Cashelmara by Susan Howatch (re-read)

After re-reading Susan Howatch’s Penmarric last year, I decided to continue with a re-read of her 1974 novel, Cashelmara. I remembered this one as my least favourite of the three big historical novels I read by Howatch, so I was interested to see whether I still felt the same way about it now.

Cashelmara, like Penmarric (and The Wheel of Fortune, which I will also be re-reading soon), retells Plantagenet history in a more recent setting. Here we see Edward I, Edward II and Edward III of England recreated as Edward de Salis, his son Patrick and grandson Ned, a fictional 19th century family. No knowledge of the historical characters is necessary but it does add another layer of interest if you can spot the parallels.

The novel opens in 1859 with Edward de Salis, a widower with several adult children, visiting cousins in New York and returning to England with a new bride – the much younger Marguerite. Edward is keen to introduce his wife to his daughters, but they prove to be disappointingly hostile to Marguerite, who is only a few years older than they are. It is only Patrick, his son and heir, who makes her feel welcome and wanted, but Marguerite senses a tension between father and son that she doesn’t quite understand.

After Edward’s death, Patrick inherits his father’s lands and title, and as his story unfolds we start to see why his relationship with Edward had been so strained. Marguerite is pleased when he marries her niece, Sarah, but it soon becomes clear that it is not going to be a happy marriage. Patrick’s fortune is quickly lost through gambling and poor financial decisions and the two are forced to move to Cashelmara, the de Salis estate in Ireland. It is here that Sarah gets to know Patrick’s beloved friend Derry Stranahan and discovers that she is destined to always take second place in her husband’s affections…

At this point, if you do know the history on which this book is based, you’ve probably guessed that Sarah represents Isabella, Edward II’s queen, and Derry the king’s favourite, Piers Gaveston. Later in the novel you will also meet characters who correspond to Isabella’s lover Roger Mortimer, to Edward II’s other favourite Hugh Despenser, and to Edward III and his wife, Philippa of Hainault. If you don’t know the history, though, don’t worry because the story of the de Salis family can still be followed and enjoyed even if you’re completely unaware of the similarities with their 14th century counterparts.

The novel is divided into six sections, each one with a different narrator – Edward, Marguerite, Patrick, Sarah, Maxwell Drummond and Ned. I can’t really say that I liked any of the characters (apart from maybe Marguerite), but they are all complex, interesting, multi-faceted human beings each with their own positive and negative qualities. As with Penmarric, the shifting perspectives are very effective, because characters who had seemed unpleasant and unappealing when seen through the eyes of others suddenly become much more sympathetic when they get the opportunity to tell their side of the story. Sarah, in particular, is forced to go through some terrible ordeals during her marriage to Patrick; there are some dark moments in each of the six narratives, but Sarah’s story is surely the darkest and bleakest of them all.

Howatch’s choice of 19th century Ireland as the setting for the novel is perfect as there are plenty of historical events and issues which she can use to move the plot forward while continuing to mirror the Plantagenet storyline. The effects of famine and poverty, the campaign for Home Rule under Charles Stewart Parnell, the civil unrest surrounding the evictions of tenants, and the lives of Irish immigrants in America are all woven into the story. Cashelmara is a fascinating novel on many levels and I enjoyed my re-read, but I did find it very slow in places and for a while in the middle it seemed to go on forever. I never really became so immersed in the story that I couldn’t put it down. I do remember loving The Wheel of Fortune much more and I’m looking forward to reading that one again too, hopefully in the near future.

14 thoughts on “Cashelmara by Susan Howatch (re-read)

  1. whatmeread says:

    It seems to me that I tried one Howatch years ago and wasn’t interested enough to pursue her more. It sounds like you had a so-so reaction to this one.

  2. Lisa says:

    I was happy to come across one of Susan Howatch’s books at a library sale recently, since I’ve had trouble getting her books, even from the library. It combines two shorter novels – hopefully they’ll be a good introduction to her books.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve only read the three big historical sagas I’ve mentioned in my post, so I would be interested to know what her shorter books are like. I hope you enjoy them.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, Howatch did write two series about the Church of England (the Starbridge series and the St Benet trilogy). I’ve never tried any of those books as they don’t really appeal to me, but they do seem to be quite highly regarded.

  3. Judy Krueger says:

    I am only familiar with Susan Howatch from one novel in one of her Church of England series, Glittering Images. It was a while ago but I remembered liking it and wanting to read more. The writing and the character development were both good. As far as the Plantagenet family, I only know (correctly?) that they are the Other family to the Tudors. Well, I am American and I guess I know my own country’s history better; also it is shorter!

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you liked Glittering Images, Judy. I haven’t been tempted to try her Church of England books so far, but maybe I should. As for the Plantagenets, they came before the Tudors (12th to 15th century) and were even more fascinating, in my opinion. I’m sure you know much more about American history than I do! In fact, I think you’ve given me an idea for this month’s Historical Musings post… 🙂

  4. Ruthiella says:

    I LOVED the Starbridge series and have long meant to get back to some of her other works but you know how it goes… Despite your mixed feelings, this sounds pretty good to me. I typically am a sucker for good historical fiction!

    • Helen says:

      It is good! I just don’t love it as much as the other Howatch books I’ve read. The Starbridge series has never really appealed to me but it sounds as though I should try it.

    • Helen says:

      I think Penmarric deserves to be considered a classic of the historical fiction genre. I personally enjoyed The Wheel of Fortune even more, though!

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