After many days of waiting and never finding the moment, I finally managed to start and finish Susan Howatch’s Penmarric. As has been evident from my previous posts, this was one book I had been waiting to read for some time, but time and other matters intruded ; however I was determined not to let this year go without reading this one and I am very glad to say atleast that’s one tick mark against my very abysmal 2014 accomplishments!
The book is divided into 5 parts and commences in 1890 with the narrative of a young Mark Castallack who introduces us to Penmarric, an estate in Cornwall which was to be inherited by his mother Maud, but which instead went to her cousin Giles who in turn had warmed his way to Maud’s father affection, after the death of her brother. Maud herself was separated from her scholarly and gentlemanly husband Laurence Castallack and instead resides in London and spends her life in a legal battle to secure Penmarric for her son. Mark Castallack who is not fond of his mother and feels more kinship to his father’s quiet and scholarly taste has no interest in Penmarric, but rather hopes to become a historian like his father. He works hard and goes to Oxford to read history, while his mother continues to wage a battle for Penmarric which she ultimately loses. However with the death of Giles’s only son, Mark suddenly becomes the heir to Penmarric. It is at this time that his father closes his own house, an estate, in North Cornwall and comes to reside near Penmarric is a small farm which he inherited from his mother. While visiting his father, one day Marc meets a widow of a farmer, Janna , who is 10 years his senior, but with whom he is instantly taken. Janna however is not interested in Marc and angered by her rejection, Marc goes away to a sea side resort, where he meets, Rose, a daughter of a doctor who works as a Nanny after her father’s death. Spurred on my Janna’s rejection, he sets out to seduce Rose and then returns to his father’s farm. Rose however soon becomes pregnant and things come to a head as Laurence dies while seeking reconciliation with Marc, after a bitter argument, when the former comes to know about Rose. With the death of Laurence, followed soon by demise of Giles, Marc takes over Penamrric and sets out to conquer Janna, with turbulent results that reverberate through two generations of the Castallack family, spanning over 60 years.
The book from the very beginning calls out that it is more of a modern retelling of history of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and the rise and fall of the Plantagenet family. Each book begins with a brief synopsis of the Plantagenet family history, which vaguely gives the reader the idea of the premises of the chapters which would follow. It is the credit of the author that despite this synopsis, which kind of lays bare what is about to unfold, the grip of the plot is never lost and as a reader, you would keep turning pages to see actually what does happen. This fine balance of marking out the premises without giving away the solution to the suspense is a fine a delicate art and Ms. Howatch manages this with mastery and great finesse. Her characters are all capable of being generous, liberal, and honest and brave at the same time also behave in an unworthy manner. They are all well drawn out and each character stands independently and distinctly of each other and makes the plot more taut. However there are some inconsistencies – there is a sudden turning of really bad to really good without enough explanation; for one instance you are blackmailing your own father and next minute the same person is revered as a local hero. While I understand that man has many facets, goodness is often well rounded and while we all have moments of weakness, rarely have I seen a nature so contradictory. Having said that, these inconsistencies, do not take anything away from the story and the narratives plays out beautifully, doing ample justice to the lovely beauty of Cornwall as well the very unsettled history of England, 1890-1945. In fact this is another master stroke by Ms. Howatch, many historical novels have a tendency to become history books where history and not the story is main stay of the novel; but in this book, there is again a very fine balance where, one is constantly aware of the changing dynamics in the history and society of Engalnd without taking center stage. Breakdown of the old social order is brought out more by the conduct of the characters rather than a linear narrative. For instance, at the very onset it is clear Marc Castellack favors the traditional idea of women in vogue then where “intellect’ was not a lady’s forte, but rather home and hearth should be the core of her existence. Yet the same Marc Castellack some 35 years later supports his daughter’s education and sends her to Cambridge. This kind of story telling slowly and distinctly unravels the changes in the history while marrying it skillfully with the core theme.
I cannot say I am absolutely fond of this book, in fact I felt it would make a better film than a book, considering the father against son, brother against brother, blackmail, adultery etc. However I am extremely glad to have read it once and if nothing else, as a reader, you will be left breathless, with most glorious description of Cornwall that you could see, breathe and even feel Cornwall.