I fell in love with Susan Howatch’s big historical novels, that took real history and reset it so very cleverly in different ages, when I was still at school. When I re-read Penmarric, some months ago, I fell in love all over again, and so I took the same next step as I did all those years ago.
I picked up ‘Cashelmara’.
The story is set in the middle of the 19th century, and it follows the turbulent lives of three generations of an English family, and the fortunes of Cashelmara, the family’s Irish estate.
Edward de Salis was a widower with grown-up children when he visited cousins in New York, and brought the much younger Marguerite home as his bride. The couple proved to be well matched; but Edward’s daughters were less than happy that their mother’s place had been taken by a step-mother only a little older than them. It was only when Patrick, Ned’s only son and heir, comes home from boarding school that Marguerite gained an ally who is sympathetic to her situation and happy for her to have a place in his life.
She didn’t quite see why Edward was so disappointed in his only son. She understood that he was less driven than his father, that he had other interests; that he was torn between wanting to please his father and following his own desires.
When Edward died and Patrick inherited the de Salis lands and fortune, he delighted Marguerite’s by marrying her niece, Sarah. This couple was not well-matched, and when they returned from New York to live in London their lavish lifestyle and Patrick’s gambling nearly destroyed them. Forced to economize, Sarah and Patrick were forced to Cashelmara. Sarah hated it, and she hated that her husband was far ore involved with his childhood friend Derry Stranahan that he was with their life together or the proper management of their estate.
When Derry is killed, Sarah sets about repairing marriage and turning the estate around profitable estate, to secure the future for herself and her son. But her hopes are shattered when her husband falls under the sway of another man – Hugh McGowan – who will put her in an invidious position. She struggles to escape, and for the sake of her son, Ned, she make an unwise alliance of her own.
The consequences are shattering, and when Ned comes of age, he learns that he must chose his own alliances ad plan his moves very carefully to gain his inheritance and his independence.
Those are the bones of the story, and they are filled out with a wealth of detail; of character, of plot, and of history.
The story that is being retold is that the latter years of Edward I; the reign of Edward II, who was usurped by his wife, Queen Isabella, and he lover, Roger Mortimer; and finally the early years of Edward III, as he emerged from their shadow. The way that Susan Howatch has taken that story and reset it in another time and place, using different historical events to drive the same story forward, is nothing short of brilliant!
But it doesn’t matter if you don’t know the history, because this story stands up on its own merits. The psychology is right; and this book is a psychological thriller as well as a historical saga.
The characters were wonderful; real, complex, three-dimensional human beings. They had strengths and weaknesses. I understood their motivations, why they spoke and acted as they did, and I appreciated that life and experience changed them over the years. I was drawn into their lives and I was compelled to watch. That the story was told in six volumes, each told by a different character, gave the book strength and depth. It was fascinating seeing different perspectives of characters and events, and coming to understand how each one of them saw the world.
It had to be said that the story is dark – and at times it is downright chilling – but that is the nature of the history. Fidelity to that history meant that there were times when the story didn’t progress as quickly as I would have liked, and I did feel that the end of the book tailed off a little.
I was a little less caught up with this book than I was with ‘Penmarric’; maybe because the setting was less familiar and the history that the story was founded upon was less appealing.
But still I loved it.