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12 February 2015

R F Delderfield: Theirs was the Kingdom

Superb Victorian family saga
R F Delderfield has long been one of my favourite novelists of family sagas set in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The Swann family saga is at the top of my list because it covers the exciting time when England moved from a basically feudal society to a modern industrialised society in a couple of generations. This is the second in the series, which started with GOD IS AN ENGLISHMAN.

The Swann family, headed by Adam Swann, is the start of a rich, prosperous Victorian upper middle class dynasty. Adam, back from the wars at the beginning of Victoria's reign, started a successful transport company "Swann on Wheels" that covers all of the UK providing horse-driven freight transport to and from the railways, factories and ports. The business has its own "family" of loyal staff scattered around the country, many of whom started with nothing and worked their way to success through the backing of astute businessman Adam Swann.

Adam and Henrietta are also starting to grow their own Swann dynasty of 9 children, all with different abilities and character. The challenge to Henrietta is to mold these characteristics to allow her children to make their mark in Victorian society. Adam is frequently too busy or tired to help, but he is mostly an understanding and supportive father when the need arises.

The eldest children are a microcosm of Victorian achievements. Alex joins the Army and is totally unprepared and untrained for the butchery of the Zulu wars which he barely survives. The eldest, Stella, has to be rescued from an unbearable marriage. George is the main hope to take over the business but he is distracted by his absorbing interest in the advent of horseless transport with the development of the internal combustion engine - and Adam doesn't understand the impact that this will have on his business. Giles is undoubtedly the brains and heart of the family but finds it difficult to settle down to the humdrum of business.

In the end they all find great but mostly unexpected partners to take the Swann dynasty into the Edwardian world (and the last book in the saga GIVE US THIS DAY).

Delderfield is a born storyteller who gives us a evocative and fantastic insight into Victorian society, politics, families and business in the second half of the 19th Century. At the same time as revisiting this great saga I have also been reading Malcolm Macdonald's Stevenson family saga again (starting with WORLD FROM ROUGH STONES) which covers the same era in a slightly different way. While Swann is rich, Stevenson is mega-rich and faces up to the traumas of the nouveaux riche in entering Victorian high society. Both series cover the same era in slightly different ways and if you are a Victorian history junkie, like me, you will want to read both series even though each of their books are lengthy tomes.

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