Several years ago I came across Cynthia Harrod-Eagles's Morland Dynasty books in the now-defunct Common Reader catalog. If you're familiar with the Common Reader you'll know what a really great selection of British books they had. I still think it's a pity they folded as the books they offered were the sort you weren't likely to find in local bookshops and you could easily browse the titles. I ordered many a book from them including the entire set, which at the time was about 25 books, of the Morland Dynasty, an epic story that follows one Yorkshire family through history from the early 1400s into the twentieth century. Yes, that's me lusting after these books and still buying each new instalment. And it was a huge splurge to buy them all in one go, but I'm glad I did. Harrod-Eagles is now up to book #34 which is set in 1925 (forthcoming January 2012).
After a long hiatus I finally picked up book six, The Long Shadow, this year. It's set during the reign of King Charles II at the time of the Restoration. I have to be honest, as much as I have enjoyed the Morland saga so far, The Long Shadow, proved to be something of a slog for me. I've been blaming my tepid desire to pick this book up (and I started it early in the year) on not being terribly interested in Restoration England. But the truth of the matter is, while Restoration England isn't my favorite era, it's more an intense dislike of Anunciata Morland. Each book generally focuses on one branch of the Morland family or just a few characters in particular (though the cast of characters tends to be fairly large). I've rarely had such a visceral reaction to an unlikable character before. Truly, though, Anunciata takes the cake.
Her story began in The Black Pearl (book five) where she is a young woman making her way in the royal court. Ambitious and self-serving she marries well and becomes a countess. Her ties to the court are close and she is fiercely loyal. I generally like strong female characters, but along with her strengths, Anunciata is also spoiled, self absorbed and selfish. She's loyal to the Court and loyal to the Morland family name, but not always very loyal to her husband(s) or all of her children. Her behavior is sometimes maddening!
It might make sense to backtrack a little, however. I wish I had written proper posts for the previous books so I can look back on my thoughts, but I didn't. While the stories can be read individually, they really work better if you read them in numerical order. A few highlights (and sorry, this is more for me than you) wouldn't be amiss in case I let the next book languish longer than I should. It all begins with an arranged marriage in The Founding. Eleanor Courteney, the ward of a wealthy family and herself an admirer (though would prefer to be more) of Richard, Duke of York, is married off to Robert Morland, the son of an ambitious sheep farmer. Yes, from so inauspicious a beginning will arise the influential Morland dynasty. Although not entirely happy in her situation Eleanor sets her mind to her task of raising heirs and building up the Morland wool empire. Already in this first book the Morlands find themselves involved in court intrigues aligning themselves with the Yorkist cause.
The saga continues with The Dark Rose set against the turbulent reign of Henry VIII. Eleanor's great grandson Paul has inherited the estate, but his own leadership of the family empire is marked by jealousy and resentment. By now there are several branches of Morlands, so tensions sometimes run high between family members. Paul is unhappy with his life and looks for solace outside the marital bonds resulting in a bastard son who is more loved than Paul's legitimate son. Once again there is a Morland presence at court--Paul's niece Nanette is maid-in-waiting to the doomed Anne Boleyn. Although not surprising, the Morlands are staunch Catholics, but what is interesting is that many of the family members remain so even after the Tudor line ends. This sets up the story (and the family) for lots of drama and heartache in the future.
The Morland's fortunes rise and fall depending in part who is in power. In The Princeling Elizabeth I reigns and while some of the Morland family follow the new Protestant faith more of them still adhere to the old religion. The family looks north to expand their empire, but not all the Morlands end up in happy circumstances. The Scottish court is a dangerous place to be as Lettice Morland discovers. It's interesting to see how far of a reach the Morlands have as other members set off with Sir Francis Drake or join a traveling theater troupe.
Two of the main characters in The Oak Apple are brothers, one who will inherit (though he doesn't act much like an elder son), and one who should inherit. Yes, imagine the problems. The elder will soon be returning home (from Oxford and the beyond) with a Puritan wife. Of course loyalties will be split when war breaks out under Charles I's reign. After years of peace and plenty civil war now threatens the stability of the Morland family, too. No doubt looking forward a bit for things to come Morlands even set foot in the New World.
Things have been pretty rocky for the Morlands after the Civil War, but in The Black Pearl Oliver Cromwell's protectorate has come to and end and Catholic Charles II is in power. Much of the Morland's power and wealth has been lost, so Ralph, the current heir, must set about rebuilding the family's fortunes. His beautiful cousin, Anunciata, is sent off to court in hope that new ties can be made which will aid the family, and she has much success there. She has a mysterious past as it's unknown who her father was, and hints are that he is someone powerful.
And this brings me back full circle with The Long Shadow, which continues Anunciata and Ralph's story. Anunciata, now a Countess and also a widow, weds Ralph who has also lost his wife. Yes, cousins, but that wouldn't have caused a blink of an eye in Restoration England. Ralph is a bit downtrodden by now and can't quite manage Anunciata who spends most of her time at court. She is much loved by King Charles II and Prince Rupert and always seems to be in the thick of things. While the Morland estates begin once more to flourish, Ralph is alone and looks for solace elsewhere. Upon the death of King Charles II, James II takes the throne--the last Catholic king. Rebellion breaks out once again and the Morland estate is a target due to their Catholicism. As difficult as I found Anunciata throughout the story I will say she did redeem herself the tiniest bit through her resolve to defend Morland Place against rebels. And at the end of the story James II has stepped down from the throne in favor of his daughter, Mary, and her Dutch husband William. So more uncertainty for the Morland family!
Since I want to keep the momentum going I've already started reading The Chevalier (book #7). Guess who's back? Anunciata is once again going to play a role in this story, though I am not sure how much she will be center stage as she is to follow King James II into exile as remaining at Morland Place is too dangerous for the family. Anunciata is far too well known and too close to the Royal family.
I really do enjoy these books and I'd like to make more steady progress with the series, so I plan on always keeping one on my night table. I admit that some of the subtleties and nuances of British history do go over my head a bit occasionally, but Harrod-Eagles really does make it all very accessible and enjoyable to read about through the lives of the Morland family. It's easy to get caught up in their stories. I'm only hoping that Anunciata will have mellowed a little this time out. And once I get through with The Chevalier it is onwards into the 18th century finally!