I'd like to think that the sudden craving for family sagas that inspired my Amazon shopping spree the other week isn't entirely down to Downton abstinence. After all, I've always had a soft spot for family sagas. Soames Forsyte in The Forsyte Saga was one of my first villain loves (as played by Eric Porter - sorry Damian Lewis, love the hair, but there can be only one...). Family sagas - set in historical times, naturally - offer endless opportunities when it comes to romantic entanglements, and my inner Emma Woodhouse delights in them.
Imagine my pleasure, then, when I found a whole category entitled "family sagas" on the co.uk version of Amazon. Once I was faced with this wealth of opportunities, though, a minimum of caution set in. It's been a while since Galsworthy's day, and family sagas are no longer considered quite the thing. That may not be such a bad thing - I wouldn't want anything too arty when looking for pure self-indulgence reads - but the challenge is to pick a novel that is frothy, entertaining and well-written.
While browsing, I came across many a die-hard plot formula. The World War Two Love Story seems unaccountably popular. What is it with the Brits and World War Two? What makes it an ideal back-drop for a hundred-and-one romances? It's a war, for pity's sake. It's grim at the front (as it tends to be in wars) and grim at home. Is this the draw, that the hardships on the home front make the heroine Suffer And Grow As A Person? Me, I like my sagas to have glamour, and not to be all clotted up with mud and debris. A bit of suffering never hurt a heroine, but preferably in picturesque surroundings, please.
While on the subject of mud, World War One is a pretty popular setting too, which is almost less comprehensible. While the British view of WWII remains rose-tinted for some reason (winning might have something to do with it), the Brits do get that WWI was horrible and not much else. And yet, and yet. I can't be the only one who secretely rolls her eyes as yet another scene in the trenches pops up in a British drama. Honestly, they all look the same. Whether on Doctor Who, Downton, Parade's End or even Horrible Histories: a trench is a trench is a trench. And as if these mud contests weren't tedious enough to sit through while they're on the screen: imagine reading about them. I know I sound callous, and I wouldn't quibble if we were talking about soul-searching explorations of human misery and man's beastliness to man. But these books, with glossy nurses and girls in uniform on the cover, are supposed to be light entertainment. As such, could they perhaps feature wars - if any - that are a little less recent and traumatic? The Crimean, say?
My main quarrel with the War Romances, though, is that I don't know why they're billed as family sagas. Didn't they forget the "family" bit? One bint who sighs for her RAF sweetheart or American bomber does not a family saga make, even if she does get a kid. This is what a family saga should be like: It should be set in historical times. It should feature a family on a landed estate, or at a pinch in a big townhouse. There should ideally be either a strong matriarch or a strong patriarch who is able to mess up his/her children's lives while trying to do what's best for them. There should be between two to five grown-up children. Poor cousins are most welcome to swell the ranks. Maybe there's a family feud with another clan. Throw in a bit of from-rags-to-riches-to-keeping-riches plotting, titled fortune-hunters, rich but unwanted suitors, hard-to-get heiresses, pretty maids with a tendency to get pregnant at the wrong moment - oh, and villains, of course. Voilà - that's what I call a real family saga. How hard can it be?
Harder than it looks, apparently. More than once, when I've given some "guilty pleasure" bestseller a try, I've come across what should have been a lip-smacking yarn told in flat and uninteresting prose. They've been written in what I call the "now read on" style: a prose style that reminds you of the action-packed summaries preceding the latest instalment of a serialised story in a women's magazine. It is as if some writers, knowing a fool-proof formula, think that they can rely on it to such an extent that they don't have to write it up at all. Consequently, I'm a little wary of novel titles that state the contents a bit too boldly, like Cockney Orphan, The Workhouse Girl or A Wartime Nurse. It's as if the scaffolding has not been removed properly, and if you get that feeling from the title, what will the rest of the story be like?
One could argue, I suppose, that good writers shun formulas in favour of deep, meaningful and original projects. But must that be the case? Regency romances have (or rather had) Georgette Heyer, among others: why should there not be similar "froth pros" writing family sagas? I mean to have a good look for a writer of popular fiction who realises one simple fact about much-loved plot formulas: You may have got the recipe, but you still have to cook the meal.