This winter, I decided to change my reading habits. For as long as I can remember, I have been very wary of “Big Books”. It is tricky to pin down exactly why this is, but I think it has something to do with that nagging awareness many of us have that we just don’t have ALL OF THE TIME to read ALL OF THE BOOKS. This, for me, resulted in a kind of panicky, conveyor-belt approach to reading. I also think I am a bit addicted to the sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing a book and that exciting moment when I am about to embark on a new reading adventure. As a consequence, I get rather twitchy towards the end of a book, even when I am thoroughly enjoying it, as I can’t wait to for that intoxicating moment of infinite literary possibilities. I think my natural inclinations to read as much as I can as fast I as I can have only been exacerbated by the advent of blogging and Goodreads challenges.
To cut a long story short, I disliked this impatient, often frenzied and slightly competitive approach to reading I had developed. And I decided to change. Reading, I told myself, was not about showing off to other people or keeping score.
My discovery of Susan Howatch, then, was a very timely one. I turned first to Penmarric and then to Cashelmara, both of which weigh in at just over 700 pages. I arrested my natural inclination to bolt and began a new journey – a slightly longer one than usual, but one that would lead me to one of my favourite authors of all time.
Penmarric and Cashelmara are the first two novels in what is a loosely connected trilogy (The Wheel of Fortune being the third instalment). Both are family sagas with a twist: they update the lives of the Plantagenet kings. Penmarric is set in Cornwall and is the very definition of a sweeping saga, its narrative stretching from the late 19th century to the end of the Second World War. The central characters include Mark Castallack and his wife, Janna, who are based on Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. The narrative also focuses on their extensive brood of children, including Phillip (inspired by Richard the Lionheart) and Jan-Yves (King John).
Cashelmara covers a briefer period, restricting itself to the closing decades of the 19th century. Aside from brief hops to London and New York, it is set in Ireland during a time of famine and political upheaval. This novel focuses on three generations of the aristocratic de Salis family – Edward, Patrick and Ned, who are based on Edwards I, II and III respectively. It is worth pointing out that, whilst the historical characters who inspire these events were related, their fictional counterparts are not, hence this being only a loose trilogy. It is probably also worth pointing out that you don’t have to be a historian (or on Wikipedia constantly, as I would have been) to work out how exactly how the novels mirror historical events: Howatch signposts this by prefacing crucial chapters with excerpts from relevant historical documents, biographies and so on.
Now, I am a huge fan of the family saga. I have yet worked out a way to put my love of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicle into words. I would, however, go as far as saying that I love Howatch’s works just as much. Her sagas are a deal more flamboyant than Howard’s: the events and characters upon which they are based inspire nothing less than the kind of high drama typically reserved for a soap opera. And the Christmas special, at that.
But what is really striking about these novels for me is the sheer breadth of Howatch’s talent. She can do the kind of high octane drama that makes Dynasty look tame. She can skilfully transmute medieval history into vivid 19th and 20th century family sagas. She can do heartbreaking, understated tragedy. She can do satire. She can do comedy.
Howatch can also do psychological realism. Both Penmarric and Cashelmara have huge casts of characters, but every single one lives and breathes. Both novels also employ multiple narrators. One narrator will convince us that what they are telling us is the Truth; that they are portraying those around them As They Really Are. We agree that this narrator is hard done by, that they are mistreated by their nearest and dearest. Until that nearest and dearest takes over the narration and casts everything into doubt. What both novels continuously stress is that there is no Truth; just versions of it. That we can never know others or be wholly known by them.
Both novels have their minor issues; indeed, both seem to run out of steam and end rather abruptly. Cashelmara takes a little while to get off the ground as Edward, the first narrator, isn’t the most appealing of the bunch. Penmarric taught me more about tin mining that I ever wished to know (still, it may come in handy one day).
But the positives far outweigh the negatives here. There was enough high drama and terrific character development here to make me applaud my decision to slow things down and take the plunge with a lengthy tome. I enjoyed the experience of getting to know characters over a longer period of time and found this immensely rewarding and enriching.
I think this speaks volumes for Susan Howatch, though. Her writing is so good that I am happy to read little else for the foreseeable future. Indeed, I have just embarked upon the third volume of this loose trilogy (just under 1000 pages in length!). A quick browse on the internet unearths a great deal of affection and admiration for Howatch, which is great to see, but she deserves to be far better known.