with an alien and unstoppable strength, as if wild boars had been scrubbed very pink and turned loose in civilisation.

Often the result is very funny, and sometimes it isn't; but that is how she believes comic novels should work - through realism.

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