The Emperor is the 11th book in Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’s Morland Dynasty series, a series that explores English history through the eyes of one Yorkshire family. This book begins in 1795 and covers the early years of Napoleon’s rule in Europe. These years require several of the Morlands to go to sea and do battle with the French, but for the most part, the Morlands are not directly involved with the events that made the history books during that time. Instead, domestic concerns take center stage, as the children of Jemima Morland, current head of the family, adjust to marriage, parenthood, and adult life in general.
Most of Jemima’s children seem doomed to be unlucky in love. They either form unfortunate attachments to people they can never be with, or they make marriages based on convenience and never find love there. Even the one happy marriage among the children is fraught with heartache because the husband must be at sea most of the time. Jemima is deeply troubled by the turn things have taken:
We have survived so much we Morlands . . . War and famine and rebellion, poverty, dissension, religious persecution: we came through them all, and they made us stronger. Only now I wonder if we can survive through peace and prosperity. Something has gone out of us, some virtue, and I don’t know what it is, or how to get it back.
As the series goes on, the characters are becoming more well-rounded; the more selfish characters show good will from time to time, and the virtuous characters stumble on occasion. I found reason to sympathize with almost everyone, and I wanted to give even my favorite characters a good shaking at a few points. The plot continues to be on the soapy side, with many babies of suspicious paternity, but it’s not always clear what the characters will ultimately decide to do, and that makes for enjoyable reading. And Harrod-Eagles continues to write romances in which “true love” does not necessarily lead to lifelong bliss or give one licence to break commitments. But she also depicts these sometimes unfortunate love affairs with a sympathetic eye and an understanding that it’s hard to resist what the heart wants.
The historical thread that interested me most, and that I hope Harrod-Eagles develops further, has to do with the rise of the factory system. The Morlands made much of their fortune in textiles, and one of the children’s marriages puts the family in partnership with a mill owner who appears to be mistreating his workers, particularly the children. The Morlands themselves differ in their attitudes toward poor factory workers. They clash over what it means to have a responsibility to take care of the poor and what kinds of conditions they must be obligated to provide. There are some intriguing tensions there, and I’ll be interested to see how the family business develops.