The Dark Rose is the second book in Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’s ambitious historical fiction series that follows the fictional Morland family from the time of the Wars of the Roses to World War I (with more volumes to come). This book is set during the time of Henry VIII.
Most of the book focuses on two overlapping strands. One strand takes place at Morland Place in York, where Paul, the current head of the family, faces a variety of challenges: keeping the family’s wool and cloth business going during a famine, making sure their workers are happy and productive, living with a wife he doesn’t love, and protecting the mistress he is devoted to. As the novel opens, Paul is a bitter man who only seems happy (and pleasant) when he’s with his mistress, but several personal and community tragedies alter his perspective.
The other strand follows, Nanette, Paul’s niece, who serves in the court of Anne Boleyn and later of Katherine Parr. Harrod-Eagles takes a sympathetic view of Anne. Nanette becomes her confidante, even as she deals with her own romantic quandaries. A one-time indiscretion leaves her unwilling to marry, believing that she is married in the eyes of God to her lover. With Nanette, as with Paul, events conspire to change her attitude. (But I’m going to leave just what happens as a surprise.)
I like Harrod-Eagles’s approach, showing the history through the eyes of people who were near, but not in, the spotlight. It gives her liberty to interpret the behavior of famous historical figures without putting thoughts in their heads. It also allows for more insight into day-to-day life. I was fascinated by the accounts of how the Morland business evolved, how their relationships with their servants changed over time, and how the religious conflicts of the day affected people outside the seats of power. And as in The Founding, she allows her characters to be 16th-century people with 16th-century beliefs. (Paul and Nanette both express views about their servants that sound ridiculously condescending to this modern reader, but it rings true.)
Is she accurate? That I can’t say, not knowing much about life in the period. This being a novel, Harrod-Eagles is under no obligation to cite sources, although she does list several books she consulted, some of which are contemporary sources, so that’s a good sign. I’m looking forward to reading more and seeing where the story goes.