The Flowers of the Field
Originally published in the early 1980s, The Flowers of the Field is the first part of Sarah Harrison’s Flower Trilogy which begins the series’ chronicle of the upper middle-class Tennant family. There is Ralph, the impetuous, hotheaded, but brilliant industrialist, and his wife, the beautiful, aristocratic Venetia. Their children are a range of personalities: Aubrey is the boring and dutiful heir apparent, Thea is the independent but sexually repressed oldest daughter, while Dulcie is the cosseted and flighty youngest. There are a host of other characters in this novel ranging from Ralph’s sour widowed sister, Sophia, and her cowed, bookish son, Maurice, to Primmy, the upstairs maid longing for a different world where she is not defined by her profession or social class. Against their stories is the outbreak of World War I, which will try all of them in turns.
Harrison excels at setting. The home front during the war covers all perspectives, even unique ones such as those who chose to conscientiously object to the endless killing. Scenes from the front are gut-wrenching and, at times, almost too violent to read without becoming queasy. But the cast of characters, while providing an opportunity for showcasing various perspectives, hampers the pacing of the novel. At a whopping 752 pages, there seems no end in sight at times, and not all of the characters are interesting or needed. Some are just despicable, including the vacant, almost sociopathic Dulcie, who learns that her chief talent can be found between the sheets. Thea, while the heroine in many ways, can be downright whiny at times. But for those who love a sprawling family saga set against the trials and triumphs of war, The Flowers of the Field may be a good place to start.