Gallery / January 15, 2013 / $15 print, ~$10.93+ digital
Reminiscent of Downton Abbey, this first novel in a new series follows two sisters and their maid as they are suddenly separated by the rigid class divisions within a sprawling aristocratic estate and thrust into an uncertain world on the brink of WWI...
Rowena and Victoria, daughters to the second son of the Earl of Summerset, have always treated their governess’s daughter, Prudence, like a sister. But when their father dies and they move in with their uncle’s family in a much more traditional household, Prudence is relegated to the maids’ quarters, much to the girls’ shock and dismay. The impending war offers each girl hope for a more modern future, but the ever-present specter of class expectations makes it difficult for Prudence to maintain a foot in both worlds.
Vividly evoking both time and place and filled with authentic dialogue and richly detailed atmosphere, Summerset Abbey is a charming and timeless historical debut.
It’s 1913, and the lives of the Buxton sisters, Rowena (age twenty-two) and Victoria (age eighteen), are upended by the death of their beloved father. Despite their aristocratic lineage, their father raised them in an unusually progressive household. Everything changes when they are sent to live under their uncle’s guardianship at Summerset Abbey, the family estate outside of London.
The first, and most dramatic adjustment, comes for Prudence Tate, the daughter of the Buxton girl’s late governess, who was raised alongside them as a sister. Such an unorthodox arrangement is not tolerated at Summerset Abbey, and the only way Prudence is allowed to accompany Rowena and Victoria is as their maid. Rowena and Victoria are appalled, and Rowena knows that as the oldest, she is the one with the burden to right the wrong. But as she is drawn into Summerset Abbey, she is less inclined to fight the tide: “The history, the stories, the grandeur, and the elegance were intoxicating. And while she knew, as did her father and his contemporaries, that this way of life was dying out, must die out, she had to admit that she was suddenly saddened by the thought of it passing.”
While Rowena is the most internally conflicted – between the past of the future, between right and wrong – Prudence is the most challenged by circumstance. Suddenly, she is living life as a servant to two girls who were always sisters to her. And worst of all, she catches the eye of Lord Sebastian Billingsley, all the while understanding that theirs is a union that can never be:
Her attraction to him grew every time she saw him, which only
strengthened her resolve to avoid him should he return. She knew very well what happened to servant girls who had gone wrong. Her mother had been very opinionated on the subject […] Of course, girls went wrong with
all sorts of men, but dallying with a man from the upper classes only assured there would not be a fairy-tale ending. She knew there was no future for her and Lord Billingsley.
It soon becomes clear that there was good reason for Prudence’s mother to warn her about the perils of romance with a man above her station. And it’s part of a mystery that Victoria is trying to unravel.
Victoria has always lived a life of the mind, dreaming of studying botany like her father. (She is reminiscent of another literary heroine, the headstrong Jo March of Little Women.) Now that Victoria is sequestered at Summerset Abbey, she turns her intellect and curiosity to unraveling the secrets of Prudence’s mother’s past – a hidden scandal that could change everyone’s lived.
The girls’ uncle, The Earl, and his shrewd wife, Charlotte, are well aware of the danger of having Prudence in their midst: “The longer she is here, the more liable she is to discover our secret.” With the help Charlotte’s severe French maid, they conspire to push Prudence out the door of Summerset for good.
Meanwhile, another star-crossed love blooms at Summerset when Rowena falls for a Jonathan Wells, a neighbor with an affinity for flying airplanes whose family has had “bad blood” with the Buxtons. And Prudence, trying to figure out her station in life, begins seeing a footman named Andrew. When Rowena finds out who Prudence has accepted as a suitor, she is clearly disappointed and suggests that Lord Billingsley is interested in her. Prudence replies,
“Perhaps your father was optimistic in believing that things were changing between the classes, because it seems to me that in places like Summerset, things are very much the same. Andrew may be a footman, but he is a very nice young man and remember, I am nothing but the daughter of a maid turned governess. And now, as you well know, I am a lady’s maid.”
Loyalties are tested, passions found, and secrets are uncovered as Rowena, Victoria, and Prudence confront their futures. While I enjoyed all the characters, and increasingly so as the book progressed, my favorite part of this novel was the way in which the author completely immerses us in the world. The details of the house, the customs, the contrast between the haves and the have-nots, the clothing, the food – I experienced it almost as vividly as watching the dramatization of this era on television.
Summerset Abbey is the first in a trilogy, but we don’t have to wait long to see the consequences of their choices: The next book, A Bloom in Winter, will be out in March.
Jamie Brenner is the author of erotic novels published under the pen name Logan Belle, including her latest Bettie Page Presents: The Librarian ( Pocket Star/Simon & Schuster) and the erotic trilogy Blue Angel (Kensington.) Her historical romance The Gin Lovers, will be out in paperback in February (St. Martin’s Press). For more please visit www.jamiebrenner.com or follow her @jamieLbrenner.