Do you ever get the feeling that you’re not the target audience for a particular book? The cover of this one set my alarm bells ringing with its references to Downton Abbey and Catherine Cookson and Edwardian English country houses.
It’s not that I’ve got anything against the “English country house” novel. It’s just that I think it’s been written already, multiple times, and I don’t need to read it again. As for Downton Abbey, well, don’t get me started… I read Rutherford Park because the author asked me very nicely on Twitter, and I thought it wouldn’t do me any harm to read something outside my normal diet.
What I liked about Rutherford Park is that it doesn’t glamourise the aristocracy or their lives. In fact, what it does very well is to show how the wealthy Cavendish family is trapped by the system as well. The father, William, is weighed down by the burden of expectation, his wife Octavia feels trapped and dreams of doing something useful with her life, their son Harry wants to fly aeroplanes, and their daughter Louisa is terrified of being married off and “installed somewhere in the back of beyond in a huge house.”
The novel opens with the image of the house in midwinter:
Snow had fallen in the night, and now the great house, standing at the head of the valley, seemed like a five-hundred-year-old ship sailing in a white ocean.
From the first sentence, the age and greatness and size and solidity of the house are cemented in our minds, and this continues throughout the book, making even the powerful family who live in it seem inconsequential. Even when they appear to be acting out of free will, they are merely fitting into predefined patterns. Whether it’s William’s affair with a distant cousin, or Octavia’s infatuation with a dashing visitor to the house, or Harry’s dalliance with a servant, they are all playing out parts that their ancestors refined long before. They want to escape from the pattern, but seem incapable of doing so.
For the servants, of course, the options are far more limited, and the consequences far more severe. Emily, the servant seduced by Harry, dies shortly after giving birth to his child. Others bite their tongues, preferring servitude in the great house to the alternative of working in the dangerous textile mills whose profits maintain Rutherford Park. Within the ranks of the servants, a hierarchy is rigorously maintained, so that “no mere housemaid could speak to a lady’s maid.”
At the start of the novel, all of this seems unchangeable, and yet the date, Christmas 1913, tells us that it will not be that way forever. The war is coming, and the suffragettes are marching, and new ideas are penetrating even this remote country house in northern England. The changes for the Cavendish family come largely from their own mistakes, but the wider world also intrudes. By the end of the novel, war has been declared, some of the servants have left, and even Octavia has considered divorcing her husband and moving to America.
And yet, amid all the changes, there is continuity. Rutherford Park is, after all, “a five-hundred-year-old ship”, and has sailed through its share of storms. Although everything at one point seems to be breaking apart, it does come together again. The house is still standing, and the Cavendish family is still ruling it, damaged but not destroyed by everything that has been thrown at it since the previous Christmas. For the servants, life has changed in some ways, but in many ways it remains the same. War offers an alluring alternative to servitude, but with our knowledge of what awaits them in the trenches of World War I, we can see that it’s little more than the old, unpalatable choice in a new form.
The novel does a very good job of capturing this combination of change and continuity, the way that institutions continue to live on long after their usefulness has expired. The house seems to have a life of its own, and the characters in it exist merely to uphold that order, no matter what the cost to themselves and others. It looms over the novel from the first sentence onwards, and while it’s the characters’ various attempts at autonomy that keep us reading, you get the sense that in the end it will not be Octavia, or William, or Louisa or anyone else who gets what they really want. It will be Rutherford Park.