The Oak Apple is the fourth book in Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’s Morland Dynasty series, which explores British history through the lives of the fictional Morland family. The primary focus of this book is the English Civil War, with forays into the rise of Puritanism and the colonization of the New World.
I know very little about the English Civil War, but this book gave me a strong sense of how traumatic this period was for many families. For the Morlands, the difficulty involves more than having the young men of the family go to war; there are also disputes regarding where family loyalties should lie. Religion also proves to be divisive when Richard, son of Edmund, the current head of the family, brings home a Puritan wife.
One of the things that I enjoy about this series is that the characters, while not exactly complex, generally avoid being cardboard stereotypes. So far, all of the Morland books have featured at least one central spunky woman, but this series is not populated entirely with brutish men and progressive women. Richard’s Puritan wife, Katherine, however, was a big disappointment. Her abhorrence of sex, even within marriage, is drawn right from the book of Puritan stereotypes and is, as far as I know, not at all typical of English Puritans of that period. Fortunately, she is not a major character, so I didn’t have too many opportunities to get annoyed at this characterization.
As much as I want accuracy in my historical fiction, I can put some lapses like this aside if the story is good. And the story here is very good, probably my favorite in the series so far. The battle scenes in particular stood out. Here, Edmund’s son Kit rides into battle on his horse, Oberon:
Yelling fiercely, Kit followed his Prince and his Captain, sword held high. The lines opposing them wavered. A frightened face, sickly white, appeared before Kit and its mouth opened in a quivering O; Kit saw the gleam of a sword, and brought his own crashing down between neck and shoulder. He felt the shock and the yield, saw vivid, shocking redness come suddenly from nowhere, spouting over his arm and hand, felt the impact of Oberon’s shoulder with the other horse. Then the other man was gone, and there was a gap ahead into which Oberon leapt, his nostrils wide with disgust and rage at the smell of blood.
This book, more than the three previous books in the series, really showed the horrors, and not just the heroics, involved in battle. Of course, there’s also romance, and one story is particular, that of Edmund’s daughter Anne, is quite lovely.
So far, the Morland series doesn’t come close to the work of Dorothy Dunnett, but it’s fun, slightly soapy historical fiction. If the series (now at 31 volumes) continues to maintain this high level of quality, I have some enjoyable reading ahead.