Now that the third season of Downton Abbey has ended and left us quite reeling, what better balm to sooth our broken hearts than this new Edwardian series, Summerset Abbey by debut writer T. J. Brown. The year is 1913, the prelude to WWI, and three young women gently pursue their life’s hopes and desires, surrounded by the tacit convention of society. From almost page one, this historical fiction begins to weave its web as Sir Philip Buxton, who has raised his two beautiful daughters alongside the daughter of their governess, who is much like a sister to them, dies. Now the girls must abandon all they know, their Bohemian lifestyle, household and modern manners to live under the charge of their traditional Edwardian uncle at his extensive estate, Summerset Abbey.
Raised to esteem the person and not riches or rank, Rowena and Victoria encounter their first snag when they learn that although they will be welcomed to Summerset, their “sister” Prudence Tate is not, as she is but the daughter of a governess. In a rash moment, and fearing they might lose Prudence forever, Rowena claims they must have a lady’s maid and solicits Prudence for the job. Although claiming it is but temporary until Rowena comes into her own money and can provide for them all, balancing loyalty while attempting to fashion out a place for herself becomes her true cross to bear. “How independent had she been, really? She knew nothing of finances and had never bothered to ask. She’s had all of the freedom, none of the responsibility, and stupidly, she’d never even know what to ask for. She’d been selfish, thoughtlessly flitting from one whimsy to another, never learning anything useful. No wonder her father had given financial responsibility to his brother.” Rowena’s intentions are honorable but to have her so-called sister relegated below stairs, with the duties entailed upon Prudence, is a cruelty “suspended between upstairs and downstairs worlds of Summerset, and truly belonging to neither.”
Prudence, who was raised nearly as one of Sir Buxton’s daughters, is now nothing more than the girls’ lady’s maid and yet the household staff won’t accept her any more than Lord & Lady Buxton consider her family. Moreover she can’t shake this niggling sensation, even when she encounters absolute strangers in the village, why they shy away from her person as well. “Her mother had begun as a maid. She had no idea what her father had done for work, as her mother never spoke of him, but she had family who lived in the village. No doubt many of them had worked for the Buxtons or one of the other titled families in the area. Was there really a fundamental difference between those of the lower class and those of the upper class, aside from the circumstances of one’s birth, something over which a person has no control? Why did those of the lower classes put up with being made to feel as if they were second-class humans?”
The younger sister Victoria, although of delicate health, has a voracious, lively mind and aspires to become a botanist, as was her father. Victoria’s unconventional studies and research steer her to make a scandalous discovery about the family that powers the narrative further into intrigue. “She was putting the books away when a newspaper clipping fluttered out of the back of one of the books. Her heart raced as she realized what it was…”
Meanwhile Prudence catches the eye of Summerset’s dashing houseguest, Lord Billingsly, as well as the comely footman, Andrew, but they only seem to add to her confusion and turmoil. ““I certainly did not promise you the second dance, Lord Billingsley,” she huffed, searching for Andrew over his shoulder. But then his hand cupped her waist, sending a shiver up her spine, and she forgot about Andrew, forgot about everything except trying to breathe.” In addition, Rowena becomes captivated by a dashing test pilot, entangling herself in another family mystery: who is this fine, young man and what does he mean to the Buxtons?
As the early twentieth century evolved with the coming industry, electricity, radio, aeroplanes and the talk of war, it also brought the end to the excesses of many aristocratic families and houses. Opinions were changing and the girls were raised to be open to it. Author T. J. Brown has richly drawn these shifting times through well-drawn characters, compelling plotlines and conspiracy on nearly every other page. My only complaint – and it’s a major one — is that the ending was inexplicably stunted! And shocking! And unforeseen! But blessedly, book two in this three-book saga, Summerset Abbey, A Bloom in Winter was just released on March 5. Note: book three, Summerset Abbey, A Spring Awakening is coming in early August 2013. Albeit this will be catnip for Downton Abbey fans, this novel will dazzle you on its own merit. It’s the bee’s knees!
4.5 out of 5 Stars
Summerset Abbey: A Novel, by T. J. Brown
Gallery Books (2013)
Trade paperback (320) pages
Cover image courtesy of © 2013 Gallery Books; text © 2013 Christina Boyd, Austenprose