Six For Sunday - Six Favourite Series
This post is part of Six For Sunday, organised by Steph of A Little But A Lot.
Last week we were prompted to choose six favourite characters from series. This week the prompt is Six Favourite Series which, when I started to think about it, is not quite the same thing, although they do sometimes overlap. So here are mine:
The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard
This series begins in the summer of 1938, just before the Second World War is set to bring undreamt of changes to Britain. It follows the lives of the fairly wealthy Cazalet family, their friends, their enemies, their mistresses and their servants, and opens with the annual holiday at the family's Sussex estate. At the outset the Cazalet old guard - The Duchy and The Brig - are still alive, but the Cazalet sons have taken over the family lumber business. Edward, married to frustrated Villy, is a serial womaniser, Hugh, married to lovely Sibyl, is shattered by his experiences in the First World War, and Rupert, young widower and now husband of child bride Zoe, has been obliged to take a job as a teacher when he’d much prefer to be an artist. The only daughter of the family, Rachel, has a quite different trajectory but is unable to pursue it owing to her devotion to her elderly parents as they become increasingly dependent on her.
As we see everyone through their public and private lives, affairs, celebrations and sorrows, the emphasis gradually moves to the younger generation – the brothers’ children, chief among them Clary, Neville and Polly. When war finally comes, some of the characters are liberated from the restrictions of their class and sex, while others fare less well. I especially love these books because the characters are so well developed. Howard , who had personal experience of an upper-middle class, affluent upbringing, writes so smoothly and well, and the small details - Sibyl going up to London to buy the children’s clothes (including the Chilprufe vests that I remember myself), Vinnie having all her teeth out as a 40th birthday present (this was apparently quite normal) – all these things make the individual Cazelets so memorable. I have read the first four books at least twice and would recommend them to anyone.
A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell
Last week I included Kenneth Widmerpool in my choice of favourite characters from series, but really the entire Dance is one of my very greatest reading pleasures, and another series that I have read several times. Powell follows the fortunes of a group of wealthy, mainly upper class, people from their schooldays through university (Oxford, where else?), their subsequent careers, marriages, affairs, and, in some cases, deaths. The events of the Second World War are again examined in detail, though Powell covers a much broader canvas than Howard, taking us to London, Japan and Cairo as Nick Jenkins (the urbane, good-humoured. narrator of all four books), Charles Stringham, Peter Templer, Sillery, Widmerpool, Pamela Flitton, and a cast so huge that Hilary Spurling has written an extremely useful guide to it (Invitation to the Dance), suffer their various fates before returning to face middle age in England. I enjoyed every minute of these wonderful books.
The Family From One End Street by Eve Garnett
I can’t remember precisely when I first discovered the Ruggles family, but once I had I know I read and re-read the three books in this well-loved series many, many times. The Ruggles and their seven children live in Otwell-on-the-Ouse (based on Lewes, Sussex, where the author lived). Dad is a dustbinman and Mum takes in washing. Each child has a strongly defined character, but I especially love the oldest, Lily Rose, who is always trying to do the right thing but often with disastrous results, and Kate, the second daughter, a reader, writer and dreamer who longs to escape from her humdrum existence, The Ruggles have lots of adventures, and in the third and final book The Holiday at the Dew Drop Inn, Kate at last gets her chance to experience something different when she is sent to the country to convalesce from the scarlet fever (my own mother remembers being sent to a fever hospital, but unlike Kate her only memory of it is the staff taking away her beloved rubber doll on the grounds that it might be infectious.) Kate has a marvellous time with Mr & Mrs Wildgoose before returning to her parents and siblings with new enthusiasm for life. Eve Garnett won the Carnegie Medal for this depiction – unusual at the time (1937) – of a happy working class family.
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
I imagine that I am not the only person to have been introduced to Mrs Madrigal and her clan via the TV adaptation of Maupin’s classic stories of San Francisco life, in which Olivia Dukakis played the enigmatic matriarch so very brilliantly. Afterwards I devoured the books too. The series begins with the innocent Mary Anne Singleton arriving in the city from Cleveland and taking a room at 28 Barbary Lane; she is welcomed with a gift from her new landlady – a joint taped to her door. For this is 1976; freedom, both sexual and political, is in the air, Democrat peanut farmer Jimmy Carter is the 38th President of the USA, and most people have never even heard of AIDS or Donald Trump.
As Mary Anne begins her new life, Maupin introduces us to characters as diverse as Mona and Mouse (two of Mary Anne’s housemates), Beauchamp Day, the would-be lascivious, amoral son of her new employer, and creepy top floor tenant Norman Neal Williams. Mrs Madrigal presides over the establishment with grace, humour and kindness – but she has some very fragile secrets of her own. And how we all wish we had been there, in the days when a secretary could apparently afford to live in a Bohemian household in this most lovely of cities, and a woman dressed in beautiful kimonos could peacefully tend a courtyard full of very special plants.
44 Scotland Street by Alistair McCall Smith
I first read these books before I moved to Edinburgh, and while I enjoyed them, they meant so much more after I had become familiar with the city, and more importantly, its people – or rather, the people of a certain part of it, for almost all of McCall Smith’s intimate group of characters inhabit the wealthy New Town, with its neo-classical residences built for the rich who wanted to escape from the (then) overcrowded, insanitary tenements of the Old Town.
McCall Smith perfectly captures the foibles and passions of the Edinburgh upper middle classes – from their shopping trips to upmarket grocers Valvona and Crolla on Elm Row to their Friendships with everything from the Scottish National Galleries to the Filmhouse. The world of Edinburgh’s private schools is explored through Bertie, the hapless son of the appalling Irene, helicopter parent and pushy mother par excellence, while Big Lou provides the coffee bar in which many of the characters meet every morning to discuss the ups and downs of their privileged but often complicated, lives.
McCall Smith likes to throw in the names of his numerous famous friends, so everyone from Ian Rankin to Guy Peploe gets a mention. These books are full of acute observations, and although McCall Smith does sometimes go off on a flight of fancy so bizarre that you wonder how he gets away with it, his writing is always kind, and often very, very funny.
The Kate Fansler Mysteries by Amanda Cross
I've written about Kate, and her creator Amanda Cross, (aka Professor Carolyn Heilbrun), many times, so I won’t say too much here, but I do love this series. Wealthy, witty, accomplished and academically brilliant Kate lives an extremely comfortable life in her Manhattan apartment with her gorgeous, equally clever, adoring lawyer husband Reed. She drinks, she smokes, she eats hamburgers and fries. I’m sure she’d never give so much as the time of day to an oatmilk smoothie. In between avoiding her straight-laced brothers, being the cool aunt to their often troubled children, and having illuminating thoughts about English Literature, Kate solves mysteries – often, but not always, murders – largely by talking to people and applying her academic knowledge to the facts. The plots aren’t always stunning, but the characters are great, and I love Kate so much that I would read books with no plot at all, just to admire her wit and to lust after her perfect lifestyle, with her equally smart friends, her fabulous apartment, and a man who puts a drink in her hand as soon as she walks through the door, and builds her a cabin the woods just so that she can get away from all the ‘pressures’ (hmm…) of her fast-paced life in the city. Wonderful escapism.