Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book Review - The Founding, by Cynthia Harrod Eagles

This classic in the historical fiction genre, the first in a series ranging from the 15th through the 20th centuries, is being re-released by Sourcebooks Landmark thirty years after it was first published in the UK. I read at least the first 10 books in the series during my teens, so was eager to revisit it when given the chance to review the Sourcebooks edition.

It was all I remembered. Rich in historical details, populated by compelling and very real characters and a true page-turner. Set in Yorkshire, The Founding begins with the marriage of Robert Morland and Eleanor Courteney. She is a reluctant bride, already half in love with Richard, the dashing Duke of York. He is the sole heir to his father's Yorkshire holding, built up by hard work and determination. Though the match falters at first, with Eleanor determined not to give in to her lowered circumstances and Richard too shy to stand up to his formidable bride, soon enough they come to an understanding and settle into a comfortable marriage.

Within a few years they have a brood of children, a burgeoning wool business bolstered by Eleanor's ambition and torn loyalties as the Wars of the Roses begin. Though a Lancastrian by virtue of her Beaufort guardians, Eleanor's true allegiance is to the House of York. Soon enough they both have to choose once and for all which side they will support. That decision does not come without a price as battles ensue, leading to losses on both sides.

Eleanor is the heart of this story, her strength and resilience are what holds the family together. But the secondary characters, especially Richard, are equally well-drawn and central to the appeal of this book. Ms. Harrod-Eagles makes you care about them and their lives. There is much to both cheer for and shed tears for as Eleanor and Richard's children, grand-children and great-grandchildren come of age in an era well-known for its political and social turmoil.

Fans of historical fiction will delight in the many small details of every-day life woven into the narrative. I especially liked the portrayal of religious devotion as something natural and matter-of-fact.

On a few occasions the prose does seem a little stilted, but for the most part it pulls the reader into the story and moves along at a comfortable pace. The main characters participate in many of the central historical events of the period, ensuring that for the most part the reader experiences them rather than just hearing a recitation of facts. Only once does the author slip in this, with the events surrounding the seizure of the young king by the Duke of Gloucester. Even so, she is a skilled enough writer to pull off this "info dump" with aplomb. Overall I was transported back in time and was disappointed when this volume of the series reached its conclusion.

For those with an interest in medieval history, be aware that this is a very Yorkist story, with a sympathetic portrayal of Richard III and his reign. If you are partial to the Beaufort/Tudor side of the story, this might not be the book for you. However, you will miss out on one of the true cornerstones of historical ficiton of the late 20th century. I look forward to rereading more of the Morland saga in the coming years.