Storm clouds

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles is best known for her Morland Dynasty family series. A broad saga that sweeps from the 15th century up to (currently) 1931 following the lives and loves of a British family, set against an historical backdrop. She's a busy novelist writing one or two of the Morland dynasty every year since 1980.

More recently she's branched out in other directions. There have been the, well-reviewed, Bill Slider murder mysteries (which I must get round to reading), and, most recently, a new family saga, this time set against the events of the First World War. I'd read several of the earlier Morland saga in my teens and early twenties, and am intending to re-visit them in the near future, but when I saw Goodbye Piccadilly, I couldn't wait to read it.

One thing I did find rather off-putting about the Morland Dynasty was the sheer size of each volume - they are hefty; and if you're going to read something the size of The Brothers Karamazov, why not read that instead? Goodbye Piccadilly was much more easily readable, in fact it was so good that I galloped through it over one weekend.

I loved this novel, and can't wait to get on to the next one in the series. Goodbye Piccadilly follows the lives of a pleasant, ordinary, middle-class English family, the Hunters. Father is a banker, while mother has distant connections to the nobility. They live in an equally pleasant detached house in a village in Buckinghamshire, that is rapidly growing as the railway has brought it to the edge of the London commuter belt. The oldest sons are away at university, the youngest at school, while one daughter has aspirations to marry the son of the lord of the manor, and the younger daughter is horse-mad. They are on friendly terms with their servants, and it feels as though life has always been like this and will continue like it forever.

However, remote events in Sarajevo which appear to have no connection with the lives that are being lived in Britain, will catapult the Hunters and their country into a time of profound change. What I loved about this novel was the dexterity with which Cynthia Harrod-Eagles told a great story - you got a real feel for the characters, and their sense of place, both within the geography of the country, and within the social order of the period - while also informing you surprisingly fully about the history behind the period.

In common with many people, I've got a fair knowledge of the run-up to the First World War, and the events surrounding it. What has always puzzled me however was the rush to war by so many young men, who had never served in the army, and when there seemed little threat of invasion. As the winds of war gathered pace in the novel, I realised for the first time how sudden the descent was into war, at least for the ordinary man in the street. There had been little warning that the events happening in a remote part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire would cause a domino effect across Europe. Indeed it appears that the mobilisation of Russian troops was principally caused by a misreport in a newspaper. Once the countries of Europe descended into war, there was a headlong panic, which was represented in part, by the joining-up of vast swathes of young men, eager to defend their country; for the militarism of the Kaiser had led many people to believe that once France was conquered by the German army, Britain would be next.

Harrod-Eagles is excellent at conveying this panic, while also setting it against normal life. I discovered much to my surprise, for example, that some small farming communities didn't even know the war had started till several weeks after the event. Through her characters she is able to encompass a vast panorama of British people on the verge of sliding into war - from the suffragette learning to drive for the first time, the horse-mad girl coming to terms with horses being used as weapons of war, the soldier seeing the destruction of total war for the first time, to the great Christmas truce of 1914. This is a wonderfully readable novel within a great historical context, and a good dollop of romance, what is there not to enjoy? Evocative, exciting, and great story-telling; a thoroughly good read.


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