The Great War from a Country House


9780425262597_large_The_Wild_Dark_FlowersIn a recent Canadian newspaper article, the television series Downton Abbey was cited as one of the major inspirations for North American aspirations to cultivate “[s]weeping vistas of gorgeous manicured green”[1] because of their association with wealth. This association comes from “the gentry of Western Europe, where highly tended lawns became almost an obsession among Britain’s nobility”[2]. In her latest novel, The Wild Dark Flowers, A Novel of Rutherford Park, Elizabeth Cooke invokes these images in the very beginning of her narrative as William Cavendish, the seventh Earl Rutherford, takes a pause while pursuing another favorite English obsession—the country walk—to survey his estate: “As he stepped down from the upper paths of the woodland and paused to look over the valley on that still and beautiful May morning in 1915, William Cavendish remembered his father.”[3] In this opening line, Cooke not only taps into our North American cache of images of sweeping English vistas, but also establishes the temporal setting and reminds us of the importance of genealogy also associated with “Britain’s nobility”, the occupants of those great country estates. This impression is further emphasized by Cooke’s allusions to the “Tudor barley-sugar twist chimneys”[4] and the “Tudor hall”[5], reminding us that the genealogy of families like these stretches back to before the birth of the United States.

The year 1915 holds another significant milestone for Cooke; it was the year her grandfather died. Consequently, Cooke says, writing about life in a Yorkshire country house during World War I was something for which she was well prepared. “I know Yorkshire people, and [my grandfather’s] story is one of perseverance and hard work,” says Cooke. So when it came time to develop the characters that worked at Rutherford Park, Cooke’s own family’s memories of her grandfather provided inspiration. “I based the characters of both Jack Armitage and his father on my grandfather. Because even though he worked terribly hard, my grandfather was reputed to have had a very soft heart—and both Jack and his father feel very much for their horses.”

Jack Armitage does indeed display a very soft heart when it comes to the horses in his care. But he also reveals a soft spot for 19-year-old Louisa Cavendish, the eldest daughter of Octavia and William Cavendish. This is just one of the many Rutherford Park estate subplots that Cooke pursues in the second novel of a series she anticipates will number four novels, taking the narrative up to December 1918.

In the first novel, Cooke explores the extra-marital affairs of the Earl and Countess of Rutherford Park, the wild exploits of their coming-of-age son Harry, the scandalous love affair of Louisa, and the social dynamics of the servants of Rutherford. In The Wild Dark Flowers, Harry is a single father and a member of the Royal Flying Corps, William regrets his cold, dictatorial attitude towards his wife, Octavia questions her decision to stay with William, while their youngest daughter Charlotte demonstrates some very untraditional interests in literature—she’s reading James Joyce’s The Dubliners—and politics. Louisa, meanwhile, has decided to stick her head in the traditional sand because of the unhappy ending to her scandalous love affair.

The heart of this story really belongs to Octavia, the Countess Rutherford. Dissatisfied with her May-December marriage to William, Octavia is distracted by the young American John Gould. While she chooses to sacrifice the love and happiness she found with Gould for the benefit of her family, William’s chilly personality makes her question whether she has given up too much. But Gould’s influence brings about a positive change in Octavia—positive, that is, to 21st-century readers. To William’s dismay, Octavia is no longer the acquiescent, submissive Edwardian wife but speaks her mind more often and has taken an interest in the mills that were her rich father’s legacy. On her website, Cooke provides a clue into what inspired her to write about a woman like Octavia; an image of John Singer Sargent’s portrait, “Lady Agnew of Locknaw”, located in the National Gallery of Scotland, is posted on her Pinterest page. You can almost hear the rustle of this lady’s silk dress when you look at Sargent’s portrait. Hers was, according to the website, the image that “first inspired” Cooke in how she wanted to represent Octavia.

“She has a very direct look,” Cooke says of Lady Agnew’s portrait. “She almost seems to be saying, ‘I may seem very pretty, but don’t tangle with me’. Octavia proves, in time, to have great courage and fortitude. Also, the face is very sensual. Octavia was locked up, sexually, for so long.”

Octavia’s buttoned-up sexuality is set free, in the first novel, when she meets a younger man, Gould. The affair nearly tears the family apart but, more importantly, makes Octavia determined to rise above the narrow role she has had as the wife of her even more “locked up” husband. Perhaps Sargent’s sensual portrait also inspired Cooke to include a Sargent portrait of Octavia, hung above the great mahogany staircase in the Tudor hall.

If William’s buttoned-up personality sounds familiar, it is probably due to the Downton effect, the hugely popular Masterpiece Theatre series that first aired in 2010. The Earl and Countess of Grantham are the owners of the sweeping vistas of Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle, west of London, stands in for Grantham’s residence). Scandals and love affairs, both between the rich, between servants, and across the class divide, form the major plot lines that run through Downton. For Julian Fellowes, its creator, this is familiar territory. In 2002, he won Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen for his first screenplay, Gosford Park. Directed by Robert Altman—who won a Golden Globe for his work on the film—Gosford Park similarly looks at the clash of the classes, but features as the patriarch of the estate a man who is the target of revenge for his exploitation of the women working in his mills. It is darker than Downton, but explores many of the same themes of the crumbling divisions between the classes and the struggle that those born to the old class system face as those divisions erode.

Like the Crawley children of Downton, the Cavendish children of Rutherford’s patriarch engage in love affairs that are scandalous. The Wild Dark Flowers alludes to the affair that Harry had with Rutherford servant Emily Maitland. Like the former chauffeur in Downton, Tom Branson, who crossed class divisions to marry Lady Sybil Crawley, Harry loses Emily to childbirth but finds himself father to a daughter, Cecilia. Louisa is trying to live down her past: her elopement to Paris with her cousin, Charles de Montfort. This makes her growing closeness with Jack Armitage ironic because she embraces the traditional values of her father’s generation, likely finding in them the security she felt lost to her in the wake of the scandal. Louisa’s younger sister, Charlotte, like Sybil Grantham, is a budding suffragette and likely the next Cavendish child to leave the nest.

eliz cooke author picYet despite the appeal of linking the Rutherford Park series with Downton Abbey, Cooke reminds us that comparisons can be “misleading”. She uses this term when asked to compare her novels to other novels that explore the same era and a similar country house setting. Nevertheless, she admits to the influence of the televising of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, based on the novel series that is set in both the city and the country, focusing on the fortunes of a family patriarch.

“[It is] what inspired and interested me historically when I started to write,” says Cooke. “The televising of Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga made a great impression on me, and I read all the books.”

The miniseries, The Forsyte Saga, is a 2002 Granada Television production starring Homeland’s Damian Lewis. It is based on three of Galsworthy’s novels, first published together as The Forsyte Saga in 1922, but originally published separately in 1905. Like Julian Fellowes’s Downton Abbey and Cooke’s Rutherford Park, the traditional side of the family favors an ideology that values material possessions and emotional control. Unlike the creations of Fellowes and Cooke, Galsworthy’s novels are contemporary, rather than historical, fiction.

For Cooke, Galsworthy led to James: “Henry James and that era was compelling. I was mesmerized by Henry James’s style when I first read him. But there is no way I’m saying I’m in the league of James or Galsworthy… I just admire them greatly.”

American Henry James spent a large portion of his life in England, and much of it in friends’ English country houses made so famous through literature, film, and television.  It is likely his entrée into London society and the country house culture that gave James the inspiration for the clashing of American and European cultures that have come to be a common theme in novels and screenplays set in this era and historical time. For example, in Downton Abbey Cora Crawley is an American heiress whose mother, Martha Levinson, butts heads with Lord Grantham’s mother, Violet. In Gosford Park, a movie producer visits the country estate of Sir William McCordle to better understand the inner workings of an English country house for his next Charlie Chan film. While James’s novels usually focus on privileged lives, the ones who live upstairs in the country house, Cooke’s narrative has a broader social focus.

The Rutherford Park series seeks to represent the emotional and psychological struggles facing all of the class levels found in a country estate like Rutherford Park while weaving in the dawning horror of what was happening to young men on the Western Front. In particular, Cooke explores the experiences of a man who was originally employed as a footman at Rutherford Park. In The Wild Dark Flowers, Donald Harrison is a soldier in the British army. When we meet him, he is sitting in an open coal cart, part of a hastily contrived troop transport that takes him as “far away from Rutherford as he could possibly be”[6]. Harrison is glad to be away from Rutherford and ashamed to admit to his fellow soldiers that he was a footman. He thinks telling the other lads that he had been a footman “would be like admitting to being a jumped-up lackey, a groveler, a fairy boy”[7]. But it turns out that there is one person from Rutherford that he misses: housemaid Jenny Best. For Harrison, Jenny is “a nice memory; something to hold on to, the memory of that palely timid girl”[8]. It is from Harrison that we get another view of William Cavendish and his “theories of the working man”:

He had listened many times to Lord Cavendish expound his theories of the working man; heard him talk about the lower classes as if they were, at best, a kind of devoted dog to the landowner, the man stuffed into a suit, the man who permanently looked down from his lofty heights.[9]

Cooke gets inside the resentment many of these men must have suffered through in the face of such condescension, emphasizing that the clash between the classes had much to do with men’s renewed ideas about their self-worth. As for those of the upper class, men like William Cavendish, Harrison thinks they see themselves as “sitting on the top of a tree that would never fall”.[10]

Harrison is again an insightful observer when he experiences the horrors of the trenches. Again, Cooke gets inside Harrison’s head and how he experiences the unpleasant breezes that carry “a mixture of wet and cordite and a deeper and more insistent fetid rot. Clay and blood and bones”.[11] The effects of constant bombardment on men like Harrison were filmed as part of their medical treatment and can be viewed on the Internet, but when Harrison reflects that “[h]e has spent the last few days trying to hide the intractable jittering of his body”[12], we get a sense of how the conscious part of the mind can recognize the jitters while the unconscious part recoils physically to the horror happening around it. The best written of these experiences occurs when Harrison is wounded in an attempt to go over the top—to enter No Man’s Land and charge the enemy. Before he gets hit, Harrison has a vision:

[H]e thought that all the way ahead of him was a meadow full of wild dark flowers. Dark blue streamers, like irises, or reeds at the edge of a river. And then he realized that it was not flowers at all, but other men—mere sketches of men now in the ground mist—as they swayed and staggered. Wild dark flowers bending to the ground.”[13]

These men, Harrison’s comrades, become as insubstantial as flowers that are cut down in swaths, just as the German machine guns cut down these men.

Cooke’s research led her to private accounts of men like Harrison.

“There are so many moving accounts,” she says. “I was particularly touched by Richard van Emden’s books, especially The Quick and the Dead and Britain’s Last Tommies. Unforgettable books. Also The Bickersteth Diaries 1914-1918, which reveal the sufferings of one family… and Last Post by Max Arthur.”

Just before Harrison’s rescue and death, he reflects on how, while the day became hotter, “the sky above was a brilliant blue”[14]. He remembers Rutherford Park: “Somewhere back at Rutherford that same sky would be blazing down on beautiful fields, on manicured gardens.”[15] As his life is passing, Harrison longs for the “[s]weeping vistas of gorgeous manicured green” and the images of wealth and privilege those vistas convey.


About the contributor: Terri R. Baker is a PhD candidate and an instructor in the Department of English at the University of Calgary and at Mount Royal University. Her dissertation examines Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels.



[1] Bill Brooks, “The perfect patch,” “Gardening,” The Calgary Herald, D7, 13 June. 2014, print.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Elizabeth Cooke, The Wild Dark Flower, A Novel of Rutherford Park, New York: Berkley Books, 2014, 1, print.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] Ibid., 4.

[6] Cooke, 69.

[7] Ibid., 70.

[8] Ibid., 72.

[9] Ibid., 72.

[10] Ibid., 73.

[11] Ibid., 251.

[12] Ibid., 252.

[13] Ibid., 257.

[14] Ibid., 262.

[15] Ibid.

Posted by Claire Morris

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