It’s hard to believe I’m now well over halfway through Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’s Moland Dynasty series, which explores the history of England (and more) through the lives of one Yorkshire family. Although I’ve enjoyed the whole series, it wasn’t until the eighth book or so that I started to really delight in the Morland story. The last several books have been great pleasures to read, and for the most part this one proved to maintain the consistent standard achieved over the course of the series.
Set in the 1840s, The Hidden Shore steps outside Morland Place to look at the lives of the Manchester and London branches of the family. These branches were left entirely out of the last book, The Abyss, which I think was the right choice. The Abyss would not have worked so well had it not had that tight focus. In fact, one of the problems that this series suffers from is a surfeit of characters and family lines to cover. So I didn’t really miss the other branches of the family when they were dropped from the last book. However, that doesn’t mean I was sorry to see them reintroduced!
The main heroine of this book, Charlotte, has been estranged from her extended family for most of her life. She hasn’t been raised to think about come-out parties and finding a mate worthy of her status. In fact, she doesn’t know what her status is and has never given any thought to finding a husband. But as the heir of her father’s hidden fortune and title, she finds that she must take her place in society and learn the rules as she goes.
A lot of this book, like others in the series, focuses on the quest for a wealthy spouse and the tension between making a suitable social match and finding love. To be honest, I’ve been glad that the last few books spent less time on society balls and whatnot because the balls and flirtations do get tedious. So when Charlotte and her cousin Fanny started donning fine clothes and meeting fine young men, I started to fret. Again? Really? Haven’t we heard this story before? But I didn’t consider how having such an unconventional heroine as Charlotte would shape the story. Charlotte’s reactions to her new social circle give freshness to the plot. Even though Charlotte’s thoughts and actions added some interesting complications, the romantic storylines generally did tend toward the predictable, perhaps more so than in previous books. Plus, I just couldn’t bring myself to care about the romances when the history was so much more interesting.
The historical background of this book is Victorian London, and there’s a lot of attention paid to the plight of the urban poor. This has been a running thread in the books that have dealt with the family’s mills in Manchester, but this book takes the characters deeper into more devastating poverty. I’ve read a lot of fiction set in the Victorian era, but I’ve rarely read such detailed descriptions of urban squalor in Victorian London. The scenes set in the hospital were particularly shocking. I think Harrod-Eagles’s focus on wealthy characters works to her advantage here. We see the awful conditions through their eyes, instead of through the eyes of people who have come to see such conditions as normal.
So overall, this was not as strong as the books immediately before it, but it was still quite good. I really like Charlotte as a character, but I worry that she is too idealized. I’m curious to see how she develops over the next few books.