Saturday, September 25, 2021

Penmarric by Susan Howatch

The original hardcover image from 1971.
Sadly my copy was missing the dustjacket.

“I was ten years old when I first saw Penmarric and twenty years old when I first saw Janna Roslyn, but my reaction to both was identical.”

One of the big fat books I meant to read this summer was Penmarric, an epic family saga set in Cornwall. Between Daphne du Maurier and the Poldark series (not to mention Doc Martin) I've developed a small fascination with Cornwall, though I've never actually visited. I do love a good multi-generational saga and the setting absolutely sold it for me. I was at The Strand bookstore in New York a couple of years ago and picked up a vintage hardcover for about $7. My edition was more than 700 pages but I had no trouble finishing it in less than a week.

First published in 1971, the book begins with the historic estate of Penmarric in dispute -- daughter Maud Castellack thinks she should inherit, but naturally as a woman in the late Victorian era, she can't -- with no immediate male heir her father has willed it away to a cousin. Maud won't give up, trying desperately to win the estate for her elder son Mark, narrator of the book's first section. On a trip to Cornwall to finally meet his cousin, young Mark Castellack sees a beautiful widow in a desolate churchyard and is instantly smitten. 

A 1980s mass-market reprint

Janna Roslyn is ten years his senior and has her own slightly checkered history, but Mark becomes obsessed with her, eventually winning her as his bride. The narrator changes for the second section of the book and we get Janna's POV.

So we learn Janna's history and it moves on to the next generation of the Castellack heirs to Penmarric. The book spans about fifty years, ending just before World War II, with five different narrators, and includes four generations of the extended family. It's definitely not literature, but nonetheless I enjoyed it. It reminded me very much of the historical family sagas I read when I was a teenager, like Evergreen by Belva Plain and The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, though both of those were published a bit later, in the late 1970s. 

A Penguin reprint from 1989, very Gothic!

I wouldn't call it a bodice-ripper, it's definitely a step up from Judith Krantz or Danielle Steele, but I can see that it's very much of its time. Even though it's mostly set in the first half of the 20th century, there are some story elements that would have been a lot more timely in the 1970s. It's not especially graphic but it would have been far too scandalous if it had been written earlier. 

I particularly liked the setting, as always, and the descriptions of Penmarric and the bleak Cornish countryside. I also really liked how the first-person narration shifted. Three of the narrators were from the same generation so the reader got two different perspectives of what was happening, which I liked. For the most part, the characters are pretty awful, but the author made me (mostly) sympathize with them while I was reading their point of view. 

Paperback copy of a French-language edition from1972. 
Nice image, but it doesn't quite capture the same feeling as the other covers.

I realized after finishing that Penmarric was inspired loosely on Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and there are epigraphs between each chapter which would make sense to anyone who knew the history or had bothered to read them. (I tend to skip over those bits so I didn't get it at the time.) I do love a great epic novel and I was in a bit of reading slump, so this was just the thing for late summer (can I call it a summer read since I finished it after Labor Day?) Susan Howatch has written several other books and a couple of them are still available at my library. There was also a BBC adaptation in the late 1970s which you can find on Youtube. 

So -- a very entertaining, retro read, absolutely perfect for the summer. If I were on a vacation on the Cornish coast, this is the book I would bring with me.