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