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Review: "Rutledge" by Miriam Coles Harris

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Supposing that Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Edith Wharton, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon formed a literary circle. Supposing this literary circle decided to write and publish a novel. In that case, one could reasonably believe that Rutledge is the novel this circle produced. Miriam Coles Harris was surely inspired by some of these authors, and no doubt she in turn inspired many more after her.

I do not believe that I have ever read a novel that brought so many other novels and writers to mind. Were I to choose one writer that came to mind most often, it would be Wharton, possibly because of the carefully described social atmosphere and dysfunctional characters of New England's privileged classes. Gothic influences are apparent in the spooky house, hidden rooms, and tightly kept and damning secrets, while belabored romances curtailed by misplaced pride and affections could have come straight from any Regency or Victorian romance. Braddon’s The Doctor’s Wife was published only four years after Rutledge; thus, the elements of “sensation novels” may have simply been the vogue at the time. I suspect that Rutledge could also belong to that genre since, like The Doctor’s Wife, it is a first-class page-turner.

The story begins one gloomy November day when our narrator (who remains unnamed) spends her last hours with her boarding school friends before Arthur Rutledge arrives to take her to live with her aunt, Mrs. Edith Churchill. During the journey, the narrator and Mr. Rutledge are injured in a train wreck and are thus moved to a nearby parsonage to recuperate before continuing the journey. The parsonage is part of a large estate, called Rutledge, and here the young lady experiences the kindness and caring of the parsonage’s occupants. Since the narrator is an orphan, their loving attention makes a lasting impression upon her. When Mr. Rutledge and the parson determine that their charge is well enough to be moved, Arthur and the narrator make the short journey to the main estate house. Here, she enjoys freedom and tranquility such as she has never known, and she thrives under the indulgent goodness of Mr. Rutledge. All too soon, however, the time comes for Arthur to deliver her into the hands of her aunt.

“Between the rough and torturing world and the scared and shrinking soul, the mother’s love should interpose, shielding, soothing, reassuring. God meant it to be so; may His pity be the guard of the little ones, whom death, the world, the flesh or the devil, have defrauded of their right!”

The narrator’s uncle, Mr. Churchill, has passed on to his eternal reward, and when we meet his widow, we can all agree that he is in a much better place. The icy and self-indulgent Mrs. Churchill has three daughters: Josephine, whom she hopes to marry to Mr. Rutledge; Grace, whose determined role in life is to serve as a thorn in any competitor’s side; and Essie, a small child looking for human kindness and unable to find any in this dysfunctional household. Living in a large city (perhaps New York) the older girls are preoccupied with their social life that also demands nearly 100 percent of their mother’s attention. Essie, unable to participate in the social life of her mother and two sisters, and forlornly looking for a caring companion, gratefully latches on to the narrator, who needs love and human kindness almost as much as Essie does.

“If other people neglected their children, and left their duties for their pleasures, why need I concern myself? Why need I take upon myself their discarded responsibilities?”

Our narrator becomes a quasi-mother to Essie while Mrs. Churchill, unable to tell the difference between illness and bad behavior, shuns and punishes her youngest child for her outbursts and refuses to listen when she is advised that perhaps Essie has something more wrong with her than just a temper.

Although she was not interested in society, preferring the quiet solitude of Rutledge with nothing else to keep her occupied, the narrator joins her aunt and cousins in their social whirl and begins, to a certain degree, to enjoy it. She meets a dashing young Frenchman and begins as much a relationship with him as her friendless, orphaned existence and her continuing attachment to Arthur Rutledge allows. However the Frenchman, harbors a dark secret and a shameful reason for his and his mother’s banishment from his native home.

“It was so easy to look back and see it all—how one slight omission of duty had led to another—how one moment of indulgence had weakened self-control—one disregard of truth had grown into the tyrant sin from which I could not now release myself; struggle as I might, I was helpless in its grasp. Every step but plunged me deeper; every word was but a fresh deceit.”

More tragedy ensues before our narrator determines to return to the place of real joy and love and be with those who ask nothing in return.

“I had not realized, till I came into its sunshine again how perfectly necessary to anything like happiness an atmosphere of love is.”

This ebook is the result of another of our proofreading projects for Project Gutenberg in partnership with Marc D’Hooghe of This is the second book I have volunteered to proof, and--as with the first--I was very glad I did. Like my first proofing project, Braddon’s The Doctor’s Wife, Rutledge is definitely a diamond in the rough. I often like to get a hard copy of the books I am working on, so I did a search for Rutledge and could not come up with a hard copy from any source. I am so pleased that, thanks to and Project Gutenberg, this book will not be lost to posterity.


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