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Sarum By Edward Rutherfurd, book reviewSarum” is an ambitious book to say the least. Weighing in at an impressive 1300 pages, it is an epic historical novel, the result of several years of research and writing, and takes a good many hours of reading to plough your way through it. (Or listening – Sarum is also available on audiobook, with a running time of some 47 hours!) Rather than focussing on one era of history as most authors chose to do, Edward Rutherfurd has rather traced the entire course of English history from the Mesolithic to the present day (or at least 1987; the present day at the publication of the work) of one region over the course of this book. It was both this ambition and a number of personal recommendations that led me to read Sarum; I was intrigued to see just how such a lengthy and eventful span of time could be condensed into one novel. And more to the point, could it be done effectively, without seeming to jerk at random from time to time?

The structure of Sarum

The setting for this book is Salisbury and its immediate surroundings of Wiltshire. Rutherfurd chose this part of England because “no place…I believe, has a longer visible history of building and occupation than the Sarum region…the wealth of archaeological information, let alone historical record is overwhelming”. As for the name “Sarum”, it is a local term for the city, thought to originate from a mis-spelt abbreviation used by a medieval scribe, but later adopted by locals as an affectionate name for the area. Rutherfurd uses this name throughout the novel, however, alongside others that are appropriate to the time: Sorviodunum in the Roman period, and Sarisberie in Norman French for instance.

The device used to carry this novel is the intertwining histories of five local families. The Wilsons, descended from the original Mesolithic settlers, one time slaves and outcasts who rise to become local lords. The Porters, the family of the Roman administrator Porteus and his Celtic wife, who all seem to inherit his meticulous nature. The Masons, a line of skilled craftsmen originating in the Neolithic, who help build the two greatest monuments of the Sarum region: Stonehenge and Salisbury cathedral. The Shockleys, originally Saxon thanes who take their name from the profitable farm their family ran for many generations. Finally, the Godfreys, Norman knights of the name de Godfroi, who become anglicised and poor, falling to the very bottom of the social spectrum before recovering their luck. Each family line therefore represents a different cultural grouping that arrived at Sarum at different times, be it locals of prehistoric decent, or incomers from the successive waves of invasion that England once faced, from Roman, then Saxon, then Norman. This structure allows both a gradual introduction to the different lines as we move through time – to attempt to satisfactorily do this for five families all at once would be both tedious and confusing for the reader – whilst still providing an element of continuity over the nine thousand years that are compressed into the span of the novel.

Each chapter in the book (there are 19 in all) takes a different era in Sarum’s history and gives you in essence a short story based around the events of that time and the central five families. There is therefore little of an overall plot – you are given nineteen fictionalised history lessons, nineteen stories that allow you to explore one time in Sarum’s past, nineteen glimpses of the fortunes of five families. The times chosen are rather predictable: the first settlement of the area, the building of Stonehenge, the various invasions of Sarum, the building of the cathedral, and so on to 1987, but I think anyone could forgive the author that, as these are after all the times of greatest interest to the reader. In addition to this, we are amply provided with maps and family trees to help us make sense of this rather large quantity of information. It is of course unlikely that any one family name could have survived for as long as the ones in the book do (something which the author freely admits to), but there is increasing evidence from history and archaeology than families can certainly persist for very long periods of time in one location. The continuity of occupation that Sarum gives us, then, could certainly be not entirely incorrect.

My opinion

After finishing Sarum, I am filled with mixed feelings. On the plus side, Rutherfurd does indeed manage to compress 9,000 years into 1300 pages, covering what seems to be all major and significant events that affected Salisbury during that time. It also acts very well indeed as an easily digested history lesson: everything is thoroughly researched and explained succinctly, clearly and in an interesting manner to the reader. If nothing else, you will come away with a better understanding of English history at the end of it all! The big advantage of writing a novel over a huge span of history, though, is that you can see the long-term effects of events and people upon places and families. If you have ever wondered about the relevance of history or how one long-ago event or person can possibly affect the way we live today, then Sarum can amply demonstrate it for you. In particular, I found it fascinating how one uneducated Wilson man took advantage of the events following the Black Death to turn his family around from serfdom to the road to a future of nobility, although the complete change could only be seen over the course of 500 years. And I was also pleased to note that the transition between periods was on the whole smooth and logical.

“I will say that chapters were quite variable, some being more enjoyable than others.”

But there are a number of down sides to attempting a novel of this nature. The first is that characterisation is inevitably going to be weak, as there is a very limited amount of time and space in which to introduce each character. Rutherfurd had tried to get around this problem by giving each family line distinct qualities that survive throughout the time span of the book – the Wilson family are always cunning, shifty and untrustworthy, whilst the Masons are short, fat and red-faced, for example – which is quite a feat of genetics, I must say! However, all this achieves is the production of an endless series of characters that are hard to distinguish from one another, which can get a little samey and repetitive by the time to get towards the end of the book.

Secondly, there is the problem that in each snapshot of time you will of course have a number of historical factions, forces and influences at play. To fully explore these themes in a short space of a chapter therefore requires many of the characters to embody and represent these forces or influences (such as the Roman Porteus representing the civilising influence of the Roman Empire, or the division of the Shockley family into Royalist, Parliamentarian and Puritan during the Civil War chapter). I won’t go as far to say cliché, but at times this pushes on the edge of believability and can stunt character development further.

Finally, I will say that chapters were quite variable, some being more enjoyable than others. While the overall enjoyment of the book I would give 6 out of 10, the individual chapter ranged from a fascinating 10 out of 10 (notably form the chapters concerning the Roman invasion, Saxon occupation and Black Death) to a dismal 2 out of 10 for the tiresome and excessive chapters on the Reformation, which just went on for too long. It was mostly enjoyable and entertaining, and the writing was certainly competent, although I did not get the sense of power and spark of life that I have heard other readers of the book talk about. It was a good book, but in my opinion, not a great book.

Overall, recommended to anyone teenaged or older who loves historical novels, has the time to tackle such a weighty tome, and the patience to keep referring back to the maps and family trees.

Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd
Published in 1987 by Arrow Books

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by Edward Rutherfurd

One Comment on "Sarum"

  1. koshkha
    19/11/2010 at 10:29 Permalink

    This is MY city – Salisbury – and I even have a copy but I just cannot bring myself to start reading something that’s so ludicrously BIG.

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Written by collingwood21

Collingwood21 is a 32 year old university administrator and ex-pat northerner living down south. Married. Over-educated. Loves books, history, archaeology and writing.

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