The prime upper classes of England don't seem to suit Miss Eden's lusty pen as well as the Australian outback (The Vines of Yarrabee ) or the exotic air of Peking (The Time of the Dragon ). Her new novel follows the fortunes of the obsessively patriotic and militaristic Duncastle family from the 1890s through carnage and destruction almost to the Second World War. At the center of the novel is Matilda Duncastle, endlessly urging her young sons and grandsons into feverish patriotism and directly driving them to their deaths. Opposing her is her husband-of-convenience, Joshua Webb, the bank clerk made good for whom the quiet of a wood-paneled office and the clink of coin far outshine the perilous glories of war.

There is lots of action, love and anguish. The story thunders swiftly along, but the problem is with the portrait of the central character. Matilda Duncastle/Webb is fanatical and rigid enough to forfeit almost all sympathy, and none of the young men ever survive long enough to emerge as characters of interest. The daughters last a little longer but as rarely allowed to assert themselves.

The shabby drum from the Battle of Salamanca is the symbol of the Duncastle honor and when the symbol is finally revealed to be a hollow one and Matilda is survived only by conscientious objectors and bankers, one takes the moral, but rather wonders what all the fuss was about. (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, $8.95)

Brigitte Wecks