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.


  1. Rosamunde Pilcher also sets many of her books in Cornwall. Georgette Heyer's Penhallow is also set there.

    1. I've only read one Pilcher, I forgot about her! I read The Shell-Seekers and I did like it. I've read some of Heyer but I don't think Penhallow was one of them, I shall have to look.

  2. I do like tales of inheritance and family stories of noble houses. I am reading House of Trelawney by Hannah Rothschild right now, a stately home or castle in serious disrepair in Cornwall area, set in 2008. Can Trelawney be saved? I enjoyed the different book covers you show.

    1. I did like House of Trelawney! Very good modern take on the crumbling family home problem (would love to see a Downton Abbey reboot like that -- maybe with Lady Mary as the ancient Dowager! Of course it couldn't be set in the 21st century, would have to be the 1980s).

      I do love looking at old book covers, it's fun to see how they evolve. And I like breaking up a blog post with images, I find it much easier to read, especially if they get lengthy!

  3. Glad you enjoyed this! Susan Howatch is SO gifted! I wish she hadn't stopped writing. I am sure it is more than 40 years since I read Penmarric so I barely remember it but I am sure my mother told me it was inspired by Eleanor of Aquitaine (I suppose she is the Janna character). I think I have read all her books, even a few very weak gothics from early in her career. For a while I was obsessed by her books about the Church of England and I am not sure why because the characters were almost all unpleasant or annoying or both. Yet, I couldn't wait for them to come out and I have them all in a box in the attic.

    I would also like to visit Cornwall. My UK trip got canceled due to Covid but maybe next year.

  4. Hi Karen, I have not read Penmarric but I just finished Scandalous Risks the fourth novel in Susan Howatch's wonderful Starbridge series of novels. I cannot recommend this series highly enough.

  5. I love this book and two of Susan Howatch's others - Cashelmara and The Wheel of Fortune. When I first read Penmarric I knew very little about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine so the references didn't mean much to me, but when I re-read it a few years ago, with more historical knowledge, I was surprised by how closely the fictional storyline mirrors the historical one!

  6. I read this book when it was published fifty years ago. I was 13.

  7. I know I would just love this book. Like you, I am fascinated by Cornwall thanks to not only Daphne du Maurier and Poldark but also Doc Martin and King Arthur! It's definitely on the short list of places I want to visit in the not to distant future.

    And, I loved family sagas and historical fiction. I searched on Susan Howatch because her name is so familiar and I thought I might have read something by her, but nothing rang a bell.

    Thanks for the tip about HII and Eleanor--I will bear that in mind when I read it.

  8. Like Kathy and CLM above, I have read Howatch's Starbridge novels and I loved them. They were so compulsively readable. I really want to read her historical novels now. She really can spin a story and make the reader care about unlikable characters!

  9. I'm a little late to this party, but I loved Penmarric so much I couldn't resist leaving a comment about how much I enjoyed your review! Like you, I was enormously attracted by the setting (I'd really love to see Cornwall, if travel ever becomes easier) and I love big, sprawlling family epics. I've read several of Howatch's other novels, all of which I enjoyed in varying degrees, but Penmarric remains my favorite. It's just the thing to jolt you out of a reading slump!

  10. Gosh this takes me back. This book was so popular in its day that just about all my friend's mums were reading it. It's always interesting to see whether books that were so popular for a while have stood the test of time


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