Sunday, January 24, 2016

REVIEW | The Founding by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

The Founding by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
Publication Year: 1980
Genre: Historical Fiction
Series: The Morland Dynasty #1
Awards: NA
Format: Audio (from
Narrator: Christopher Scott

WHY?:  I heard about this series on the Shelf Love blog and it sounded like a brilliantly fantastic idea for a book series; that idea being to follow one family through history starting in the late 1400s and ending in the present day.

SYNOPSIS: Eleanor Courtney, who is of noble blood and secretly in love with Richard Duke of York, is against her will, forced to wed Robert Morland, a wealthy sheep farmer's son.  This marks the beginning of the Morland Family dynasty, as Eleanor's intelligence, ambition and flat-out snobbery push the family to greater and greater respectability and prominence.  The Morland family's story starts at the beginning of the War of the Roses in England when civil war and political unrest were almost a constant in England.  The book ends as Eleanor, still a force to be reckoned with at the age of 70, dies quietly in her bed.

The reading of this book took me forever and involved long hiatuses.  It didn't capture my attention and interest as much as I'd hoped but I did still feel determined to finish it even though I have no qualms about dropping a book I'm not enjoying.  It was one of those reads I struggle to rate because there are things I really liked about it and other things that drove me up a wall.  As I mentioned in two previous posts this week, (Into The Wilderness, Cast in Shadow) this is the third book I've read recently that had me so conflicted and a lot of that had to do with how the characters were written.

Let's start with the positive, shall we?  I do love historical fiction for the unique view it can give you of historic events, usually from the perspective of the "little people".  Harrod-Eagles placement of the Morland family was perfect.  Not too high that their experiences are what we already know from historical texts but high enough that they are involved with and affected by the big events of the day. Not only do we get schooled in the political machinations surrounding the English Monarchy but also the book provides a view of women's life during that period and the politics and vagaries of marriage. Because the character of Eleanor is so strong and her husband rather weak, it is possible to see that, at least for the more well-to-do, women weren't always powerless.  This is mirrored in larger events by the influence the Queens of the time had on events.  The book also touches on commerce at the time since the Morland's are in the clothing business.

I also like the perhaps more historically accurate portrayal of certain very famous historical figures. For example, Richard III is a very different person than the greedy, usurper who stalks the stage in Shakespeare's play not to mention the bloody child-killer that he seems to be when the Princes in the Tower controversy is discussed. The image of Richard that has popularly come down to us is propaganda from the Tudors who took the throne from him, possibly illegally, so they needed to paint him a villain.  Harrod-Eagles portrays him as a sensible and intelligent man who had no ambitions for the crown but reluctantly took it when his brother was killed and it was revealed that the son on the throne was a bastard.  It was nice seeing Richard being treated a bit more kindly.

Despite all that, I still had a lot of trouble getting into the book.  Eleanor is definitely the central character but it does jump around quite a bit in time and among characters.  There were long vignettes with other characters that I would start to get interested in and then... they would die or the book would jump ahead 4-5 years and we'd never get back to that character.  It was hard to get invested, especially since I did not engage with the character of Eleanor who I found arrogant and selfish.  Even though she is the central character she was also not very deeply developed.

Eleanor wasn't the sole reason the book dragged for me however.  The book straddles the line between history text book and historical fiction.  Focusing on a single family to portray the events in England during the War of the Roses should have been an effective tool for making the history more personal. The balance between the factual history bits and the fictional story can be hard to achieve and my personal preference is for the story to be tilted more towards the personal stories and dramas. This book leans a little more heavily in the direction of a more technical recounting of historical events, taking frequent asides to just lay out what is happening when there is a crucial battle or other turning point. At the same time there is not enough of an overview of the historical context so if you are not already familiar with the history of the time period, it's confusing. I am not familiar with English history during this time period so I didn't have that to lean on.  My constant vague confusion about who was doing what, also served as a barrier to engaging with the story.

Listening to the book rather than reading it exacerbated the confusion  - I could have used a chart showing all the characters and their relationships.  There are so many characters both fictional and historical and they all have very similar names, particularly the men (Edward, Richard, Tom, Henry).  If I had been reading I don't know that I would have had a problem but I found the audio hard to follow.

There are also a number of other things, added to the above, that ended up creating a good bit of distance from the narrative.  The book's internal narration is 3rd person omniscient which keeps things very impersonal. The characters, because there are a lot of them, are not developed very deeply, not even Eleanor.  I didn't care about any of them.  Finally,the narration. I don't think the narrator is bad per se but I found him irritating, particularly how he read the women.

This book was a bit of a struggle but despite that I am somewhat interested to continue with the series.  I am much more familiar with the history of Tudor England so I'd like to see where she goes with the family during that time period.  This was a very early book for the author as well so maybe the writing style and character development improves?  If you've read this series, let me know what you think!

FINAL VERDICT: This book is the start of a Historical Fiction series with an interesting premise that doesn't quite work as executed.  I wanted a more personal narrative and characters to get into and this didn't quite provide that.  3 out of 5 Stars.

Other Opinions Are Available: Burton Book Review | Starting Fresh

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