Once again, it’s time for my monthly installment in the Morland family chronicles. The Mirage is the 22nd book in Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’s historical fiction series about the many generations of a single English family.
This book begins in 1870, not long before the Franco-Prussian War, which gets some attention in the novel, although most of the space is devoted to the Morland family and how changing social mores are affecting them. The action is split between London and York, which means the book lacks the tight focus of some of my favorites in the series, but it doesn’t have the scattered feel of the books that try to cover too much.
Harrod-Eagles also makes the transition between generations more effectively than she sometimes has. A few novels in the series have served mostly as transitional pieces in which not much happens except the transfer of interest from one generation to the next. Here, instead of making a gradual shift from Charlotte, Fanny, and Benedict to Venetia, George, and Henrietta, she starts off the novel with a new generation just coming of age. That’s not to say that the parents are absent, but the driving force of the action comes from the young, right from the start of the book.
The York storyline involves the new master of Morland Place, George, making massive changes to the house, all the while callously sending away any brothers and sisters who might cause unnecessary expense or resist the changes. Once again, thanks to a hasty marriage on George’s part, we have a Morland mistress who is thoroughly despicable. I’ll be interested to see how the house develops in the long term, but this part of the story lacked any serious emotional punch for me.
One of the more interesting threads was a coming-of-age tale in which young Henrietta Morland is sent off to become a bride with no idea of what she is supposed to do or how she is supposed to behave. She worships her new husband, an older rector who sees her as an ethereal sylph rather than a flesh-and-blood woman. Their relationship takes on some extremely troubling dimensions, and my feelings about Henrietta’s marriage went back and forth. I love that Harrod-Eagles can do this. She takes a terrible situation and imbues it with a logic that fits the time in which it is set. That’s not to say that she justifies a husband’s bad behavior, but she shows how both partners in a marriage might find themselves taking on roles that we would consider unacceptable today. And she lets relationships change. By the end of the book, Henrietta is in a completely different emotional place, and I’m left wondering how her husband will react.
I also really enjoyed reading about Venetia, who is following in the footsteps of her foremothers and taking an interest in medicine. Her interest, however, goes beyond reforming hospitals, helping medics on the battlefield, or even volunteering to give comfort to the sick. She wants to become a doctor. The novel is set after Elizabeth Blackwell was first listed in the medical register but before the establishment of the London School of Medicine for Women. So Venetia can see the possibility, but little opportunity.
Of course, I love a story about women breaking down barriers, especially when it is as embedded in the real history as this appears to be (rather than having women so far ahead of their time as to be ridiculous). However, the thing that continues to please me about this series is watching the previous generations react to new ideas. At times, even the most enterprising and forward-thinking elders balk at their children’s impulse to push the boundaries. Sometimes their concern rises from of a desire to maintain propriety, as you might expect, but sometimes it’s from a desire to protect their enterprising children from the pain they encountered in their own struggles.
It’s hard to believe that I’m getting close to the last 10 books of the series, and at the rate I’m going, I’ll be caught up before Harrod-Eagles finishes Book 34. It has continued to be worth the effort, and the one-a-month approach has been perfect.