Set in the first half of the 20th Century from around 1913 to 1966, this novel runs parallel to the lives of several Plantagenet Kings and associated historical characters. A novel of tremendous scope, it is immensely detailed and documents the power wielded by a coveted family estate in South Wales: Oxmoon. This house becomes the focus for battles of inheritance spanning many generations, and the rise and fall of the wealthy Godwin family is told through the point of view of six characters. I liked it, but my attention wandered a bit here and there, especially in the final third, and I found the repetition about ‘drawing the line,’ a little irritating. I didn’t love it as much as Penmarric and Cashelmara, both of which were six star reads for me, but it did keep me engrossed for a good while and Howatch never disappoints in depth and authenticity.
Cashelmara is loosely based on the lives of Edward I II and III; although this story mostly takes place in late nineteenth-century Ireland, through those troubled times when the country was besieged with famine and uprisings, and frequently at odds with the Protestant Englishmen who owned the estates. An epic, historical saga written from 6 different viewpoints, the story follows the fortunes of three generations beginning with Edward de Salis and his second marriage to his wife’s cousin, a young American, Marguerite. The eldest son from Edward’s first marriage naturally inherits everything on his death: the Irish estate, Cashelmara, plus the beautiful English county mansion where Patrick grew up, and his considerable wealth. Unfortunately Patrick does not inherit his father’s head for business, and although he follows in his footsteps when he marries his step-mother’s American cousin, Sarah, his drinking, reckless spending and gambling looks set to ruin everything. Forced to live humbly at Cashelmara, Patrick spends his time cultivating the garden and perfecting his wood-carving skills, and continues to form intense ‘friendships’ with men rather than pursue a more serious occupation fitting to a gentleman of his class. When the insidious Derry Stranahan becomes intimately involved not only with Patrick, but also with managing Cashelmara’s estate, the rot really sets in. Poor, beleaguered Sarah forms her own, dangerous allegiance with Hugh McGowan, both romantically and otherwise, and before too long the fate of Cashelmara is the subject of a scandalous power struggle giving rise to affairs, betrayal, revenge, and murder.
This is a heavily characterised novel and the structure is superb, allowing one to be fully immersed not only in the narrators head, but in another time and place as the plot is skilfully moved forwards without repeating what we already know, and without revealing all. There is a strong element of psychology allowed to influence character motivation, leaving no doubt that these events happened. Vivid historical detail, the suppression and sexual naivety of women, the super-rich and the super-poor and the iron fist of the church are all incorporated to great affect.
Mark Castallack inherits Penmarric and marries his father’s mistress. In the late nineteenth century men ruled the world and before too long young, ambitious Castallack is juggling relationships and children with two very different women. Sweet, patient Rose is offset by the older rather steely Jana, who refuses to divorce Mark. Fiercely independent she retreats to her former humble farmhouse, despite the animosity of her stepsons, and Mark sees little alternative but to bring together all of his children – legitimate and illegitimate – to live under one roof. This creates a strained atmosphere where awkward sibling relationships are quickly sullied with dislike and mistrust for years to come.
Penmarric is an epic family saga sprawling across three generations and told from five viewpoints – loosely based on the real lives of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine – and spans from the Victorian era in 1890 to the Second World War in 1945. Its appeal lies in the complexity of those divided family relationships as well as the portrayal of significant notable social changes, times when marriage did not necessarily mean love, times when the class divide was at its most pronounced, times when the expectations and society roles of women were greatly suppressed and limited. Despite the so-called civilised society of the upper classes, the Castallack men and their rivals are deeply flawed and often hypocritical – driven by greed, lust, blackmail, adultery, and ambition. The truth of the human condition is exposed, warts and all. And all of this played out against the cruel beauty of Cornwall in a forever changing England where class, inheritance, producing a son and heir, and honouring ones duty to God and the King formed the backbone of English society. In contrast to this veneer are the farmers and the tin miners, the bar-maids and the struggling working classes, adding another rich seam to the Castallack story.
Although there are many characters – and not many of them especially appealing – they are all clearly defined and the push and pull against each other to further their own goals is skilfully portrayed. I enjoyed how my allegiance swayed with the change of narrator, and the alteration of perspective allowed for a deeper understanding of motivation and mood. Because of the length and structure of this novel it does feel linear rather than heading towards a neat conclusion, but this is not a negative. The quality of the writing, the huge scope of this book saturated with historical detail, and the fast, slightly sensationalist plotting had me fully engrossed for several days.