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For the Cavendish family, Rutherford Park is much more than a place to call home. It is a way of life marked by rigid rules and lavish rewards, governed by unspoken desires. Lady of the house Octavia Cavendish lives like a bird in a gilded cage. Her husband, William, also feels boundby the obligations of his title as well as his vows. Their son, Harry, is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, but the boy has dreams of his own. Meanwhile, downstairs, a housemaid named Emily holds a secret that could destroy the Cavendish legacy.
Elizabeth Cooke lives in Dorset in southern England and is the author of twelve novels, among them the international bestseller The Ice Child. She has a longestablished reputation for vivid storytelling and historical accuracy.
- The novel opens at Christmastime with the tragic story of Harry’s relationship with Emily, their daughter’s birth, and Emily’s death. How does Emily’s fate affect Harry’s relationship with his parents, and with himself, as he grows into adulthood?
- Louisa is portrayed as an innocent na´ve young woman who aims to please her family and society’s expectations. However, when she is being fitted for her Presentation dress, Louisa feels a strange urge to step on the seamstress’s hand, and “to hear the girl squeal.” (p. 77). What do you think this brief scene reveals about her true character?
- Mary and Emily are both mill town girls, yet they are polar opposites in character, as Emily is timid and runs from her troubles, while Mary is outspoken and tackles obstacles headon. What do you think this says about the extent to which personality is affected by situation?
- The women in the novel seem to consider it a fact of life that men will cheat on their wives, and Hetty had “not even seemed surprised” that William had an affair (p. 130). Octavia, though, has an affair of her own with John Gould. Do you think Octavia’s affair is justified? Going further, do you think her affair represents empowerment while William’s signifies weakness? Discuss.
- John Gould finds, in going through William’s paperwork, a note that someone wrote in the margin: “Honesty is no match for villainy” (p. 114). To what extent does the novel support this theory? What are some examples?
- Throughout the novel, Helene is portrayed as a caricature of sorts, representing a modern, independent, and promiscuous woman. However, when William and Harry confront her in her Paris home looking for Louisa, she is not the fashionable flirt she usually appears to be, answering the door in a shawl and slippers. Do you sympathize with her and her situation, or do you think she deserves her fate?
- Octavia says to John that she longs to “do anything at all” (p. 182), and even somewhat envies the servants for their work. At Christmas, William looks out at the labourers and considers them more “real” (p. 52) than the monuments he and his wife symbolize. Do you think William sees his privileged life as a blessing, or as an obligation?
- Helene is the catalyst for Octavia and William’s marital troubles. However, she is also the epitome of a free and modern woman. Is Helene the villain in the novel who causes the Cavendish’s downfall, or is her affair with William a blessing in disguise for Octavia, opening her up to new possibilities for happiness?
- John believes that human beings are “taken down by not giant chaos, but trivial mistakes” (p. 150). To what extent do you think this is true? What trivial mistakes have brought down the characters in the novel?
- Like Helene, John has a reputation as a charmer and a flirt. These characters bring up the idea of reputation versus the truth. How are Helene and John similar, and how are they different in terms of living up to their scandalous reputations?
- John expresses that he considers himself an adventurer and explorer who is not ready to settle down, doubting that he could ever be faithful to a woman. However, he daydreams about a future in America with Octavia and the children. John himself “didn’t know what he was, and that was the truth” (p. 189). Who, do you think, is the real John Gould? Give examples that show his true character.
- Throughout the novel, William expresses a very traditional view of women, believing they should be obedient wives who need to be “protected from reality” (p. 237). Do you think that William’s attitude toward women has changed at all by the end of the novel? How?
- How would you describe Harry and William’s relationship at the end of the novel? Do you think they have reached a sort of truce, or will their differences always create tension?
- Why, do you think, Octavia stays at Rutherford at the end of the novel? Is it purely for the children’s sake, as she suggests, or are other motives involved?
- At the end of the novel, do you think Octavia will follow William in his bare feet? If yes, do you think that signifies weakness or strength in her character?