Morland Dynasty: The Founding by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
originally published 1980
Genre: historical fiction, family saga
Synopsis & Review: Yorkshire, 1434. Rising sheep-farmer Edward Morland arranges a beneficial marriage for his son Robert, to one Eleanor Courtenay of Dorset. She has no dowry, but comes from good family and is under the protection of Edmund Beaufort, Earl of Somerset. The arrangement is advantageous for everyone: The Morlands gain the patronage of Somerset and step up in the world, Somerset gains the service of wealthy clients, and the penniless Eleanor finally has a chance at marriage and children. Only Eleanor would prefer to not lower her consequence (thus raising theirs) by marriage to a sheep farmer. But as a penniless orphan, she has no say in the matter; while she makes the best of her situation, she continues to punish her husband Robert for not being gentleman enough for her tastes. Despite their initially ill-favored relations, Eleanor and Richard make an excellent team, and she gradually assumes leadership in the family, astutely shepherding the Morlands ever higher, from wealthy sheep farmers to merchants, to gentry. But in her heart Eleanor has cherished the memory of Richard, Duke of York, and when England is torn apart under mad Henry IV and his rapacious wife, the Morlands must choose a side.
I heard about this series a few years ago, and meant to look them up. For some reason, I was under the impression that it was a much older series, like from the fist half of the twentieth century, but I am obviously mental as this book (the first volume) was published in 1980. Huh. Perhaps my library system just didn’t have any when I looked? I do not know. I’m glad I tried looking again, though, because I found The Founding totally enjoyable. First off, I must say that some of the history is rather outdated; in thirty years, a lot of theory can and does change. That being said, Harrod-Eagles very nicely creates a vision of medieval England that is well, nice. It’s a decidedly romantic, idealized view of history that perfectly lends itself to light reading. Though the family is hardly untouched by some of the very real difficulties and turmoil of the day, it is lightly done, and the Morlands are soon concerned with something entirely different three years later–and so is the reader. But this serves to move the novel along at a quick clip; there is no lingering or malingering, which is a bonus when there’s fifty or so years of history and dozens of characters to get through. Harrod-Eagles particularly shines at depicting a vivid, colorful setting of (an ideal) medieval England, from clothing to pageantry, which will be enjoyable for casual historical fiction readers. Most characterizations are fairly shallow, however, though Harrod-Eagles avoids making opponents pure evil; for example, Somerset is depicted sympathetically, and many lesser pro-Ricardian novels don’t bother with that.
Most of the first half of the novel is largely concerned with Eleanor and Robert’s marriage, and how Eleanor comes to accept her place in it. Though the two struggle, and Eleanor has no passion for Robert–her heart belonging to the Duke of York–she does come to respect and hold affection for Robert. A driving motivation for their success in marriage stems from their mutual concern for the fortunes of their family, a genuine and realistic motivation for the period. I also appreciated a more realistic depiction of an arranged marriage than the sudden about-face that’s been used in many other novels. There are less realistic relationships depicted in the novel, from the affectionate to the hateful, but as with characterization, it is the primary relationship and protagonist that is most strongly developed.
It’s not deep, there’s no real overarching theme that I could identify, and it’s not very good history in some respects, but it was an enjoyable read, a great example of a successful and well done family saga. I look forward to supplementing my reading with further novels in the Morland Dynasty. (And there are plenty, another thirty-one to date.) Readers who enjoy making their way through a long series will be delighted.
Read also: Sarum and London by Edward Rutherford, We Speak No Treason by Rosemary Hawley Jarman, The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman
Cover: Plain buff-colored, with the author’s type largest, then a very small title below. The top quarter is a miniature painting, a family scene I believe (mine was mostly covered with various library stickers). This would be a fine, fairly tidy cover, but the painting is extremely anachronistic–looking to date from the mid-sixteenth century by my guess–which is a big minus.
The Ordnancers did a very popular scene in which the devil popped out from a trap door in the floor of the wagon to tempt Christ in the desert, with firecrackers fizzing and banging all around him; the Butchers did the Gadarene Swine, a scene that always ended in a number of bruises and cuts as the Swine allowed themselves to be driven without care for life and limb from off the side of the cart; the Taylors were performing Joseph’s wonderful coat, and the coat itself was so magnificent it dazzled the eyes and so heavy that Joseph could hardly remain upright under it. Whatever was done, it was done to the limit of logic: Herod and Judas were so magnificently wicked that the audience sometimes got carried away and tried to climb up on the wagons to assault them; God and Abraham were so beautifully noble and dignified that it moved you to tears to watch them.
25 September – 27 September