The Wheel of Fortune by Susan Howatch

published 1984

Wheel of Fortune 1

She left me. The orchestra was still playing ‘The Blue Danube’, but as she ran the full length of the ballroom all the couples stopped dancing to stare at her. She ran swiftly and gracefully, her feet seeming barely to touch the ground, and suddenly there was a flash of diamonds as she pulled off her ring, tossed it aside and carelessly consigned her engagement to oblivion. He was waiting for her in the doorway.

Wheel of Fortune 2

[some years later] She entered the room and my well-ordered mind fell apart into chaos. She wore a rich black satin gown, very décolleté and trimmed with yards of erotic black lace. A diamond pendant, sparkling against her creamy skin, pointed downwards like an arrow as if to emphasise her breasts, and her thick glowing auburn hair, piled high, was secured with a diamond clasp. ‘How very fetching you look, Ginevra,’ said my mother in a studiedly neutral voice.

commentary: When I finally raised my head from a Plantaganet haze of reading Anya Seton’s Katherine, as described in my blog entr yesterday, I filled myself up with a factual book, and then in general meanderings round the internet discovered that Susan Howatch had written a 20th Century family saga based on the family of Edward III, and thus including John of Gaunt and his love affair with Katherine Swynford. Plainly I had to read it straightaway. Which I did, and very quickly despite its 900+ pages: to me it was unputdownable. Howatch is a distinctive writer, and one who (I know I’m always banging on about this) is downgraded because she is a woman. There is, of course, nothing wrong with writing cosy fiction, or ‘women’s books’ (a whole other issue, wondering what they  might be), but her books are so much more than that. She suffers also, I think, because she had a very psychological view of life, very Freudian.

One character says ‘Darling Freud, how did we all live without him in the old days …’

While another says ‘luckily Bronwen never bothered with people like Freud, she was much too busy being sensible.’

As so much of Freud’s work is no longer seen as important or relevant – Bronwen’s view has prevailed over Ginevra’s - perhaps Howatch is too easily dismissed.

Because actually this book is an absolute tour de force. It covers a period from about 1913 to the 1970s, with flashbacks to earlier action. It is narrated by six different characters in turn, and she does a phenomenal job of giving them each a different and convincing voice, and moving the reader’s sympathies round like an expert chess player. Having just mugged up on the history, I was also very impressed by how many clever parallels she managed to squeeze in.

And she has splendid minor characters such as the young woman who:
Occupied herself a great deal with charity work and was famous for her volumes of pressed wild-flowers.
And Margaret (not minor at all):
My mother specialised in what she called ‘little dinner-parties for twenty-four’.
And surroundings – Howatch is very good on houses, a genre of description which normally I hate and skip through:
The ballroom [was] a startling excrescence upon the Georgian symmetry which looked as if the architect had been reading too many of the Gothic novels of Mrs Radcliffe during a fatal visit to Brighton Pavilion.
Historically the least sympathetic character is probably Richard II: Kester in the book. Howatch makes him ridiculously selfish, and quite criminal (traits shared with many of his relations), but also tremendously appealing. When he realizes he is the heir to the family estate, his mother asks him:
‘What did you think was going to happen? Did you see yourself sitting on a throne in the hall and issuing orders to your servants?’
This was in fact exactly what I had visualised. I tried not to look mortified. As usual reality was proving a very poor second to my fantasies.
His section as narrator is possibly the best part of the book, I could quote from it all day:
They arrived in two chauffeur-driven Rolls Royces. Wheel of Fortune 3Uncle John wore a dark grey suit and his old Harrovian tie and looked distinguished enough to have an open invitation to Buckingham Palace. Aunt Constance wore a sleek mustard-coloured ensemble with a mink stole and one or two discreet diamonds. Together they looked as if they were advertising some lavish product (the Rolls Royces?) in the glossy pages of Country Life. 
Finally Aunt Daphne had hysterics, a most interesting phenomenon which I decided to use in my next novel. 
Belinda was wearing a skirt which looked as if it had been made out of a tablecloth and a somewhat shrunken pullover which emphasised her Mae West bosom, and looked like nothing on earth.

The book is immensely readable and very very funny. If you are looking for something to read on holiday or over a quiet weekend you couldn’t do better.

And honestly, Ginevra and Bronwen are two of the best female characters I have ever read about: complex, fascinating, and very real, while being unique.

But the book isn’t just an enjoyable saga, in my view. One of my favourite writers is Ford Madox Ford, and I have tried (and, I think, failed) on the blog many times to explain what is so special about him. I think this would be a unique opinion, but I am going to say that this book reminded me of FMF, in particular with the quartet of books called Parade’s End (MUCH featured on the blog). I said in one entry ‘he has a line into forms of waywardness and lies that would shock anyone’. And then: his characters are like real people: annoying, inconsistent and unpredictable.

Not many writers remind me of FMF: but only last month I said that Lissa Evans did – see this blog entry here. (Lissa and Howatch don’t have much in common as writers, other than that they are both brilliant, and both under-rated, and both write memorable women characters. Which is probably enough to be going on with... )

I don’t think Howatch ever says what Ginevra is wearing at the crucial moment in the first extract – the key starting point for the whole book, the moment when the wheel of fortune first turns for Robert. They are dancing beneath the chandeliers at Oxmoon, dancing to the Blue Danube waltz. I have picked this dress out for her.

Both colour pictures are by the marvellous illustrator Georges Barbier.

B/w photo by the marvellous Sam Hood, now in the Library of New South Wales.


  1. Oh, Moira, I haven't read a rich family saga like that in too long. This one sounds very good indeed, and I like the writing style. The length of it made me think a bit; I'll have to work out when I'd fit it in. But it sounds well worth the effort.

    1. Yes, it's not lightly undertaken - but honestly worth the effort. Find a holiday or vacation weekend...

  2. Curses. This one's on Open Library, as well, so I may as well sign up for it. You are making a mess of my ebook TBR list.

    1. I can only apologize. And it is really long. But wonderful....

  3. I seemed to recall that the second Barbier illustration has a very fitting caption as well as being a very fitting image - and indeed, so it does!

    1. Oh my goodness! a) yes indeed it does have exactly the right caption
      and b) what a good memory you have
      and c) what a fabulous webpage that is
      and d) when did designers stop giving their creations beautifully absurd names like that? (or do they still?) I love it when a character tries on a wispy dress called Shadows of the Night or Sprites in Spring or I Will Be Loved.

  4. I was expecting to see a photo of Nicky Campbell leading this one off, but no.


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