The Morland Dynasty: The Oak Apple by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
originally published 1982
Genre: Family saga, historical fiction
The Morland Dynasty: The Black Pearl by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
originally published 1982
Genre: Family saga, historical fiction
Synopsis & Review: Thomas, the little-glimpsed son of John Morland and Mary Percy, and heir of his grandfather Paul Morland (third of his name) has passed Morland Place on to his own son Edmund, who we meet in his maturity at the beginning of The Oak Apple. It’s been a good thirty or forty years since the close of the last book, and England is well into the reign of Charles Stuart, Charles I. Edmund’s eldest son Richard is troublesome, and has a particular hatred for his father’s young wife, Mary Esther (a descendant of the decidedly loathsome Mary Seymour and Jan Chapham).
Despite the (disappointing) lapse of a few decades, The Oak Apple’s protagonists are easy to get behind. Readers soon find themselves sympathizing with Mary Esther as she tries to reconcile her stepson Richard to her, though he is determined to hate her no matter what she does, blaming any disliked decision of Edmund’s on Mary Esther. As the country grows more troubled, Mary Esther and Edmund soon face their own problems, trying to square family loyalties to God, country, and king. With MaryEsther far on one side of the debate, and Edmund on the other, Morland Place itself straddles the line between rebel and loyalist. Their sons Kit and Francis, and nephew Hamil, all join up to fight for the King, under the command of Prince Rupert, while Edmund’s eldest, the difficult Richard brings home a Puritan bride, further dividing the house.
Nehemiah’s orphaned offspring, Malachi, Ruth, and Nell, are taken in at Morland Place by Mary Esther, until such a time as they can run their home The Shawes for themselves. Ruth is an odd one out: plain, uncompromising, and observant, and also painfully in love with her cousin Kit. When she cannot have him, Ruth returns to The Shawes, determined to live her life as she please, even when it means raising a bastard child conceived on the night of Marston Moor.
The Black Pearl opens as Cromwell’s Protectorate draws to a close. The Lord Protector is dead, and men (people, in theory, but in practice mostly men) wonder what will be best for England now. When Charles II is restored to England as her king, the loyal Morlands celebrate, hoping that the return of the Stuarts may also mean the return of their lands after the deprivations of the Protectorate. Like everyone else in England, they hasten to London to welcome Charles II and assure him of their constant and unwavering loyalty. Full of plans, Ruth sends her illegitimate daughter Annunciata to London as well to seek her own fortune and find herself a husband. At Charles II’s glittering courts, Annunciata will not only find love, but also discover the truth of her parentage and help usher her family to further greatness.
I put these two together for review because they are really a matched pair, in content and thematically. (The next book, The Long Shadow, might have been covered, too, but it doesn’t fit nearly as well). The Oak Apple is the Gone with the Wind of the Morland Dynasty, covering a family and country torn apart by a civil war.
It doesn’t really compare to Gone with the Wind except in that superficial sense, despite some very good battle scenes, as it never really succeeds at conveying the desperation of the besieged. Nor are Harrod-Eagles’ characters anywhere near as developed, and we don’t even get our Scarlett figure until the next book, The Black Pearl. Annunciata is meant to suggest a Scarlett (though the latter was definitely not beautiful, but rather aggressively charming); we understand this because fo the way other characters feel about her and act toward her. Ruth, like Mammy, feels enormous pride in her charge, and therefore is her harshest critic. All the men Annunciata meets desire her, and she plays on that while climbing the Stuart social ladder much as another heroine does, Amber St Clair of Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber. More apropos of the Restoration setting, Amber and Annunciata both become intimates of Charles II’s court and its inhabitants, their lives closely entwined with the Stuarts, as they acquire riches, titles, husbands, and lovers. But unlike Amber, Annunciata is no outsider; by virtue of her family connexions, she is entitled to a place at court, and is supported by her family in her endeavours. Amber, on the other hand, is an orphan wit no idea of her antecedents, and must single-handedly clamber up out of the gutter of Stuart London. I’m not sure whether it’s due simply to Winsor and Harrod-Eagles use of the same research materials, or something else, but there are moments in The Black Pearl that seem taken almost whole from Forever Amber. (There is also curiously a reference to the Savoy Palace, which as I understand it, was destroyed in Wat Tyler’s rebellion. Odd.)
One fun bit in The Oak Apple finds the Morlands in the New World, with Ambrose and Nell Morland establishing a home in the wilds of Maryland. Unfortunately, there is no mention of them in The Black Pearl; I hope they weren’t stranded by Harrod-Eagles abandoning that storyline.
Both books are entertaining, The Black Pearl slightly more so, and like all of the Morland Dynasty books, that’s what they’re meant to be. Again, Harrod-Eagles shows little qualms about killing off likable characters, and letting unlikeable ones prosper for verisimilitude. The Black Pearl also includes a moment in which a likable couple from The Oak Apple become really disappointing and unpleasant. Harrod-Eagles does put quite a bit of effort into reflecting contemporary values, which pays off, letting perceptive readers reflect on the many social changes of the last three hundred years. Either book could stand alone; readers won’t have to read a prequel to understand either volume. Fast, easy reading of a romanticized version of English history. Moments of high drama, humor, and even some emotion. Bonus: A fair number of dress descriptions!
Read also: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Forever Amber by Kathleen Windsor, I am Deborah Sampson by Paticia Clapp, The Princeling by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Dark Angels by Karleen Koen, London by Edward Rutherford, As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann
Cover: Both of these feature contemporary portraits of women on the spine, one by Lely and the other by Theodore Russell, while the covers feature later paintings of contemporary events. Consistent with the series.
It was impossible not to recognize them for what they were, men of fashion. It was also impossible not to realize that they were, despite the early house of the evening, extremely drunk. Annunciata, though fascinated, was about too withdraw, when one of them looked up and cried out.
‘There she is! There she is!’
The other looked up too, and waved his hat above his head, almost lost his balance, and almost saved himself from pitching over backwards by grabbing his horse’s mane.
‘Damn right, Jack, that’s her all right The beautiful and mysterious heiress. Your servant, Ma’am!’ He tried to bow int he saddle, and pitched forward this time, bringing himself up short with his nose on the pommel. Annunciata repressed a smile, looked haughty, and was backing off just as Parry, scandalized, dashed out to drag her back in.’
‘Damme, she has her father with her,’ the first man muttered audibly, while the second cried forlornly, ‘Don’t go in, Madam! I am longing to be your servant, madam! We are both aching to be your servant.’
11 November – 15 November