A Landmark Xmas: The Wheel of Fortune Turns

Today’s entry for the special CiB meme ‘Xmas in books, accompanied by carefully chosen pictures’ features one of my favourite reads of the year – from the olden days of 1984, and telling the story of the whole century. The book took my breath away…

You can find (endless!) more Xmas books via the labels at the bottom of the page, and the seasonal pictures in one place on Pinterest.

Wheel of Fortune by Susan Howatch

published 1984

Wheel of Fortune 1903

My grandmother had died in 1910 but for me in 1921 she was still alive. The straight line of time bent so that 1903 kept recurring interminably in my mind, the Christmas of 1903 when I had been eleven-years-old.

The Christmas of 1903 began in unremarkable fashion. On Christmas Eve my father fetched my grandmother from the Home of the Assumption. On Christmas morning we all racketed around in our noisy fashion, pulling all the gifts out of our stockings, eating a huge breakfast and setting off for church. The presents under the tree were never unwrapped until after dinner which at Christmas, in order to spare the servants, was taken in the middle of the day. When we all returned from church my mother went to the kitchens to see how the dinner preparations were progressing and my father remained in the drawing-room to keep an eye on my grandmother. It had only recently occurred to me that my parents never left my grandmother alone with their children.

commentary: Earlier in the year I read in quick succession Katherine by Anya Seton (historical novel based on fact), Katherine Swynford by Alison Weir (proper history), and Wheel of Fortune by Susan Howatch (family saga based on facts of the lives of Edward III and family). I enjoyed all three enormously, and there are a number of blogposts to explore if you are interested.

Howatch turned the Plantaganets into sweeping sagas, and this one is an absolute stunner. She looks at Edward III and his wife and later mistress, at John of Gaunt and his brothers, at John’s mistress Katherine, at Henry Bolingbroke and at young Prince Hal, and turns their lives into an enthralling and convincing, yet very melodramatic, saga. She is strangely non-judgemental: characters (heroes and heroines at that) are forever judging other characters and their actions, but then Howatch is forever twisting the view round so you change your mind.

The grandmother here is based on Isabella, the wife of Edward II, also known by the unimprovable epithet the she-wolf of France. As Wikipedia puts it, she is ‘usually portrayed as a beautiful but cruel, manipulative figure.’ She is not a direct character in this book – she appears in flashback only – but you would have to have a heart of stone not to be shocked as her eventual fate is revealed. I suppose she got the son she deserved (Edward III).

This scene in the book is not really a cheery Christmas-y one:
he began to talk in Welsh in graphic detail about how she had poisoned her husband in order to live a life of debauchery with her lover.
--with the boy John listening and watching. And it all gets worse.

All the characters behave badly to each other, you just have to get used to it. And yet, it is a most enjoyable and entertaining book, ultimately with some uplift, as Howatch decides we can all get over the past and try to make something of the future.

Children by the Christmas Tree by Jenny Nystrom from the Athenaeum.


  1. Jenny Nyström's Christmas cards are iconic in Sweden; she made such an awful lot (about 3,000) for so many years that she more or less defined the way Christmas looks to Swedes. (She lived from 1854 to 1946 and worked from her early twenties until her death.) And of course, some people frown on them - and her - as vulgar and sentimental. The rather sad truth is that she was a highly talented artist from a family with not very much money, who married a singularly inefficient man (he had studied medicine and called himself a doctor but never finished his studies and never earned any money whatsoever) so she did Christmas cards, greeting cards and book and magazine illustrations to support herself, her husband and their son.


    1. That's very interesting: thanks so much for sharing all that extra information with us, I'm sure most people like me had no idea. The images are beautiful and striking: I saw quite a lot of them online and was enchanted by them.

  2. This sounds like a really interesting take on history, Moira. And that in itself appeals to me, as you know. I like it when a book strikes a balance between giving the reader a real sense of what life was like, and not bogging the story down with too many details.

    1. Yes I agree with you. And this book is astonishing in its ability to echo Plantaganet times while also giving a picture of the 20th century - what an achievement.


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