Book review: The Dancing Years by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

Five hundred years of history and a cast of thousands...the 33rd book in the addictive Morland Dynasty series has just hit the shelves.

Saturday, 20th November 2010, 12:53 pm

Harrod-Eagles began her Morland marathon 30 years ago when she published The Founding and introduced a family whose fortunes we have followed from the Wars of the Roses to the opening decades of the 20th century.

The Morland family of York has burgeoned since sheep farmer’s son Robert Morland married Eleanor Courtney, the wealthy ward of the influential Lord Edmund Beaufort, in 1434.

There are now two main branches of the family – one still in York and one now in London – and other family members have scattered to far flung locations like Russia.

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The secret of the books’ overwhelming success has been not just the continuity of witnessing one family evolve over the centuries but the fascinating perspective it has given on English life.

We have watched generations of Morlands live through war and peace, political upheaval and social revolution, times of pestilence and periods of plenty.

Through a rich tapestry of events, some routine and others momentous, they have experienced love and passion, envy and betrayal, births and deaths, great fortune and miserable penury.

The Dancing Years opens in 1919 as the euphoria of the Armistice fades, the nation counts the cost of its million dead or disabled, and unemployment, strikes and shortages start to hit home.

In York, Henrietta is taking on more domestic staff, a luxury beyond dream just six months ago, but the new crop of women are bolder, less reserved and lack the deference of the pre-war years.

Her brother Teddy, who owns textile factories and three department stores, is confident of a post-war boom as the world grows hungry again for British products.

In London, Venetia, the Countess of Overton, has lost both her husband and eldest son during the war years and her younger son and new heir, Oliver, is working as a doctor at a specialist plastic surgery unit for disfigured servicemen.

Oliver and his assorted cousins are not happy; they are the generation that saw things no man should see and have found relief in a mood of almost violent merry-making.

Meanwhile, a new world is struggling to be born and as long as the music lasts, they will keep on dancing.

Harrod-Eagles always provides sound historical background to her novels, deftly intertwining the domestic with the social and political.

Beautifully observed and full of characters whose lives reflect the events and concerns of the period, The Dancing Years is an enthralling stand-alone story as well as another fascinating chapter in the Morland saga.

(Sphere, hardback, £19.99)