29 January 2015
Malcolm MacDonald: Sons of Fortune
I admit to being an addict for Victorian Family Sagas, and this is one of the best. IMHO Malcolm MacDonald's Stevenson family saga (which started with "World from Rough Stones") vies with and has the edge over R F Delderfield's magnificent Swann Family Saga (which started with "God is an Englishman").
The Stevenson family is now mega- rich (current equivalent of billionaires) and John Stevenson has two objectives, one to make sure his sons get the best education and the other for the family to be accepted into Society. Despite their wealth Victorian Society is very cautious about accepting the nouveaux riche especially when they started in poverty. The only sure way into Society is to be given a peerage by the Queen, but that would have to withstand a lot of prying into the family background by the monarch's minders. How John overcomes these drawbacks is one of the surprises in the book.
The book spends a lot of time covering the education of the elder sons, John (Boy) who John Senior wants to be his business successor, and Caspar who is destined for the Army. The descriptions of the brutal and shallow education at a top school are vivid, and the biggest surprise is that the two boys not only survive but flourish from what happens to them. Winifred, the eldest child, wants the kind of independence that her father will do everything, and I mean everything, to prevent.
Nora is still a power in the business but is losing power in the family as John changes. When she is concerned about what is happening to her boys at school she decides to visit the school. In a fascinating insight into her wealth and power she telegraphs their railway company to send up a private train with their own special carriage and a flat-top rail wagon to carry her carriage which will be needed to get to the school (today's equivalent of using a private jet and a limousine). Nora's reaction to the constraints of Society are also fascinating as she makes herself one of the most sought after hostesses in Society.
While I was totally absorbed in this wonderful and evocative tale of Victorian life I was a bit disappointed that Malcolm MacDonald changed John's character into a tartar of a Victorian father who would not listen to anyone except himself, I guess to make the story line work. That was certainly not the character that I admired so much in the first two books in the series much of whose success was due to his understanding of others.
Despite this I really enjoyed this book and think that overall it is as good, if not even slightly better, than its predecessors. Highly recommended to discerning readers who enjoy an adventurous and different picture of Victorian life.