“CASHELMARA” (1974) Book Review

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“CASHELMARA” (1974) Book Review
My experiences with novels by Susan Howatch are rather limited. If I must be honest, I have only finished three of her novels. I tried reading two other novels – “THE RICH ARE DIFFERENT” (1977) and the first novel in The Starbridge Series, “GLITTERING IMAGES” (1987). However, I could not maintain any interest in the last two novels. Neither focused upon the history of an upper-class British family, which happened to be my main interest when I was in my late teens and early twenties.

One of the three novels I did finish was 1974’s “CASHELMARA”, a saga that focused upon an Anglo-Irish family called the De Salis. The story began in 1859 when Edward Baron de Salis journeyed to antebellum New York City to visit his late wife’s cousins, the Marriotts; and ends some 32 years later in 1891 with his grandson Edward, resorting to extraordinary means to regain control of the family’s Irish estate called Cashelmara. During this 32 year journey, readers become acquainted with six main characters and a fascinating cast of supporting characters that add to Howatch’s tale.

Before reading “CASHELMARA”, one has to understand that it is one of three novels that are based upon one of the British Royal Family’s royal houses – that of the Plantagenets. The 1971 novel, “PENMARRIC” focused on characters based upon the Plantagenet line that stretched from King Henry II to one of his younger sons, King John. However, Howatch skimped a generation and decided to continue her focus on the Plantagenet line with John’s grandson, King Edward I and finished the novel with a character based upon the latter’s grandson, King Edward III. “CASHELMARA” is divided into six segments. Those segments are narrated by the following characters:

*Edward, Baron de Salis – a middle-aged English aristocrat and owner of both Woodhammer Hall (in England) and Cashelmara (based upon King Edward I)
*Marguerite Marriott, Baroness de Salis – a 17-18 year-old adolescent from a wealthy New York family who becomes Edward’s second wife (based upon Margaret of France, later Edward I’s second consort)
*Patrick, Baron de Salis – Edward’s only surviving son, who loses Woodhammer Hall ten years after his father’s death via gambling debts (based upon King Edward II)
*Sarah Marriott, Baroness de Salis – Marguerite’s oldest niece and Patrick’s wife (based upon Isabella of France, later Edward II’s consort)
*Maxwell Drummond – an Irish tenant farmer on the Cashelmara estate, who becomes Sarah’s lover and Patrick’s enemy (based upon Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, Isabella’s lover)
*Edward “Ned”, Baron de Salis – Patrick and Sarah’s oldest son (based upon King Edward III)

Another aspect about “CASHELMARA” that Howatch fans might find fascinating is that “THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE”could be considered a direct sequel to the former novel. Remember . . . “CASHELMARA” ended with Ned as the novel’s narrator. And Ned is supposed to be based upon Edward III. “THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” began with Robert Goodwin, who is based upon Edward the Black Prince, Edward III’s oldest son. Since Robert’s father was still alive in the first half of the 1984 novel, this means that Howatch based two characters on Edward III – Ned de Salis and “Bobby” Goodwin. Really, one might as well view “THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” as more of a direct sequel to “CASHELMARA” than“PENMARRIC”. In fact, Bobby Goodwin’s background story in the 1984 novel is practically a re-enactment of what happened between Ned and his parents, Patrick and Sarah in “CASHELMARA”, but with a few changes.

How do I feel about “CASHELMARA”? I thought Howatch had created a very fascinating tale. On one level, she took a family saga and placed it within a setting that gave readers a look at how British Imperial policy worked in Ireland. And we saw this policy in motion via the viewpoint of an aristocratic family – except for the Maxwell Drummond character. And although there are many novels set within the British Empire – even in Ireland – “CASHELMARA” is probably the only one that I can recall that had been written by Howatch. More importantly, Howatch’s description of the Cashelmara estate left a stark image in my mind that I found rather interesting. It was interesting that half of the major characters regarded the Irish estate with a negative view. The other three major characters seemed to have different views of Cashelmara. Edward de Salis seemed to have a mixed view of the estate. Cashelmara reminded him of the period he had enjoyed as a child. Yet at the same time, it stood as a reminder of his failure to offer genuine help to his tenants during the Great Famine of the 1840s. Ironically, the de Salis family and their tenants would find themselves facing another famine over thirty years later. Maxwell Drummond seemed to regard Cashelmara as a symbol of his ambition to become a landowner and a gentleman. And he would try to achieve these goals through Sarah with disastrous results. As far as Ned de Salis was concerned, Cashelmara was his home, and a family legacy that he would go through great lengths to regain. After all, his father Patrick had lost the family’s English estate, Woodhammer Hall, sometime before his birth.

Most of the novel proved to be interesting in its own right. The first two segments – narrated by Edward de Salis and his second wife, Marguerite – also proved to be interesting. Howatch did an excellent job in painting a portrait of both antebellum New York City and mid-Victorian England at the end of the 1850s and into the 1860s. Readers got a peek into Edward’s fascination with his future bride, along with his the disappointment he felt regarding his children. But I especially enjoyed Marguerite’s narration. I found it interesting to read how this 18 year-old girl struggled to maintain a healthy and happy marriage with a man over thirty years her senior. Marguerite’s narration also revealed the struggles that she had to endure as an American in a foreign country. Between others – including her husband – making assumptions about her American nationality, dealing with the British high society’s reactions to the American Civil War, and struggling to act as a mediator between Edward and her stepchildren; the 1860s proved to be somewhat difficult for Marguerite. However, being a strong-willed young woman in her own right, she survived.

Also, I found “CASHELMARA” to be the most disturbing tale of the three family sagas written by the author. What made this novel so disturbing? It has to be the marriage between Patrick and Sarah de Salis. Howatch based their marriage on the lives of Edward II and his wife, Isabella. But from what I have read, the private lives of the Plantagenet monarch and his consort were not as disturbing as the marriage between Patrick and Sarah. The novel’s third segment, told from Patrick’s point-of-view, revealed their courtship and the first four years of their marriage. It also revealed how Sarah’s spending and especially Patrick’s gambling habits managed to dwindle away his fortune. Their financial problems had only added to the existing strain caused by Patrick’s continuing friendship with his childhood friend, Derry Stranahan. But the segment narrated by Sarah also proved to be the novel’s nadir in terms of what occurred and how low her marriage to Patrick had sunk. And for Sarah and Patrick, their marriage had sunk to alcoholism and loss of property for him; imprisonment and rape for her. Despite the ugliness that permeated Sarah’s segment, the latter also proved to be one of the two most interesting in the novel.

Like “THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE”, the novel’s last segment proved to be the most difficult for me. Narrated by Sarah and Patrick’s oldest child, Ned, I had some difficulty relating to the character. Perhaps Ned was simply too old. After all, he aged from thirteen to seventeen or eighteen years old during this last chapter. But I recall that one of the segments of“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” had been narrated by a character named Christopher “Kester” Goodwin, who aged from nine to nineteen years old. I had no problems with the Kester character from “THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE”, but I did with the Ned de Salis character. Why? Perhaps I did not find him that fascinating. Or perhaps I found his penchant to view his father as a hero, Maxwell Drummond as a villain and his mother as a stooge for Drummond a little too simple for me to stomach. I find it difficult to relate to characters who harbor one-dimensional views about life and other people. And because Howatch ensured that Ned never learned what his mother had endured at the hands of Patrick and the latter’s lover/estate manager, Hugh McGowan, I found my ability to relate to him even more difficult.

I have read some reviews of “CASHELMARA’ and discovered that a good number of readers managed to enjoy this family saga very much. Only a handful seemed to regard the characters as unsympathetic and not worthy of their interest. I believe that a first-rate author could create a sympathetic character with unpleasant traits, if he or she had a mind to do so. Susan Howatch certainly managed to create some very interesting characters – aside from one – for “CASHELMARA”. She also created a first-rate family saga that still remains fresh after forty-two years.

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“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” (1984) Book Review

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“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” (1984) Book Review

Several years ago, I once posted a list of my top ten favorite historical fiction novels of all time. Susan Howatch’s 1984 novel, “THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” made the list. In fact, I would go as far to say that it would have also made the list of my top favorite novels . . . period. I love it that much. 

Back in the 1970s, Howatch wrote several family sagas in which the main characters were based upon members from a certain group from Britain’s Royal Family known as House of Plantagenet, which ruled the country between 1154 and 1485. The characters from 1971’s “PENMARRIC” were based upon the Plantagenet line that began withKing Henry II and ended with King John. 1974’s “CASHELMARA” featured characters based the line that began with Edward I and ended with his grandson, Edward III“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” also featured a character based upon Edward III, but he turned out to be a supporting one. The novel’s main characters were based on his children, two of his grandsons and a great-grandson, starting with Edward, the Black Prince and ending with Henry V“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” followed the fortunes of the Godwins, an Anglo-Welsh upper-class family that lived on an estate called Oxmoon, located near Gower in South Wales. The novel is divided into six major chapters, narrated by the following:

*Robert Godwin – oldest son in the family and a successful barrister who becomes a Member of Parliament
*Ginevra “Ginette” Godwin – Robert’s wife, distant cousin and childhood obsession, who was previously married to an Irishman named Conor Kinsella
*John Godwin – third son in the family and a diplomat with the Foreign Office
*Christopher “Kester” Godwin – Robert and Ginerva’s second son, who becomes master of Oxmoon upon his grandfather’s death
*Henry “Harry” Godwin – John’s oldest living son and Kester’s rival
*Henry “Hal” Godwin – Harry’s oldest son and a musician

“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” spanned at least fifty to sixty years – from 1913 to the late 1960s or early 1970s, covering at least four generations and two world wars. Although the novel is told from the point of view of six major characters, it also featured other never-to-be-forgotten characters from the Godwin family. The ones that really come to mind are Robert and John’s complicated parents – the emotionally unstable Bobby and his very disciplined wife Margaret; Declan Kinsella, Ginette’s oldest son from her first marriage; Bronwen Morgan, John’s mistress and third wife; Robert and John’s youngest brother, the somewhat coarse and unimaginative Thomas Godwin; and Harry’s first wife, the sexy and not-so-bright Belinda “Bella” Stourham Godwin, who becomes obsessed with conceiving a girl after an aborted teenage pregnancy.

What I found amazing about “THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” is that it more or less continued the de Salis family saga from “CASHELMARA”, but with different characters. A family scandal involving Bobby’s mother and a sheep farmer named Owen Bryn-Davies ends up having a major impact upon the Godwin family. Both Bobby and Margaret spend most of their married lives trying to overcome the past with an ideal family life, living up to the twin creeds – “doing the done thing” and “drawing the line”. Unfortunately, Bobby’s ability to project an ideal image also leads him to become an emotional time bomb, with a penchant for womanizing. This penchant also leads to another family scandal – one that not only has an impact on Robert and Ginette’s relationship, but also on the question of Oxmoon’s true master, which culminates into an ugly rivalry between cousins Kester and Harry.

It is a skill to Ms. Howatch’s talents that I found the novel’s first two chapters fascinating. She did an excellent job in creating the novel’s setting and characters, and delving into the fascinating, yet problematic marriage between Robert and Ginette. But the chapters featuring John, Kester and Harry’s narrations prove to be the novel’s highlights. Howatch allows the readers to see how Bobby and Margaret’s efforts to maintain an ideal family fractured John’s personality – almost transforming him into some kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde. The ironic thing is that his “Hyde” persona proved to be a lot more beneficial for him. But John’s fractured personality, along with his twisted efforts to live up to his parents’ (actually, I should say his mother’s) creeds of “doing the done thing” and“drawing the line” seemed to have a negative impact on both his son Harry and nephew Kester.

The last chapter, which featured Hal’s narration, proved to be less fascinating than the previous chapters. This particular chapter featured a murder mystery within the family and Hal’s efforts to revive the family fortunes. Mind you, this story line did not strike me as compelling as the previous chapters, but I had no problems with it. But I did have a problem with two aspects of the novel. One, Howatch had an annoying habit of labeling certain characters via their nationalities. Celtics – especially the Welsh and the Irish – seemed to be described as emotional or almost fey. And the English are described as emotionally stunted, yet rational and clear-minded. I found this penchant rather infantile for a first-rate novelist like Howatch. Nor did I care for some the dialogue she had Bronwen’s mouth. It almost seemed as if Howatch tried to transform John’s Welsh mistress (later third wife) as some kind of Celtic mystic. And I really found it annoying. It is a miracle that Bronwen managed to remain one of my favorite characters.

Although I can honestly say that “THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” is not perfect, I can also state that it is also one of my favorite novels of all time. In fact, I became so fascinated with it after my last reading that I found myself re-reading some of of the passages over and over again, until I realized that I need to put it down. It really is one of the best family sagas I have ever read . . . period. And I am amazed that there has been no television adaptation of this novel. A movie adaptation would be out of the question. The time constraints on the latter would make an adaptation out of the question. But as a television adaptation . . . “THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” could prove to be as exceptional as the novel itself.