Hope can be a dangerous thing

(This article contains spoilers for the first four books of the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard.)

These past six months, I’ve been reading the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard. It began as a way to get closer to Berena without watching Holby City after the emotional turmoil of December – Catherine Russell plays Rachel Cazalet in the 2001 BBC television adaption – but it has since become something I am enjoying in its own right. I am really enjoying the relationship between Rachel and Margot Sidney (Sid). In fact, I’m kind of shipping them. Tentatively, because the Berena who recommended the books has warned it’s not a happy ending. I finished book four (Casting Off) this weekend, and I’ve found myself thinking about the similarities between Berena and the relationship between Rachel and Sid, and how Howard has written their storyline to create something other than the bins and slippers that was Berena’s ending.

Book one (The Light Years) begins in 1937, with Rachel and Sid already in an established, long-term relationship. In her late thirties, Rachel is fulfilling the role expected of unmarried daughters of her class at the time – looking after her parents, various nieces and nephews and elderly relatives, and running her parent’s households. Sid is a music teacher, and is accepted without question into the Cazalet family as Rachel’s friend, although it is clear Rachel’s mother, the Dutchy, knows it is more than friendship. The books switch narration between various family members – Sid gets to narrate some of her story from her own perspective. Rachel doesn’t.

The portrayal of Sid and Rachel’s relationship is far from perfect. There are enough stereotypes to make me uncomfortable. Most notably Rachel’s expression and understanding of her sexuality, and therefore how her and Sid’s sexual relationship plays out. Rachel is sexually naive. She hasn’t been to bed with Sid, despite Sid’s desiring her, because the thought of two women sexually desiring each other like men desire women has not occurred to her. Rachel is also frigid (I did not read her as asexual). Sex with a man revolts her, and she expects her relationship with Sid to be “safe” from this, to remain – mostly – platonic, despite her and Sid sharing quite passionate kisses, and occasionally a bed, and despite her sometimes initiating this. And up until the start of book four, Rachel consistently chooses her family duties over her relationship with Sid, so the two women do not have an opportunity to live together for the first 15 or so years of their being together.

By the end of book three (Confusion), which I finished some months ago, I was seriously considering not going any further. The similarities to Berena and the tropes used in the December episodes were all too apparent. Sid had cheated on Rachel. With a much younger woman. Because Rachel wasn’t in the same city – spending most of her time at the family country home (Home Place) looking after her parents – while Sid lived and worked in London during the war. Because Rachel wasn’t sexually available – in her naivety and frigidity, she hadn’t thought Sid would need her, physically and sexually – and Sid desired her and was lonely because her desire wasn’t met. We will never know if Serena would have continued cheating on Bernie with Leah if Bernie hadn’t showed up (coincidently enough) the morning after. Sid cheated on Rachel with Thelma for two years.

So I approached book four this weekend with some trepidation. Rachel and Sid were not in a good place, and continued to not be in a good place for quite some time. Rachel returned to London and Sid ended her relationship with Thelma (written similarly to Leah, more of a plot device than an actual character). Thelma tells Rachel who, devastated at the cheating, refuses to see Sid. A family friend, Archie, who has guessed the relationship, persuades Rachel to confide in him. From this conversation, Rachel realises Sid sexually desires and needs her, and that not reciprocating this desire has harmed the woman she loves. She understands that part of the relationship needed to be sexual. She swings from being devastated at the cheating to being devastated at the suffering she feels she has caused. She decides she is unworthy of Sid’s love.

How this is different from Berena, is that the cheating trope actually seems to have served a purpose. Rachel and Sid are apart for about a year, but are eventually reconciled (courtesy of the Dutchy). By the end of book four, both appear to have learnt from the cheating – Rachel more so than Sid. Rachel decides to stay in London, choosing her relationship with Sid over her family duties. She initiates sex. They go on holiday to Scotland together. Rachel appears to be becoming more independent of her family (she has a job, albeit at the family firm, and Sid is teaching her how to drive). This is where Love Is ended – Bernie deciding to stay in the UK and Holby for Serena, moving in together, giving their relationship a chance. Only this lasted a week – from one episode to the next – whereas at the end of book four, Sid and Rachel are very much re-established, and have been so for months. It is unclear if they are living together, but they are certainly, very much, together.

I know it doesn’t end happily. But I am wondering at this definition of ending happily. Book five, the final book in the series, begins in 1956. If Rachel and Sid are still together (and I assume they are, from reading the blurb), they would have been together for perhaps 25, 30 years. They’ve had a life together. Something Bernie and Serena never got the chance to do. I can forgive a great deal of stereotypical tropes for a happy ending, or at least a decent ending. By 1956, both Rachel and Sid will be approaching their sixties. I could even handle the death trope. A lesbian character dying in their sixties when they have had 30 years with the love of their life is a great deal more probable (and emotionally dealable) than a fictional lesbian dying in their twenties in an explosion on their wedding day, or a fictional lesbian breaking up with the love of their life over bins and slippers without even having had enough of a life together to have faced many rubbish collection days. I could not handle the we-love-each-other-but-cannot-be-together trope. My heart would break. Hope is a dangerous thing when shipping fictional lesbians. But I hope, for Rachel and Sid, I really do. And for this, I can forgive all the tropes that got them there. I’ll be starting book five with far less trepidation than I began book four. I hope I’m not disappointed. I hope my heart holds.

By River Kingston

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