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.