That was what human beings were taken down by, he thought: not giant chaos, but trivial mistakes. Wrong turns, careless inattention, stray words, fleeting looks. Worlds turned on such things: small things overlooked. Moments of seeming inconsequence that, in retrospect, had awful significance. That was what would bring them all down, he had thought. The petty little prejudices. That, and idiot politicians.
(from Rutherford Park)
The secrets, betrayals, and restlessness of an aristocratic British family are the focus of Elizabeth Cooke’s new novel Rutherford Park. (Cooke may be better known to some of you as Elizabeth McGregor.) The Cavendish family, long bound by tradition, begins to unravel in the months before the start of World War I. The death of a pregnant servant girl is the beginning of the end of their tranquil life in the English countryside.
Lord William finds the secret he has tried to hide for the past two decades has been revealed, and blindsided, Lady Octavia leaves her eldest daughter behind in London and flees to Rutherford Park to lament her status as a mere possession, a woman valued for the money she brought to the marriage, and a delicate flower who is not expected (or even allowed) to do anything but sit around being beautiful. Their son, Harry, cares little for his obligations as heir, runs up debts as he tries to forget a grave mistake, and wants only to learn to fly aeroplanes. Meanwhile, Louisa, the oldest of their two daughters, thinks of nothing but attracting men and, of course, is drawn to one her parents wouldn’t like.
The novel also gives readers a glimpse of life below stairs, showing the numerous servants that are part of the well-oiled machine of Rutherford Park. Some have accepted their lot in life and do their jobs albeit grudgingly, while others show unwavering loyalty to their master. Cooke details their observations of the Cavendish family coming apart at the seams and their plans for the future as talk turns to war.
Rutherford Park reminded me a lot of The Passing Bells by Phillip Rock (which I loved), though much less epic in scope. Both portray privileged, titled families at a time of major social upheaval, with men going off to war, women gaining new freedoms, and class boundaries breaking down. While The Passing Bells gets into the trenches and follows the Greville family through the war and a couple of years after (the trilogy spans both world wars), Rutherford Park ends in the early days of World War I, in the calm before the storm. Cooke shows how many people didn’t think political tensions would escalate into full-blown war, with William’s distress at his family’s indifference emphasized as he scrambles to gather everyone at home before war breaks out. She underscores how Octavia views Rutherford Park as a prison of sorts, but William sees it as a refuge and a symbol of safety and security.
Rutherford Park offers a glimpse of a family whose money, influence, and social standing cannot ensure their happiness. I really liked Cooke’s writing, and even though I couldn’t relate to the characters, I thought they were believable, well-developed, and even likeable in their own way. I just learned on McGregor’s website that there will be a second Rutherford book, and I’m thrilled to hear that because even though I was satisfied with the ending of Rutherford Park, I longed for a little more certainty about what happened to the characters, especially since the war hadn’t heated up yet. I just hope I don’t have to wait too long to find out what’s in store for the Cavendishes and their servants!
Disclosure: I received Rutherford Park from Berkley for review.
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