Penmarric by Susan Howatch (re-read)

A long time ago (before I started blogging, anyway, which feels like a lifetime ago!) I picked up Susan Howatch’s 1971 novel Penmarric at the library. I knew nothing about it but, as soon as I started to read, I was drawn into a wonderfully compelling story which begins in 19th century Cornwall and is linked in a unique way to a much older story. I went on to read two of her other novels, Cashelmara and The Wheel of Fortune, which I also loved, and I’ve been thinking for a while now that I would like to read all three again.

Penmarric is divided into five sections, each narrated by a different character, beginning in 1890 with Mark Castallack. Mark’s mother, Maud, has spent her whole life working towards one goal: regaining Penmarric, the family estate which her father left to her cousin Giles rather than herself simply because she was a woman. Maud is determined to see Mark take his rightful place as master of Penmarric and eventually she gets her wish – but this does not bring happiness to any of the Castallacks.

The other four narrators are Mark’s wife, Janna, two of his sons – Philip and Jan-Yves – and one of his illegitimate sons, Adrian. It’s a story which spans six decades, taking us from the Victorian era through the turn of the century to the First and Second World Wars, but in Mark’s little corner of Cornwall a war of a different sort is played out as his marriage with Janna breaks down and his sons turn against each other and then against him.

What makes Penmarric such a great novel and what has made me remember it so vividly over the years, is that the story of the Castallacks mirrors very closely the story of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their sons. We know from history that Henry and Eleanor’s marriage was troubled, that she and their sons rebelled against Henry and that she was sent away from court, so Howatch’s fictional story follows the same outline. If you think of Penmarric as the throne of England, the rest begins to fall into place, and if you’re familiar with the period you’ll be able to identify Henry, Eleanor, Richard I, King John and even the King of France amongst the fictional characters in the book.

Each chapter opens with one or two relevant quotations from historical sources, giving an idea of what will happen in the pages that follow and helping the reader to draw parallels between the characters in the novel and their historical counterparts. The first time I read the book I didn’t have the knowledge I have now, so I didn’t pick up on everything, but this time I could appreciate just how well structured it all is and how cleverly Howatch works even minor episodes from history into the plot. Of course, it’s not essential to know anything at all about Henry and Eleanor before you begin as Penmarric can still be enjoyed as a wonderful family saga in its own right.

Of the five narrators, my favourites are the last two: Philip, the son who, being the closest to Janna, is hurt the most by Mark’s actions and who retreats into a single-minded obsession with reopening the Penmarric tin mine, Sennen Garth; and Jan-Yves, the youngest son and the one who stays loyal to their father – until it really matters. Each section is written in a strong, distinctive voice, each one adding to, complementing and contradicting the one before so that a character who seems particularly unpleasant when seen through the eyes of another becomes more sympathetic once they get a chance to tell their own side of the story.

Penmarric is a dark novel – as I’ve said, none of the characters experience much happiness in their lives and none of them are easy to like – but the plot is completely gripping, even when you’re reading the book for the second time. There are some lovely descriptions of Cornwall too; this is one of those books where the setting is as important as the characters and the plot. Although some of the family members move away and do other things, they are all drawn back again and again to Cornwall and Penmarric.

I really enjoyed my re-read of this book, especially now that I have enough familiarity with medieval history to be able to follow both layers of the story. I will be re-reading Cashelmara very soon and am looking forward to it as I can remember very little about that one.

37 thoughts on “Penmarric by Susan Howatch (re-read)

  1. realthog says:

    I read this one years ago as well — within months of its first publication, in fact! — and remember very much enjoying it. So far as I can recall, though, as an English history dunce* I never picked up on the historical connection with Henry and Eleanor. So you’re right: the book’s thoroughly enjoyable even without the background knowledge.

    * My school history education was in Scotland and tended largely to ignore the activities of those on the peninsula to the south.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! The ‘modern’ (or 19th/20th century, rather) storyline is interesting enough on its own even without the added historical layer. I went to school in England and, to be honest, I can’t remember learning much about Henry and Eleanor at school either. Most of my historical knowledge has come since leaving school and starting to read historical fiction and non-fiction.

  2. Paige Bennett says:

    Penmarric has been a favorite of mine since I first read it in 1971. I am also a big fan of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II. But I never saw the connection. although I reread Penamrric last summer I think I will reread it soon with history in mind . Thank you for this great review.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for your comment, Paige. I think you’ll find it interesting to reread the book while keeping the history in mind. If you read the quotations at the start of each chapter they help to make the connections clear.

  3. piningforthewest says:

    It sounds like it’s time for me to give it a re-read too. I read it in the 1970s. I don’t think I ever did read The Wheel of Fortune though.

  4. Small Review says:

    Funny, I knew going in that the book was about Henry II, etc. and so I read it almost more as a historical novel about them than as separate characters. I enjoyed it very much like that, but I do wonder what the experience would have been like had I not known the history. I really liked seeing how she applies the historical events to a completely different setting and how she captures the personalities (at least as far as we know them!). It was fun to know the history, wondering and discovering how she would make it fit. Richard/Phillip’s Crusade/tin mine parallel was an interesting twist. For the first time I actually felt for John and so now I’m interested in reading some non-fiction about him with this new perspective. The “Eleanor, John, Arthur” scene toward the end was fantastic. I think it will also be hard not to ascribe to him the description his family gave him in this book! I’m looking forward to reading your reviews of the other two books.

    • Helen says:

      When you know the history, it’s impossible to read this book without thinking of Henry II and his family. When you don’t, it’s a slightly different experience! I love the parallel between Philip’s tin mine obsession and Richard’s crusades, which kept both of them away from Penmarric/England – and yes, I think the portrayal of Jan-Yves makes us feel more sympathetic towards John. I’m so pleased you enjoyed this book too!

  5. Sandra says:

    I must read this book again. And hopefully the rest of the series. I remember the title and the author’s name vividly, yet I seem to have no memory of the book itself. Makes me wonder if I really did read it in the first place! Either way, I’d like to read it now!

    • Helen says:

      It’s a great book, so I definitely think it’s worth reading again – assuming that you did read it in the first place! I think you would enjoy it anyway, especially as it’s set in Cornwall.

  6. Isabella says:

    I read all of her books back when they were published, as well as the series revolving around the C of E
    very good
    they deserve a re-read

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t read her series about the church as it never sounded as appealing to me as her other novels. Maybe I should try them after I’ve finished my re-reads of Cashelmara and The Wheel of Fortune.

  7. The Book Whisperer says:

    This book has been on my shelf for the longest time. I really need to read it, don’t I? I didn’t know about the links with Henry and Eleanor either so that makes it even more interesting (although I might need to brush up on that period – which book would you recommend as the best for that? I fancy something juicy rather than dry).

    • Helen says:

      I hope you enjoy it when you do get round to reading it! As for books about Henry and Eleanor, I loved Elizabeth Chadwick’s Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy, which begins with The Summer Queen. If you would rather read some non-fiction, She-Wolves by Helen Castor has a great section on Eleanor too.

  8. Judy Krueger says:

    I have only read one book by Susan Howatch, Glittering Images. But she is on my lists to read more. I remember her writing and her creation of characters to be very good.

  9. Yvonne says:

    This book is on my keeper shelf, placed there back in 1971. I loved it, but sad to say I haven’t re-read it since then. I didn’t know about the Eleanor and Henry connection at the time, so will definitely have to place this book on my to re-read list. I also enjoyed the TV series which was aired back in the late 1970s. Thanks for this review, Helen. It has brought to mind a book I had forgotten about.

    I have also read Cashelmara, again in the 1970’s. I know I enjoyed it, but can’t remember much about the story line. Looks like this is another novel for my re-read list.

    • Helen says:

      I think it will definitely be worth reading it again with the Eleanor and Henry connection in mind. I’m looking forward to my re-read of Cashelmara – I’ve forgotten most of the story but I seem to remember that it was based on the story of Edward I and his family.

  10. buriedinprint says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading your other reviews of Howatch’s novels and I’m interested to see if you find that your other rereads hold up just as well as this one did. The one of hers which I remember seeing most often on family members’ bookshelves was Sins of the Father (IIRC). Every now and then I see a copy second-hand in a bookshop and they always look well-worn, as though someone reread them many times.

    • Helen says:

      Well, this book held up very well to a reread, so I’m confident that Cashelmara and The Wheel of Fortune will too. I never got round to reading Sins of the Fathers, or any of her other books – maybe I should give them a try after I finish my rereads.

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