The Rich Earth is the first in a series of four novels following the story of one English family, the Kendals, over the course of more than a hundred years. This particular book, first published in 1980, is set during the Wars of the Roses, one of my favourite periods of history, which is what drew me to it; however, the historical setting is little more than a backdrop as the Kendals spend most of their time on their country estate in rural Devon and only have occasional involvement with the political and military conflict unfolding elsewhere.
The main protagonist of The Rich Earth is Elizabeth Sheldyke who, as the novel opens in 1468, is being married off to Daniel Heron, a much older man who has made his fortune from the tin mines for which Devon is famous. During the journey to her new home and the future that awaits her, Elizabeth briefly meets John Kendal, a young man from Yorkshire who is on his way to London where he is going to be apprenticed to a goldsmith. Time passes and Elizabeth settles into her new life at Heron Manor until, after twelve years of marriage, Daniel dies, leaving her a widow. Shortly afterwards she is reunited with John Kendal who becomes her second husband, but although she loves John, it will be a difficult relationship marred by John’s feelings of inadequacy at living off his wife’s money and by their inability to produce the child and heir they desperately want.
I wasn’t very impressed with this book at first – it seemed like too much of a romance novel with nothing else going on – but it improved as I got further into it and more characters and storylines were introduced. As I’ve said, the Kendals and their neighbours are usually quite detached from events taking place on the battlefield or at court (as far as they are concerned, it makes little difference to them which king wins the war, as either way people like themselves will be taxed to pay for it). However, later in the book, during the Cornish rebellions of 1497, our characters are drawn into the Battle of Deptford Bridge, the siege of Exeter and the invasion by the pretender to the throne, Perkin Warbeck.
The central relationship at the heart of the book – between Elizabeth and John – was difficult to read at times; Pamela Oldfield doesn’t shy away from portraying the misogyny of the period, which includes domestic abuse and cruelty. I felt that Elizabeth was much more forgiving of John’s faults than I would have been, but I suppose that’s easy enough to say from a modern point of view. On the other hand, Elizabeth does value her independence, involving herself in the running of the Heron mines and making decisions on behalf of the estate and its people.
The second book in the Heron saga is This Ravished Land. I haven’t been left feeling desperate to read it immediately, but I haven’t ruled it out either and will keep it in mind for the future.
Book 24/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.