This month’s installment in my read-through of Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’s Morland Dynasty series seemed particularly relevant this past week, as the news stories here in the U.S. were dominated by legislation for health care reform. As I listened to news reports about the legislative wrangling involved, I was reading in The Poison Tree about similar wrangling involved in the passing of the 1832 Reform Act in Britain.
Although the movements, past and present, were about different types of reform, the debate touched on some familiar issues. Characters debate the ethics of using procedural loopholes to swing the vote for reform their way, asking whether stretching the rules to do what you know is right is the best course—after all, what will happen when the other side has the power to do the same? And then there’s the debate related to factory reform, where characters make arguments like this:
Why should the Commissioners provide the town with fire-engines, at such enormous cost to the rate-payers? If the town kept no engines, private fire-offices would provide them, and the fire competition between the fire-offices would be such that the town would be better served—and at no expense to us!
Sounds familiar, no? And just as the present-day debate has turned extremely ugly in some quarters, some of those involved in the debates surrounding the Morland family couldn’t show restraint, and in the world of the Morlands, the results are tragic.
Although reform is the primary historical issue covered in The Poison Tree, there are also some descriptions of the rise of the railroads and mining operations in the north of England—I suspect the railroads will become much more important in the next installment.
Of course, besides the history, Harrod-Eagles offers up plenty of typical Morland drama, Births, deaths, marriages, affairs, and more are all on the menu here. I found this to actually be one of the darkest of the Morland books so far because so many of the main characters succumbed to depression and despair at some point in the story. And then there are the Gothic twists that culminate in one of the most chilling endings yet in a Morland book.
One of the pleasures of this series is the fact that the Morlands are not a saintly family–the family includes its share of saints, to be sure, but some of the Morlands have been quite selfish and even cruel. However, this book features quite possibly the most revolting Morland yet, made all the more so by virtue of the power he obtains. As the story moves into the period of the Brontës, we are left with a antihero straight out of a Brontë novel, alone with his servants and his young ward. The question we’re left with is whether he’ll follow the ultimately destructive path of a Heathcliff or find some sort of Rochester-esque redemption.