With her latest novel, Cavendon Hall, Barbara Taylor Bradford welcomes readers into a new series chronicling the lives and loves within an English country estate. It’s 1913 and Charles Ingham, the sixth Earl of Mowbray, finds his family unraveling in the wake of a tragic attack on his innocent teenage daughter, Lady Daphne. As he and his wife attempt to stop the spread of rumors and vigilantly guard Daphne’s broken spirit, the Inghams know that the only family they can surely put their trust in is the Swanns, a service family whose ancestors have sworn an oath to the Inghams for centuries. Life at Cavendon Hall has only begun to spiral out of control as Charles’s cousin Hugo returns, a successful and charismatic businessman who in his youth was banished from Cavendon to America under mysterious circumstances. While the threat of war looms over the lives of both the Inghams upstairs and the Swanns downstairs, secrets will be revealed, lines will be crossed, and love will be both rekindled and found anew.
With Cavendon Hall, Barbara Taylor Bradford does a commendable job of building her own unique story from the history of Edwardian manor houses and the relationships between the nobility and their servants, a time and topic that’s been sensationalized by the Downton Abbey phenomenon. When an author deals with the basic material and, essentially, the very formula of a big mainstream franchise – in this case, the upstairs-downstairs relationships and the impact of World War I on the lifestyles of both nobility and servants – it can become precarious territory, with the story being just a step or two away from feeling like a rendition rather than an independent work. Cavendon Hall holds its own, however, perhaps in part because Bradford conceived the story years before Downton ever made its premiere. The Inghams and the Swanns are all original, interesting characters and their stories keep the reader on edge with curiosity. As Downton enthusiasts will know, along with a highly active English manor come a big family and a full working staff: a complex cast, to say the least. The pages of the novel are chock-full of new faces for the reader to keep track of. I enjoyed making a project out of getting to know the characters, making family trees for the Inghams and the Swanns as I went along. One of the things that really separated Cavendon Hall‘s setting from that of Downton Abbey for me was that the Swann family was presented at a higher level than servants in the house. Given a rich history of involvement with the Inghams and Cavendon, the Swanns are afforded a special place as confidantes and even defendants of the Inghams, and as a result the interactions between the characters allow the reader to witness something more personal than the servant-master relationships that are more typically explored in these sorts of stories.
The story of the first Cavendon novel covers a lot of ground, focusing most largely on Lady Daphne –just one of the earl’s six children – as she overcomes a dark tragedy, and as we follow her life through several years across the whole of the war we also observe some of the relationships between other members of house and staff: whether the friendship between another Ingham daughter, DeLacy, and young Cecily Swann, or the special connection shared between Charles Ingham and the Swann family matriarch, Charlotte. When the Ingham family’s long lost cousin Hugo returns to the country, he brings with him the power to either save or ruin a family already on the brink. The resulting drama unfolds at an easy pace, with plenty of surprises in store. I think the one thing that would have really made Canvendon Hall shine for me was if Bradford had allowed her writing to flow more creatively throughout the narrative. With so much to juggle – character development, historical detail, and a multi-plot story – there gets to be little room for artistry in the writing. Occasionally some scenes in the novel play out with less feeling as a result, and for some readers that can invite a bit of detachment. I would love to see the series continue with more emotion woven into the prose; but where the novel may have lacked some poetic flair for me, it made up for it in the uniqueness of the characters and the intricacy of their relationships. I was constantly intrigued by everyone at Cavendon Hall, curious about what the future would reveal and how the different characters would handle their own struggles. On the whole, Cavendon Hall is an interesting start to a new series and its engaging story lays the groundwork for plenty of post-war social intrigue.
Title: Cavendon Hall
Author: Barbara Taylor Bradford
Genre: historical fiction, romance
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Release date: April 1, 2014
Source: Get Red PR (C/O)
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