In the late 15th century, the Lanyons are tenants of Allerbrook Farm, subservient to the landholders, the Sweetwaters. Upon the death of the irascible patriarch, George, Richard Lanyon becomes head of the family, chafing under the Sweetwaters excesses of exercising their rights to the detriment of the tenants, hunting across farmland with impunity.
When a Sweetwater hunting party runs roughshod through George Lanyonís funeral procession and Richardís mistress dies soon after from complications of that encounter, Richard nurtures a lifelong hatred of his betters, determined one day to outshine them, even though his family owns no land and has no pretensions to noble blood.
When Richardís son, Peter, hopes to marry a young woman from a local fishing village, Richard will not hear of it. He interferes, demanding Peter marry Liza Weaver, the girl Richard has selected for his son. But when Richard visits Marian Lockeís family home, he understands Peterís attraction, for the girl is stunning. Unfortunately, Richardís scruples do not extend to himself; he is at fault in an unfortunate incident that will haunt the rest of his days.
Liza has dreams of another as well, having fallen hopelessly in love with a young man soon to become a priest, Christopher Clerk. Running away together, the pair is caught before they go far. Liza is returned home, her family demanding she honor the contract to marry Peter. Although she does not love him, Liza capitulates, dedicating herself to Allerbrook Farm and her new family.
Richard has high hopes for grandchildren, but when Liza fails to deliver, he is relentless in his criticism. Eventually, Liza bears a daughter, Quentin, and many years pass before she has a son, Nicky, although there is a cloud over that pregnancy that will prove the unraveling of the family.
While the country is drawn into the interminable battles of the Yorks and the Lancasters for the throne of England, most are country people who want nothing more than to plant their fields and provide for their families. Twice men are called to war from the countryside; the first time, Richard represents the family, the second, Peter. It is through Peterís courage that the fortunes of the family are increased.
Yet it is Richardís obsession with the Sweetwaters that poisons his family relations, along with his incessant demands to build a larger and more impressive manor than the nobility. Every cent of profit goes to that end. Meanwhile, the family is fractured by the demands of the authoritarian Richard, who cares not for the welfare of those in his care, only for his feud with the Sweetwaters.
While the novel is couched in the War of the Roses, the historical content is not as compelling as the characters, who might be transplanted to Dickensian London or another convenient century. The true story, the lies and betrayals that turn a loving family into chaos, is one manís obsession with proving himself superior and Liza and Peterís inability to be truly honest with one another. It is the children who suffer, and it is the children who restore this family to order after years of unhappiness and dysfunction.
I had difficulty maintaining interest in the first few chapters; in fact, the ending is far more interesting and filled with interpersonal conflict. But by the end, the action and the characters meld into a believable if distressing dynamic, most of the Lanyons enduring miserable lives.