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?.
Sir Philip Buxton raised three girls into beautiful and capable young women in a bohemian household that defied Edwardian tradition. Eldest sister Rowena was taught to value people, not wealth or status. 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. Standing up for a beloved family member sequestered to the underclass in this privileged new world, and drawn into the Cunning Coterie, an exclusive social circle of aristocratic rebels, Rowena must decide where her true passions and loyalties lie.
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 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. But Pru doesn’t belong in the downstairs world of the household staff any more than she belongs upstairs with the Buxton girls. And when a young lord catches her eye, she begins to wonder if she?ll ever truly carve out a place for herself at Summerset Abbey.
Rating: Narration C+; Content: C
Summerset Abbey seems to have been clearly aimed at the Downton Abbey market, and not just because of the similarity in the names. Summerset is set in 1913, and is the first of a trilogy that follows events in the lives of three young women – sisters Rowena and Victoria Buxton and their informally adopted sister, Prudence Tate.
The story opens with the funeral of Philip Buxton, younger brother of the Earl of Summerset, and father of Rowena and Victoria. Philip was a progressive who ensured his daughters were well educated and brought them up to be unconstrained by class differences. It comes as an incredibly harsh blow when Rowena is told by her uncle and her father’s solicitor that their home does not actually belong to them, as it’s part of the earl’s estate, and that, as Rowena’s money is in trust until she is twenty-five (two years away), they will have to make their home at the Abbey from now on. Not only that, but as Prudence is nothing but the daughter of their former governess, she is not the earl’s responsibility and will not be accompanying them. Trying to deal with her grief and shock, Rowena panics and suggests the first thing that occurs to her – Prudence should stay on as hers and Victoria’s lady’s maid.
When they arrive at the Abbey, Prudence is hurried off into the servants’ quarters and given a long list of do’s and don’ts by the housekeeper, who is clearly not disposed to like her. Many of the other servants are similarly inclined, feeling that Prudence has ideas above her station, and poor Prudence finds herself in the unenviable position of being “between stations” – thought too posh for “downstairs” and not posh enough for “upstairs”.
The earl and countess are not thrilled at having Prudence under their roof, and clearly want to be rid of her. Their attitude serves to emphasise the precarious nature of the situation faced by a woman like Prudence who has no male relatives to speak up for her. She is going to have to make her own way in life from now on, and it’s clear that it’s not going to be easy.
Each of the three principal female roles possesses certain defining characteristics, although I wouldn’t say that each is particularly strongly characterised. Victoria has been defined all her life as being “sickly” (she suffers from asthma), but fortunately is not one to let herself be beaten down by it, as her aunt observes, Victoria’s stubbornness “no doubt came from being infirm so much of her young life. If you were sickly, you either overcame it or it overcame you. It gave one a sense of strength.” Prudence is “good” – she’s always been able to handle Victoria when she gets in one of her pets, and even though she fumes inwardly, she hardly ever complains about the situation into which she has been forced.
You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.