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.