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.