Valerie Anand has penned her fair share of historical novels, as well as a series of historical mysteries under the name Fiona Buckley. In the 1990’s Anand wrote a six book series commonly referred to as The Bridges Over Time, which begins just prior to the Norman Conquest and finishes up the Whitmead family’s story in the 1960’s, and I finally finished reading the last and thought I’d post a bit on them here. In order:
The Proud Villeins
Sir Ivon de Clairpont is a Norman knight with holdings of his own and comes to England as part of a large escort to Alfred Atheling. Earl Godwinson and his men attack the group and slaughter Alfred and most of the knights, although some are spared and sold into slavery – and one of those is Sir Ivon. Ivon dreams of returning to his home in Normandy, but after several escape attempts he is crippled in the foot and must accept his lot in life as a thrall.
After the Conquest, King William tires of the revolts in the north and sends his knights in to destroy all sources of rebellion with what has come to be known as the Harrying (or Harrowing) of the North. All males over the age of ten are murdered, homes burned, crops destroyed and women and children left to starve. The rest of the story follows two subsequent generations of the family as Anand lets the reader see the impact of war on the lower classes, including the Civil War between Stephen and Maude.
The Ruthless Yeomen
1271. Isabel of Northfield can’t accept her lot in life as a villein forever tied to the land and the Lord who owns it. Fueled by old family legends of a freeborn ancestor, recently widowed and not wishing to marry the new husband chosen for her, she thinks she can improve her lot in life by joining the church – but evil Abbess Christiana only covets the land Isabel can bring her. The next part continues as a relative of Isabel’s, Nicola, is married to the ill-tempered Thomas Woodcarver and they share a tenuous marriage as both chafe at the bonds that tie them to the land and their overlord.
When plague strikes most of the countryside they grab at their chance to escape bondage and bluff their way into taking over the tenancy of Whitmead pretending to be distant relatives of the previous tenants. The final segment of the story is that of their grandson John and his involvement in The Peasant’s Revolt, and finishes in 1399 as the newest and wholly free member of what is now the Whitmead family is introduced and ready to begin the next chapter of the story.
Women of Ashdon
Susannah Whitmead is sent to live with the Hurleighs and be educated as a lady by Mistress Agnes. Susannah brings with her a family keepsake – a device of a curved bridge across a river – although by this time no one in the family remembers the origin of the device and their ancestral roots. In love with up and coming but penniless Giles Saville, Susannah is forced by Agnes to marry Sir James Weston and she joins the household at Ashdon House, a house she comes to love more than anything else in life. Susannah’s second marriage takes her to Cornwall, where her husband becomes involved in the protests against the high taxes imposed on the populace by Henry VII along with the plots to replace Henry with the imposter Perkin Warbeck (or is he an imposter??).
The second half of the book is the story of Susannah’s granddaughter Christina during the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth Tudor. Christina’s never-ending obsession with Ashdon House makes for an unhappy marriage that gets her exiled by her husband to Cornwall where she falls into the clutches of a Catholic cousin – who does her the “favor” of getting her recalled to Ashdon house by arranging a visit by Elizabeth I. In years to come during the plots by Mary Stuart against Queen Elizabeth her supporters force Christina to repay an old debt at a very high price.
The Faithful Lovers
A shipwreck during a violent storm off the Cornish coast sets Ninian Whitmead’s life on a completely unexpected path. The only survivor, Parvati, was brought from India and used as a “slave” by pirates. Niniane is captivated and eventually marries her. Despite Parvati’s adopting the Christian religion, the Puritans never fully accept her and as England is swept into Civil War, an accusation of witchcraft against her changes their lives forever.
The story continues with that of their son, Charles who begins a successful career in shipping with the East India Company. His daughter Henrietta and Benjamin have loved each other from childhood, but their parents conspire to separate the pair and marry them to others. Henrietta defies her father choice, and disinherited takes up residence with a distant relative, Eleanor, and they find themselves in the midst of the Monmouth Rebellion.
The Cherished Wives
George Whitmead, a merchant with the East India Company returns home to find a bride and settles on second cousin Lucy-Anne. George, who believes women should be “cherished” and protected, brings Lucy-Anne to his country estate with his mother as chaperone. Once settled in with strict rules about allowable social engagements, he leaves his bride and returns to India. Lucy-Anne does well managing the estates and its tenants, but loneliness takes her on an unexpected path and that brings life-changing consequences for all the Whitmeads.
George returns from India for good, albeit a bit nutty in the head at times, although his son and heir Henry refuses to acknowledge it. Henry is much like his father and treats his wife and daughters in the same way as his father, “cherishing” and protecting them from the outside world, but his daughter Sophia chafes at the restrictions and almost brings herself to near ruin as a result of her attempt at freedom.
The Dowerless Sisters
The sixth and final book begins in 1885. Charlotte and Victoria Whitmead’s father gambled all and lost and then managed to get himself killed before he could recoup his losses. Faced with losing their independence by accepting the “protection” of his brother Edward, their mother sends the sisters to be apprenticed to a distant cousin and learn a trade. Charlotte and Vicky adapt well to the draper trade and eventually strike out on their own, much to the chagrin of their overprotective uncle and brother. Over time, the sisters become successful and it being too late for them to marry and bear children of their own they must content themselves with their growing family of cousins, nieces and nephews. As the Whitmead sisters grow old they see family members come and go through two world wars, personal triumphs and immeasurable loss and finally ends in 1969 as Charlotte approaches her 100th birthday. More than that, I’m not going to tell, but there’s a surprising and somewhat abrupt ending that leaves you guessing.
“It was as though a ceremony had taken place, a transfer of something abstract but precious-Experience? Hope? Responsibility?-from the older generation to the new. Whatever torch had been passed on to her tonight, she must cherish and keep burning, as long as she lived. It had been given to her for that purpose.”
One thing really refreshing about these is the story is told from the viewpoint of the common folk – not many lords and ladies to be found here. I thought the first three were the best of the lot, books four and five dropped off for me as even the sympathetic characters were not terribly likeable, but she really redeemed herself with the last. I especially liked how she tied up the Whitmead’s search for their forebears back to the first to set foot on English soil, as well as bringing Sir Ivon’s family badge of the bridge over water into the subsequent generations.
“…a family history reaching back like a bridge across time, supported here and there, as a bridge is supported by its piers, by contact with great events and great names: with pestilence and civil war, with a pretender to the throne and the ventures of the East India Company. All of it linking to a Norman knight, who had been made a slave in the North Country before the Conqueror came, and a boy fleeing through the hunger and the savage cold of a Yorkshire blizzard to escape the fire and the slaughter which had over taken his home, to three ladies taking tea on a Surrey lawn, in this August of 1960.”
These are out of print, and can be hard to find used without paying a pretty penny, but there are libraries in the US that still have them so don’t be afraid to request an ILL. Be warned though, The Dowerless Sisters is the rarest of them all and the one library in the US that has it charges a $15 handling fee. I bit the bullet though so I could finish off the series and report back here 🙂