Oatlands: Through Closed Doors

Written by Jill Rutherford
Review by Fiona Alison

In her new upstairs-downstairs drama, George III’s illness, the Regency debate, and the French Revolution are the backdrop to a story based on members of the author’s own family who lived and worked at Oatlands, a royal manor house belonging to Frederick, Duke of York. When Jack Dresser is invalided out of the army in 1787, he is offered a position as an Oatlands’ gate porter. He and his wife, Hannah, take up residence with their three youngest children and are quickly joined by Anne and William, their older children, who relocate to Oatlands from other aristocratic residences to become upstairs maid and fifth footman respectively. The life suits Anne very well, but William balks at constraints of boredom and everyday sameness. The story allows the reader to share in the rather daunting experience of working within the royal presence, from whom you must always remain unseen.

Characters and dialogue drive the story. Anne is ambitious, has a markedly independent spirit, and steers clear of men whenever possible. She celebrates her singleness in an era when married women and children were considered possessions. Rutherford shines a light on female vulnerability through Anne’s character development and some unsavoury incidents involving other female characters, many of whom are emotionally damaged by the unwanted attention and cruelty of men. William is an outrageous flirt with wanderlust, and both brother and sister are engagingly likeable. The duke’s social calendar is full of antics, including drinking, gambling and womanizing, but Rutherford’s focus is primarily on her downstairs characters as she negotiates them through some tricky situations and relationships. There is occasional repetition, and I could have managed well without the prologue, but overall, this is an enjoyable read. Of further interest is the author’s long historical note.