When I read The Winter Journey, the 20th book in Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’s Morland Dynasty series, I suspected that the groundwork was being laid for a book about the U.S. Civil War. My suspicions were confirmed in The Outcast. Roughly half of the novel is set in the U.S., where one of the younger Morlands has settled.
I’ve lived all my life in Virginia, where the Civil War is still much discussed, so I was curious to see what Harrod-Eagles would do with the subject. I’ve had varying degrees of familiarity with other eras and subjects that she’s covered, but none were major topics in my schooling. The Civil War, however, was covered every year. Would a British writer, who almost certainly didn’t have details about the war drummed into her head at school, get it right? Would she skim the surface, not bothering with the details that have made her writing on European wars so compelling? The U.S. Civil War is not my favorite historical topic, but I still wanted her to get it right.
Let me just say that I was impressed and delighted with her approach. The U.S. branch of the Morland family lives in South Carolina, so they fought for the Confederacy. They also were slave holders, and Harrod-Eagles handles that aspect of the story well. Given the tendency for the primary heroines of this series to be ahead of their time, the South Carolina Morland heroine does not approve of it, but she’s not in a position to do anything about it, so she must make her peace with it.
She does, however, participate in some vigorous conversations about the possible results of suddenly granting freedom to the slaves, the work ethic of enslaved people versus free people, and the proper way to manage a plantation and its people. There’s definitely a sense here of getting inside the thinking of the people of the day. I did wonder if Harrod-Eagles was trying too hard to make the Morland Confederates likable so that readers would feel comfortable being on their side. In general, though, I appreciated her approach here—depicting slavery as an evil because the institution is evil not because all the people engaged in it are evil. The reality is that many otherwise decent people owned slaves, and they almost certainly found ways to justify the practice, even if only to appease their own consciences.
Because the heroes of this book are Southerners, the North doesn’t exactly come off well. I imagine some of the comments made about Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation would rattle some readers, but given the biases of the characters, the cynical comments seem authentic. And the Northern soldiers who come through the Morland property near Charleston as the war draws to a close are altogether wicked, a view which I think has as much to do with myth as with reality. The horrible event Harrod-Eagles depicts here is an isolated incident that could have happened, but historians vary in their opinions about how much violence against civilians was committed, and what’s depicted here may or may not have been a typical civilian experience.
As always, Harrod-Eagles shines at her battle descriptions, especially when she gets right in the middle of it. The only battle that she goes into much detail about is the first Battle of Bull Run, and for the most part, I could follow the movements of the soldiers, despite the fact that I find troop movements almost hopelessly confusing. I live near Manassas and know several of the locations she mentions, and as best I could tell, she gets the geography absolutely right. She also does a nice job explaining the different fronts of the war and how and why the South eventually lost.
Although the Civil War provides the dramatic core of the book, it is not the only event covered. In fact, it doesn’t even come into the story until over 200 pages in. The reform of the divorce law comes into play, and there is continued attention given to Charlotte’s work with the poor. I am a bit concerned that the Morland romances are starting to follow a predictable pattern. I do appreciate that by following courtships and the ensuing marriages over several years, readers get to experience the way relationships grow or fizzle out or take unexpected paths, but the emotional arc could show more variation. But even if they don’t, changing attitudes and situations are keeping the series fresh enough.