1913: In a sprawling manor on the outskirts of London, three young women seek to fulfill their destinies and desires amidst the unspoken rules of society and the distant rumblings of war. . . .
Rowena Buxton - Sir Philip Buxton raised three girls into beautiful and capable young women in a bohemian household that defied Edwardian tradition. But everything she believes will be tested when Sir Philip dies, and the girls must live under their uncle’s guardianship at the vast family estate, Summerset Abbey.
Victoria Buxton - Frail in body but filled with an audacious spirit, Victoria secretly dreams of attending university to become a botanist like her father. But this most unladylike wish is not her only secret—Victoria has stumbled upon a family scandal that, if revealed, has the potential to change lives forever. . . .
Prudence Tate - Prudence was lovingly brought up alongside Victoria and Rowena, and their bond is as strong as blood. But by birth she is a governess’s daughter, and to the lord of Summerset Abbey, that makes her a commoner who must take her true place in society—as lady’s maid to her beloved “sisters.”
Summerset Abbey revolves around the lives of Rowena, Victoria and Prudence as they are thrown, upon Philip Buxton's death, into a world completely different from the way they were brought up - a world extremely confining to women. Rowena reflected about her father: "Why hide the depth of entitlement and prejudice that defined places like Summerset?"
Rowena was not a likeable character, at least not in this first book. She frequently complains about the responsibility that has befallen her and comes across as weak, pampered, spoiled, and indecisive. Victoria trusted Rowena, as the older sister, to stand up to their uncle and his wife. Yet while she felt guilty, her response was always, "What can I do?"
I liked Victoria, the younger sister, but would have liked to see her character developed more fully. In spite of being frail in nature and suffering from asthma, she has spirit and conviction. She aspires to be a botanist, secretly took a typing class in order to help her father in his work, and she always fought for Prudence to return to her place at their side.
Prudence was a compelling character and I was drawn to her. She was good, kind and loyal - and she made the best of a difficult situation which must have been heartbreaking. Philip had to have known what she would face without the shelter of his home, and I never understood why he didn't take steps to protect her before his death.
Most readers of this novel probably can't help but compare it to the popular Downton Abbey. I suspect that Summerset Abbey presents a more accurate picture of the times, however. The novel is well researched and Brown does a good job at contrasting the social classes. This theme makes for good reading and I love British historicals, but hate the idea of class structure. Thrust into service after Philip's death, Prudence reflects: "It seemed odd to have a small army of silent, invisible workers keeping the house running in tip-top shape and not even be aware of them. Did Elaine ever wonder about the fire that warmed her room in the morning when she awoke, the never-ending supply of biscuits in the jar next to her bed, or how her slippers and dressing gown were heated and waiting for her to crawl into after she bathed?" And later, "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?"
This was a good read, but a little depressing in that the main characters were almost powerless to effect change. Romantic storylines were introduced and will probably be developed more fully later in the series. What was there was clean, though.
Summerset Abbey flows easily and lays a strong foundation for the rest of the series. The slightly abrupt and surprising ending makes the reader eager for the next book. I would especially recommend this book to fans of the British drama genre.
Visit T. J. Brown's website at teribrownbooks.com to learn more.
This book was provided by Gallery Books through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.