Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Sarum: The Novel of England, by Edward Rutherfurd

England: from the Paleolithic to the 1980s, by Jove!

Sarum: The Novel of England

Crown Books, 1987, 897 pages

In Sarum, Edward Rutherfurd weaves a compelling saga of five English families whose fates become intertwined over the course of centuries. While each family has its own distinct characteristics, the successive generations reflect the changing character of Britain. We become drawn not only into the fortunes of the individual family members, but also the larger destinies of each family line.

Meticulously researched and epic in scope, Sarum covers the entire sweep of English civilization: from the early hunters and farmers, the creation of Stonehenge, the dawn of Christianity, and the Black Death; through the Reformation, the wars in America, the Industrial Age, and the Victorian social reforms; up through the World War II invasion of Normandy and the modern-day concerns of a once-preeminent empire.

This is a book for people who like grand, epic historical novels that are really multi-generational soap operas with history in them.


Really, whatever we think we know is probably bullshit.

I think the obvious comparisons are probably Ken Follett, James Michener, Philippa Gregory, and Morgan Llewellyn, except that to be honest, I've only read Llewellyn.

I really liked Sarum, though. I cannot vouch for its historicity (it was written in the 80s, and I think there has been a little bit more archeological evidence uncovered about Stonehenge now, plus I never trust any history written about the pre-Roman Celts because the fact is, we don't know shit about them), but Rutherfurd at least does a credible job of convincing me he did the research.

Sarum tells the entire, and I mean entire (up to the point it was written, circa 1985) history of England via the cathedral city of Salisbury, once known as Sarum, which sits at the confluence of five rivers and has been a population center for thousands of years, as evidenced by the fact that Stonehenge sits on the edge of Salisbury Plain.

It does so by focusing on several families and their ups and downs over the centuries. Some of them are there right from the beginning, others don't come along until Roman or Anglo-Saxon or Norman times.

The first arrivals are Hwll and his family, seeking high ground as the Ice Age warms and the ocean rises. A paleolithic hunter in a time when there are still a few neanderthals extant, his is the first of many family feuds that will affect the course of Sarum's history, as he encounters Tep, a sneaky little bastard who nonetheless shows him the way to Salisbury Plain and its surrounding hills, where they settle. Tep causes trouble and gets booted out of the community, but his descendants, known for their long toes and conniving ways, will haunt Sarum for thousands of years, first as the ancient "river people" who survive by fishing and boating even through successive invasions of Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans, and much later as the scheming Wilson family.

Nooma the Mason, architect of Stonehenge, is the ancestor of a long line of masons. One of his descendants learns how to build villas, arches, and aqueducts from the Romans. Centuries later, his descendants are building Salisbury Cathedral. Centuries after that, the Masons are Methodists and temperance crusaders.

Caius Porteus comes to Britain as an idealistic young Roman officer. Meeting trouble as many soldiers in invading armies do when he makes the mistake of thinking maybe you can conquer people without being so mean about it, he gets shunted off to an obscure little no-where post called Sarum to keep him out of trouble. He ends up marrying a fiery young red-headed Celtic lass, whose horseback-riding tomboy descendants will reincarnate over and over again after the Porters start intermarrying with the Shockleys, who are themselves descendants of an Anglo-Saxon nobleman.

The Norman knight Godefrei is the ancestor of the Godfreys, whose once-noble line reaches an end when the last, wretched, indigent Godfrey boy is deported to Australia.

Should one really believe that such family traits (personality, let alone quirks like long toes) can be passed down for hundreds of generations? I'd take the genetics less seriously than the history, but the traits that characterize each family make them recognizable and familiar as they reappear over and over in different roles and social statuses; it's a literary device that enhances the story, and this is a story, not strictly a history, or rather, a series of stories stretching across history.

Salisbury Cathedral

Sarum hits all the historical high points: the building of Stonehenge, the coming of the Romans, the Celtic twilight, the Anglo-Saxon invaders, themselves invaded by the Danes and then the Normans, the historical upheavals tracking the evolution of the Church, the English Civil War, the Elizabethan and Georgian and Victorian eras, and in every age, the Shockleys and the Wilsons carrying on their feud which goes back far, far longer than they imagine, the Masons and the Porters and the Godfreys changing fortunes and sides, and everything seen through the changes wrought in Sarum.

Rutherfurd's writing is neither lyrical nor emotional; this is meaty historical drama, just slightly salacious and frequently thick in exposition, but very enjoyable for anyone who wants a deep-dive into English history told using individual characters whose tiny family and economic dramas are swept up in a millenia-long epic. My only criticism would be that the writing is sometimes a bit trite with tropes, and after spending so many chapters on every generation since the Ice Age, the entire 20th century seems to zoom past in the end.

Verdict: Recommended for people who like big juicy historical doorstoppers. Sarum has a bit of romance, a bit of action, and a lot of religion, war, and economics, all of it narrated in the form of a multi-family drama. Great reading for those who like this kind of book; despite its length it never drags.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, edward rutherfurd, history, reviews

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