Penmarric by Susan Howatch

I fell in love with ‘Penmarric’ years ago, when I was still at school, from the very first sentences.

“I was ten years old when I first saw Penmarric and twenty years old when I first saw Janna Roslyn, but my reaction to both was identical.”

I had to read on, and I was gripped from start to finish. I read every other book by Susan Howatch I could find. I liked some more than others, but all have something to recommend them. But my favourites were the three big books that reset stories from mediaeval history in the more recent past. ‘Penmarric,’ ‘Cashelmara,’ and’ The Wheel of Fortune.’

And most of all I loved ‘Penmarric’.


Mark Castellack’s mother, Maud, had one ambition – one obsession – that she fought for with every weapon at her disposal. To regain Penmarric, the family eastate that her father had left to a distant cousin rather that his only surviving child. Because she was a girl. Maud won in the end. Mark inherited Penmarric. But her victory came at a price.

The story is told in six volumes, by five different narrators: Mark Castellack, his wife, one of his illegitimate sons, and two of his legitimate sons who would, in their turn, be master of Penmarric. Sixty years pass – from the later years of Queen Victoria’s reign to the end of World War II full of every kind of family drama you could imagine.

In the wrong hands it would be a mess, but Susan Howatch made it work.

The foundations are strong: the story that has been set is that of Henry II; his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine; and his sons, among them, Richard the Lionheart and King John. History records that their relationships were troubled, that when the king tried to divide his kingdom his wife and sons opposed him, that she was sent into exile, and that they continued to intrigue, against each other and against their father.

It’s a wonderful plot, and the resetting is brilliant. Each chapter is headed with pertinent quotations from serious historical works, and the story picks up the outline and many details without ever seeming tied or compromised. But it doesn’t matter at all if you don’t know the history, because ‘Penmarric’ more that stands up in its own right, as a wonderful, dark, historical family saga.

The characters were wonderful; real, three-dimensional human beings. I understood their motivations, their ambitions, their hopes, their dreams, their fears, and I appreciated that life and experience changed them over the years. Though not always for the better. They were infuriating,  in many cases they were dislikeable,  but they were fascinating.

I’m trying not to give away too many details and not to pay favourites but I must: Janna’s journey from farmer’s widow, through a troubled marriage, to a classic matriarch was wonderful; I really took to Phillip, who was a difficult child but grew into a man of strong principles, determined to follow his own path; and I was charmed by Jan-Yves, who was a spoiled brat of a child, but worked things out and grew up eventually.

And then there’s the setting. Cornwall, and my particular part of Cornwall. I’m pleased to report that Susan Howatch gets it right, and she brought the world that I live in, in the days of my grandparents and great grandparents, to life so vividly; the people, the places, the traditional Cornish industries, everything was caught perfectly, and pulled into the heart of the story.

Everything came together beautifully: story, characters and setting. And the style worked beautifully. Five voices told the story, simply and directly;  those voices were distinctive, and they all rang true.

‘Penmarric’ is a hefty book – more than 700 pages – but I read it quickly, because I was caught up from start to finish, and I always wanted to know what would happen next, just how events would play out. And I would have been quite happy for it to go on much longer, and the ending did seem a little abrupt. Though at least I could check what should have happened next against real history…

It’s not perfect – there are dips in the story, the tone is quite heavy a lot of the time, and important lessons are never learned – but I love it regardless.

14 responses

  1. What a fascinating idea, to re-imagine that troubled family (if that’s the right way to put it). I love family sagas like that, stretching across generations. I’ve heard Susan Howatch’s name but I don’t think I’ve ever come across her books – which must be remedied.

  2. I like this author’s Anglican church hierarchy books which are so full of fascinating stories how the English clergy operates. I’ve read this one as well which is different and so very good.

  3. Me too, I loved this book when I was at school and from then on I read as many of her books that I could find – I think I’ve read them all. I thought I had a copy but I don’t! I must find one – this was my favourite, although years later I loved the Starbridge books even more (like Mystica). I didn’t realise at the time that the story was based on Henry II – I must have must the chapter heading quotations!! As you say the book stands up in its own right anyway.

  4. I read this years ago too and loved it, though I think I enjoyed The Wheel of Fortune even more than this one. They are great stories in their own right, but the historical parallels made them particularly appealing to me. I’ll have to dig out my copies for a re-read too!

  5. The books have stood the test of time. First read them all years ago, I could quite happily return and read them all again.Not every book you could say that about.

  6. I loved Penmarric, recently bought the old BBC DVD of the series. I too really enjoyed her Starbridge books, I found the stories and characters quite riveting. I have great admiration for Susan Howatch, what an original mind she has.

  7. every one of Howatch’s books should be reread. They are layers and layers of meaning, which after many reads I am just understanding. Wheel of Fortune is my all time favorite, and I would say John Godwin (The Duke of Lancaster) my favorite character. That’s a tough call for me as I read several of the books every year. You can see the spiritual journey Ms Howatch takes in her books that leads to her own conversion to Anglo Catholicism. Jon Darrow is also first rate. I think she is headed for a huge revival, as she has written classic books, that all have memorable characters, a beautiful writing style, and timeless appeal in her development of the setting, characters, and the voice that is for me an outstanding example of what literature should be. I enjoy each book more and more with the reread. Her formula works, and she is greatly missed since she has stopped writing.

  8. I’ve seen Susan Howatch’s books on the shelf at my library, but for some reason I thought they were syrupy sweet Christian romances. Hmmm…not really sure where I got that idea. Like Lisa, I love big, sprawling family sagas so these sound wonderful to me.

  9. I was only 11 when I first saw the book. My mother was reading it. I tried but it was a little above my ability. I never forgot the cover and the title. I finally read it in my twenties and have reread it several times. I have read and re-read everything by Susan Howatch. Her ability to switch from narrator to narrator is amazing. And yes, the spiritual journey from Glittering Images through The High Flyer is a joy.

  10. I pick up this book whenever I want to disappear from the 21st century for a while. It never ceases to enthrall me. Howatch’s character’s are three-dimensional, flawed and extremely empathetic. You’re right; she is able to show what motivates each of them, and the stories twist and turn and go in unexpected directions. If you had told me the first time I read this book in Phillip’s section that Jan-Yves would ultimately turn into a fantastic character I would not have believed it, but Howatch really delivers. (I remember turning the page into his section and thinking, “Jan Yves, ugh, this isn’t going to work…”) I have read every one of Susan Howatch’s books and have yet to be disappointed in any of them, even though her genres have been so diverse.

  11. Pingback: Cashelmara by Susan Howatch (1974) | Beyond Eden Rock

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