Rutherford Park: A Novel, by Elizabeth Cooke – A Review

Rutherford Park: A Novel, by Elizabeth Cooke 2013From the desk of Christina Boyd

It you are a fan of Downton Abbey and are jonesing for a Grantham family-like fix until season four premieres next January on PBS, Elizabeth Cooke’s latest novel Rutherford Park might be just the ticket. Set during the Edwardian era at the eponymous estate in the Yorkshire countryside, the Cavendish family are as wealthy, titled, and drama-filled as the Grantham’s, yet we are privileged to be reading a book, as opposed to watching a screenplay, so the author’s historical detail, characterizations and compelling narrative make it even more intriguing

Rutherford Park is the seat of the Cavendish family who live their lavish lives by strict rules and obligation. Not surprisingly, the beautiful Lady Octavia Cavendish is lonely and bored, even somewhat envies the servants for their work. Her husband William, bound by the obligations of his title and his vows, unknowingly feels a similar discontent. “They saw him as some sort of fixed being, a symbol, a caricature. Octavia too, perhaps, in her great wool-and-velvet shawl with her pretty little straw-colored boots under a cream dress. They were both a sort of monument, he supposed: not real in the same way that the laborers were real…” p. 52. Later when Octavia suspects William of an affair with a longtime family acquaintance from Paris, the last remnants of a charmed world seemed to disappear.

The son and heir Harry, has his own dreams of flying aeroplanes but with the tragic death at Christmastime of a housemaid, those dreams might quickly disintegrate as well. With a house full of guests for the holidays, suspicions are evoked, while expectations and beliefs are shattered. “A sort of crazed idea rattled in his brain, pressed down on his tongue as if it were going to leap out of his mouth. He realized that he was shaking not from cold now, but from the sensation of standing on the edge of a precipice where everything hinged on his next reply.” p. 69. Within months all the family is in London, attempting to move on from the shocking events and discoveries at Rutherford. Louisa Cavendish, the innocent and naïve daughter, is preparing to make her Presentation and seems the most unlikely candidate to engage in a tryst with a mysterious stranger.  Wearied in spirits, Octavia escapes to the country to wallow in her own self-pity, leaving her daughters in the care of friends.

While secrets and fidelity remain in question, William departs for Paris to attend business and settle personal accounts, leaving the family adrift. Meanwhile John Gould, a handsome, rich American houseguest comes to study the history of the Cavendishes and becomes more than a distraction to Octavia. “He hadn’t come to England to fall in love with someone else’s wife. Especially not an unhappy wife. A carefree woman who yearned for a little affair – maybe… maybe he could have happily got himself embroiled for a few weeks, though carelessness with a woman was not his nature. But this. This bloody fever. This was what the English would call it: bloody. And it was.” p. 189

Fast on the heals of other Edwardian England series like T. J. Brown’s Summerset Abbey and Phillip Rock’s The Greville Family Saga, I was somewhat reluctant to read this latest by Elizabeth Cooke. As much as I enjoyed the aforementioned series, I was skeptical about reading another book seemingly riding the Downton Abbey wave of success. But my concerns were for naught—Rutherford Park: A Novel is an unreservedly, gripping drama. The strained relationship of Lord William and Lady Cavendish are put to the ultimate test while their children scramble to find how they too fit, and the staff and surrounding villages dependent on Rutherford Park toil away with their own struggles. Likening to the inevitability of the WWI rumblings in this epic tale, could this stand-alone novel be the start of a veritable series? My source tells me, yes! Elizabeth Cooke is currently working on a second Rutherford book. A must for your summer reading as Rutherfold Park is a regular stunner!

5 out of 5 Stars

Rutherford Park: A Novel, by Elizabeth Cooke
Berkely Trade (2013)
Trade paperback (336) pages
ISBN: 978-0425262580

Cover image courtesy of Berkley Trade © 2013; text Christina Boyd © 2013, Austenprose

The Ashford Affair: A Novel, by Lauren Willig – A Review

Image of the book cover of The Ashford Affair, by Lauren Willig © 2013 St. Martin’s PressFrom the desk of Christina Boyd

In a departure from her Napoleonic spy romances of the Pink Carnation Series, New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig ventures into new territory with The Ashford Affair. Entwining one generation’s story with that of another, from post-Edwardian British society to modern day Manhattan to a coffee farm in Kenya, the long veiled secrets of a woman are unraveled.

Clementine Evans, a focused, driven law associate on the cusp of making partner in a large Manhattan firm, attends her beloved grandmother Adeleine’s 99th birthday and is accidentally enlightened to a family secret. At 34, Clemmie, feeling like her life is nothing but a 70-plus hour workweek, and a failed engagement, this intrigue becomes more than a distraction to the un-fulfilling, lonely details of her days.

Clemmie slid the picture back into the drawer. There was another underneath it, a studio portrait of a woman, her head tilted. Her pale hair was crimped in stylized waves around her face and her pale eyes gazed soulfully into the distance. She looked, somehow, strangely familiar, her cheekbones, the shape of her lips, as if Clemmie had seen her somewhere before.” p. 65.

But trying to get any information from her own tight-lipped mother proves difficult. And how is it that her ex-stepbrother knows more about the family histories than she does?

Adeleine Gillecote’s parents die when she is almost six and she grows up as the mouse-brown ward of her aristocratic aunt and uncle at Ashford Park, a grand English country house. Though brought up with her cousins, Addie never overcomes the status of a poor relation. Despite this, her best friend from almost the start is her vivacious, beautiful, golden cousin, Bea, who takes Addie under her wing, sheltering Addie from her unwelcoming mother, and earning her love and fidelity. As the girls grow and experience the pre-WWI balls and English society, Addie tries not to begrudge Bea’s beauty or her unaffected graces. But when a man comes between the two, it appears all loyalties come to an end, and, escaping to Kenya still isn’t quite far enough. “Addie pressed her fist to her lips, trying not to think what she was thinking. She closed her eyes, fighting a terrible certainty, the certainty that what she was hearing was true, that this was Bea, that Bea had, did, and always would do what she liked, regardless of the consequences, regardless even of Addie.”  p. 196.

Although this latest offering is a non-Pink novel, fans of Willig’s the Pink Carnation Series will be giddy with delight when they meet the handsome, cynical and witty descendant of Lord Vaughn. Yes! That Vaughn from The Masque of the Black Tulip.

“He looked feline himself, all boneless grace, with the measureless self-satisfaction afforded by knowing his ancestors had been dining off gold plate when others had still been scratching about in the dirt: the Honorable Theophilius Vaughn, the despair of the ancient line. According to his frustrated family, he had both the morals of a cat and all of its nine lives.” p. 248.

The spawn of Vaughn.”  Ha!! Her words from her website, not mine!

Some have described this novel as Out of Africa meets Downton Abbey. *sigh* Well, use those cinematic visuals if you must, but I can honestly attest, The Ashford Affair is so much more. Much more. This is the kind of the novel that will stay with you; keep you mulling over the vibrant characters and intrinsic detailing long after you’ve inhaled that satisfying last page. Lauren Willig’s The Ashford Affair is brilliant! Glittering brilliance.

5 out of 5 Stars

The Ashford Affair: A Novel, by Lauren Willig
St. Martin’s Press (2013)
Hardcover (368) pages
ISBN: 978-1250014498

Cover image courtesy © 2013 St. Martin’s Press; text © 2013 Christina Boyd, Austenprose

To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace – A Review

Image of book cover of To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace (2012)From the desk of Laura A. Wallace. 

Originally published in 1989, this 2012 re-issue of To Marry and English Lord is an attractive trade paperback edition by Workman Publishing. Promoted as “an inspiration for Downton Abbey,” Julian Fellowes, the screenplay writer who created the series, has been quoted as saying that he was reading this book when approached about writing the series, and that the first character he conceived for it was Cora, Countess of Grantham, an American heiress.

This book has long been on my “to acquire and read” list so I was really looking forward to finally reading it. I found it to be fairly light reading. The chapters are divided up into short sub-headings, sprinkled with lots of side-bar quotations and tid-bits (at least one on every page), and interspersed with little mini-articles on every third or fourth page. Illustrations are copious; decorations are Victorian and Edwardian. Overall it presents a great deal of factual information in a very digestible way.

This is the sort of book that serves as an introduction to a topic, and a launching pad for further research. (It is the type of book that novelists unfortunately use as a primary source, but that is a rant for another time.) It has no footnotes or endnotes, but does have a good selective bibliography which includes a list of period fictional works. The index is good (if imperfect) and there are excellent appendices, including a “Register of American Heiresses” and a “Walking Tour of the American Heiresses’ London” which are handy references.

The text is organized in a loosely chronological way. It begins with the origins of Anglomania (the 1860 U. S. visit of the young Prince of Wales) and the beyond-Almack’s-despotic exclusivity of Old New York “Knickerbocker” society which ruthlessly excluded new money. So the first set of snubbed wives and daughters left New York for Paris and then London in the 1870s, where they scored aristocratic English husbands, got themselves into the Prince of Wales’s social set, and rarely bothered to cross the Atlantic again.

This first set was comparatively small, comprising only about half a dozen women, and it is they who earned the sobriquet “The Buccaneers.” The most famous girl in this first wave was Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill and became the mother of Sir Winston Churchill.

But that was just the tip of the spear of the “American Invasion.” The ranks grew steadily and kept up the pace until the death of Edward VII in 1910, after which it trickled off and ended with World War I. I had not realized, until reading this book, that the invasion was so extensive. There were at least two dozen who married into the peerage itself, and dozens more who married younger sons, baronets, M.P.s, and gentry. The “Register” at the back of the book lists about 115 of them, and this list, of course, cannot be exhaustive.

It was not just their pots of money that made these women so attractive to Englishmen.  Their manners were free, easy, and confident, the complete opposite of those of demure, shy English girls. They were well-educated and very well-dressed, usually by Worth.  They were pretty, too, their very lack of “breeding” apparently considered a bonus by their targets, if not by their mamas (appealing at a genetic level, perhaps?). The Prince of Wales loved them, and where he led, everyone followed.

I did find a few factual errors, an occasional absurd assertion, and a couple of errors in titles usage (of course), but overall the information presented seems solid. I encourage readers to use this book as a spring platform to explore other works, whether Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough’s memoirs, the novels of Wharton, James, and Hardy, or perhaps some of the lesser-known novels of the day. (The latter are featured in a mini-article, but not listed in the bibliography.) The book nicely provides the most general background material to improve enjoyment of the portraits of Sargent (there are hundreds on Wikimedia Commons) or of the costume dramas to which we are all highly addicted.

4 out of 5 Stars

To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace
Workman Publishing (2012)
Trade paperback (403) pages
ISBN: 978-0761171959

Cover image courtesy © Workman Publishing Group; text © 2012 Laura A. Wallace

Circles of Time: Book Two of the Greville Family Saga, by Philip Rock – A Review

Image of the book cover of Circles of Time, by Philip Rock © William Morrow Books 2013After re-discovering The Passing Bells – after a thirty year estrangement – I was thrilled to learn there were two more books in the Greville Family Saga. Originally published between 1978 – 1986, this welcome reissue of the trilogy by William Morrow Books is just in time for fans of the popular television series Downton Abbey to plunge back into the era between the wars and cocoon themselves in history, drama and romance.

Set in England during 1921 – 1923, Circles of Time opens two years after the end of the Great War and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles by the Germany and the Allied Powers. The Greville family of Abingdon Pryory, like so many in Britain (and the world), have suffered five years of a devastating loss during the war and are attempting to rebound. How each of the characters deals with their pain and the future is what compels this story forward and captivates our hearts.

The fighting may be over, but the effect of the war continues for many. Patriarch Lord Anthony Greville, 9th earl of Stanmore, a staunch traditionalist chooses to turn back time and restore his ancestral estate back to pre-war elegance before it was abused as an officer’s rehabilitation hospital. Hannah, his American wife, is not only uneasy with the extravagance of living in a huge grand manor house again, but riddled with guilt by the money used for its refurbishment from her trust fund – profits earned during the war from investments in munitions plants in the US. Their three children are also suffering from the fallout of the war. Twenty five-year old daughter Alexandra, a beautiful socialite turned war-time nurse in France, has returned from Canada with her infant son. Now a widow, her father will never forgive her for the indiscretion of having an affair with a married man, becoming pregnant, and marrying a week after he obtained a divorce. Charles, their eldest son and heir to the estate, gallantly served in the war and is a severely shell-shocked amnesiac residing in a mental hospital in Wales. William, recuperating from a gunshot wound to his knee inflicted by his brother is supposedly studying for the bar, but is actually living a dissipated life of heavy drink, flappers and jazz clubs in London.

Friends and relatives of the family are challenged too. The Greville’s American cousin Martin Rilke is still grieving the loss of his wife Ivy who died in Flanders serving as a nurse in a medical unit. Awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his truthful account of his Cousin Charles Greville’s court martial, he has turned his war-time experience into a tell-all book, A Killing Ground, a savage expose on the war that has garnered praise and a libel lawsuit by an angry British general. Fellow journalist Jacob Gold has been working for the United Nations reporting on hunger in the war-torn nations, and their mutual friend Lieutenant Colonel Fenton Wood-Lacy faces painful consequence of not burying the facts of Charles Greville’s breakdown by being blacklisted by the army and sent to a bleak colonial outpost in Mesopotamia without his family.

There is a bit of romance too. Lady Hannah uses her matchmaking skills and researches eligible bachelors again for her daughter. Her top choice is Noel Edward Allenby Rothwell, Esq. – a London financier from a fine family who checks off all of the requirements for the perfect son-in-law for Lord and Lady Stanmore. Alex knows she is damaged goods and that her mother’s choice will make everyone happy – but her. She much prefers Jamie Ross, a man from her past who had been her father’s chauffeur/mechanic before the war. He has gone on to become an acclaimed aeroplane designer and owner of  a growing company in San Diego, California. He is in England again on extended business at the local plane manufacturer near the Pryory, and his easy manners and engaging spirit are far more appealing than a life with Noel which seems predestined for disaster.

The grounding force of the novel is my favorite character Martin Rilke who is catalyst for many events. Even though the narrative is told through many different viewpoints, as a journalist he is always in the thick of the social unrest and political changes sweeping Britain and Europe. Through his character and his interactions we see an array of consequences of the Great War and how it changed life so dramatically for a large estate like Abingdon Pryory, the working class who served there, the nation and the world.

Philip Rock skillfully takes us into the decadence of London Jazz clubs, the changing rural life of a country village, the growth of industrialization, social conflicts with the rise of Fascism, Communism and National Socialism, and the crippling reparations imposed by the Allied Powers on Germany and Austria that affect the world economy – all impacting the lives of this circle of friends and family that are connected to Abingdon Pryory. As a screenwriter turned novelist, Rock knows exactly how to shape the narrative to his will with brevity and emotion. I think he explains it best himself through a conversation that Martin Rilke has with his journalist friend Joe regarding the style of writing his own book: “Oh, cool, crisp prose. Nothing overwrought. Perfect use of understatement and irony. About as clean as a left jab to the jaw.” p 22.

After thoroughly enjoying The Passing Bells, I did not think it would be possible to surpass my awe and enjoyment, but Circles of Time matches my expectations with its historical drama excelling with intimate characterization. The battlefields of France and all the horrible devastation of WWI was very gripping and intriguing, but as we move with the characters into the rebuilding of the nation and their lives, it becomes more personal, positive and uplifting. If you love beautifully written historical drama, you won’t be disappointed.

5 out of 5 Stars

Circles of Time: Book Two of the Greville Family Saga, by Philip Rock
William Morrow Boos (2013)
Trade paperback (448) pages
ISBN: 978-0062229335

Book cover image courtesy of © William Morrow Books 2013; text © Laurel Ann Nattress 2013, Austenprose

Summerset Abbey: A Novel, by T. J. Brown – A Review

Summerset Abbey, by T. J. Brown (2013)From the desk of Christina Boyd

Now that the third season of Downton Abbey has ended and left us quite reeling, what better balm to sooth our broken hearts than this new Edwardian series, Summerset Abbey by debut writer T. J. Brown. The year is 1913, the prelude to WWI, and three young women gently pursue their life’s hopes and desires, surrounded by the tacit convention of society. From almost page one, this historical fiction begins to weave its web as Sir Philip Buxton, who has raised his two beautiful daughters alongside the daughter of their governess, who is much like a sister to them, dies. Now the girls must abandon all they know, their Bohemian lifestyle, household and modern manners to live under the charge of their traditional Edwardian uncle at his extensive estate, Summerset Abbey.

Raised to esteem the person and not riches or rank, Rowena and Victoria encounter their first snag when they learn that although they will be welcomed to Summerset, their “sister” Prudence Tate is not, as she is but the daughter of a governess. In a rash moment, and fearing they might lose Prudence forever, Rowena claims they must have a lady’s maid and solicits Prudence for the job. Although claiming it is but temporary until Rowena comes into her own money and can provide for them all, balancing loyalty while attempting to fashion out a place for herself becomes her true cross to bear. “How independent had she been, really? She knew nothing of finances and had never bothered to ask. She’s had all of the freedom, none of the responsibility, and stupidly, she’d never even know what to ask for. She’d been selfish, thoughtlessly flitting from one whimsy to another, never learning anything useful. No wonder her father had given financial responsibility to his brother.” Rowena’s intentions are honorable but to have her so-called sister relegated below stairs, with the duties entailed upon Prudence, is a cruelty “suspended between upstairs and downstairs worlds of Summerset, and truly belonging to neither.”

Prudence, who was raised nearly as one of Sir Buxton’s daughters, is now nothing more than the girls’ lady’s maid and yet the household staff won’t accept her any more than Lord & Lady Buxton consider her family. Moreover she can’t shake this niggling sensation, even when she encounters absolute strangers in the village, why they shy away from her person as well. “Her mother had begun as a maid. She had no idea what her father had done for work, as her mother never spoke of him, but she had family who lived in the village. No doubt many of them had worked for the Buxtons or one of the other titled families in the area. Was there really a fundamental difference between those of the lower class and those of the upper class, aside from the circumstances of one’s birth, something over which a person has no control? Why did those of the lower classes put up with being made to feel as if they were second-class humans?”

The younger sister Victoria, although of delicate health, has a voracious, lively mind and aspires to become a botanist, as was her father. Victoria’s unconventional studies and research steer her to make a scandalous discovery about the family that powers the narrative further into intrigue.  “She was putting the books away when a newspaper clipping fluttered out of the back of one of the books. Her heart raced as she realized what it was…”

Meanwhile Prudence catches the eye of Summerset’s dashing houseguest, Lord Billingsly, as well as the comely footman, Andrew, but they only seem to add to her confusion and turmoil. ““I certainly did not promise you the second dance, Lord Billingsley,” she huffed, searching for Andrew over his shoulder. But then his hand cupped her waist, sending a shiver up her spine, and she forgot about Andrew, forgot about everything except trying to breathe.” In addition, Rowena becomes captivated by a dashing test pilot, entangling herself in another family mystery: who is this fine, young man and what does he mean to the Buxtons?

As the early twentieth century evolved with the coming industry, electricity, radio, aeroplanes and the talk of war, it also brought the end to the excesses of many aristocratic families and houses. Opinions were changing and the girls were raised to be open to itAuthor T. J. Brown has richly drawn these shifting times through well-drawn characters, compelling plotlines and conspiracy on nearly every other page. My only complaint – and it’s a major one — is that the ending was inexplicably stunted! And shocking! And unforeseen! But blessedly, book two in this three-book saga, Summerset Abbey, A Bloom in Winter was just released on March 5. Note: book three, Summerset Abbey, A Spring Awakening is coming in early August 2013. Albeit this will be catnip for Downton Abbey fans, this novel will dazzle you on its own merit.  It’s the bee’s knees!

4.5 out of 5 Stars

Summerset Abbey: A Novel, by T. J. Brown
Gallery Books (2013)
Trade paperback (320) pages
ISBN: 978-1451698985

Cover image courtesy of © 2013 Gallery Books; text © 2013 Christina Boyd, Austenprose