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04 August 2013

Malcolm Macdonald: Rich Are with You Always

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Great sequel to World from Rough Stones
This is the second book in the magnificent Stevenson family saga set in the exciting times of railway building and the first Industrial Revolution in the UK the first half of the 19th Century. In "World from Rough Stones" Macdonald introduced us to John Stevenson, whose charismatic organisational and management skills took him from being a lowly navvy to a major constructor of railways. "Lord John" (as his workmates call him) meets destitute Nora Telling and is immediately attracted to her, not only physically but also for her financial skills and strategic thinking. Thus starts an amazing fictional rags to riches story set in an accurate historical background.

With skill, luck and a bit of skulduggery, over 10 years John and Nora have built one of the largest construction businesses in the UK. In "Rich Are with You Always" we follow the Stevensons (and their rapidly growing family) up to the 1851 Great Exhibition in London that showcases England's industrial achievements. Although they are starting to become mega-rich, the Stevenson business only flourishes because of Nora's financial skills, and again some skulduggery, in a business world caught up in the excesses of the railway bubble. While frequently sailing close to the wind, they survive the bubble and become one of the richest families in England (and the world) at that time. We would probably call them one of the first billionaires.

Macdonald also follows the life of sex-obsessed railway engineer, Walter Thornton, who is married to pious sexually cold Arabella. While they surprisingly produce a similarly rapidly growing family, Walter addresses his sexual needs widely, but eventually meets his sexual soulmate from an unexpected quarter. This is an interesting interlude about the hypocrisies of Victorian life.

It is great to be able to revisit this series that I read back in the 1970's now they are being released in e-book format (as is the similar God is an Englishman saga by R F Delderfield). The characters are compelling and the story is page-turning as the Stevenson's business and marriage move from one challenge to another. The book covers an exciting period of economic development in the UK during which the country moved from a basically agricultural society to become the world's first industrialised country. I look forward to revisiting the rest of the series soon.

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