Ethel Williams, a Welsh maid turned journalist/suffragette and the central character in Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants, is headed for inclusion on my list of WOMEN I ADMIRE where she will join Emma Peel, Elizabeth Bennett, Ray Eames, Aeryn Sun, and the Duchess of Devonshire. Any woman who can marshal political support with the power of her pen and later, on hands and knees, calmly dictate mid-wifery directions to her timely-arrived brother as she gives birth to her first child deserves attention. She is no more than two degrees of separation from the other characters in this epic novel which follows five families, high-born and low-, across four countries through 13 years of history before, during, and just after the first World War in the hefty span of 925 pages. The enormity of Mr. Follett’s task as he weaves together fictional and non-fictional characters has the potential to leave heads spinning; that it doesn’t—acting instead like an uncharacteristically enjoyable historical primer—is a testament to the author’s skill.
Its larger themes, the politics of war, the influence of hawks and doves on the direction of public opinion, the dissemination of information to the public, and the role women should play in politics and society are still relevant today. Fall of Giants teases apart the complicated threads of class, politics, love (early 20th century sex!), and duty that bind Follett’s characters as their various countries head into a war of previously unknown scope. Multi-level changes in English society begun before the war will find even more receptive footholds in its aftermath. The lazy scholar in me appreciates the ponderous amount of information that brings this complex period of history to life and is grateful for the rich prose that binds it all together into an appetising brainfeast.
Fall of Giants is the first book of the proposed Century trilogy and while waiting for the next installment, there are two television series set in the same historical period that are worth investigating. The first season of PBS MASTERPIECE’s recent drama Downton Abbey ends just as war is declared. There are many similarities between the connected family and servants in this series and the aristocratic Edwardian families that anchor Follett’s novel. Also of interest may be the new episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs scheduled to air on 10 April.
Ken Follett’s official website is here. In addition to information about all of his books, he describes where this series will be heading.