Margaret James, Why did I become a saga writer?
I’ve always been a lover of long, sweeping stories about headstrong, determined but often misguided heroes and heroines, stories full of fascinating subsidiary characters who dip in and out of the action and make it as richly-textured as a mediaeval tapestry.
My favourite periods are the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, that time in history when Britannia really did rule the waves, and half the map of the world was coloured pink, but there was also intolerable injustice, poverty and cruelty here at home. Just how did our more affluent ancestors deal with being the richest nation in the world and knowing there were people in this nation starving to death, freezing to death and working to death? How did women deal with having no real power or authority, even over their own children and their own bodies, all of which belonged to their husbands?
Two novels which taught me a lot about the state of the nation and are also cracking good reads are Susan Howatch’s wonderful sagas Penmarric and Cashelmara. Penmarric was her first international bestseller and it richly deserved its success. Set in
, it tells the story of Mark Castallack who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, even if he ruins the lives of other people in the process. When he meets the gorgeous Janna Roslyn, he decides she’ll be his for life. But there’s no happy-ever-after in this story, in which death and disaster chase Mark and his descendents down the years in much the same way as they chased the English King Henry II and his ill-fated family, whose destinies foreshadow those of the Castallacks. The message of this novel is that it’s foolish to covet what you can’t have, but knowing that never stops anyone, does it? Cornwall
Cashelmara is in some ways a gentler read about nicer people – well, some of them are nicer, there is a truly horrible bad guy in this novel – and it has a more uplifting ending. It’s set in
, a troubled place in the late nineteenth century. The hero, Edward de Salis, is a bitter, angry, passionate and disappointed man, and his son can’t hope to live up to his father’s expectations of him, so there’s trouble ahead. Once again, Susan Howatch uses real people and their destinies to illuminate her story, and this time she bases her characters on Edward I, his ill-fated son Edward II and his hugely successful grandson, Edward III. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the mediaeval history. But if you do know what happened to the real historical figures, you’ll get an additional frisson from these later stories. Ireland
Both novels are told from the first person points of view of the central characters, each taking up the baton as the stories develop or – as often happens – a narrator dies. There’s a lot of death in these stories! This first person narration means you really get to know these people and want them to be happy, which mostly they’re not, alas. But they do have some great times now and again, even while they’re on the road to ruin.
I’d love to be able to read these books again for the first time. If you haven’t ever read them, do give them a go. You’re in for a treat.