At Summer's End

At Summer's End

by Courtney Ellis

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Overview

"A sparkling debut from a new author we’re all going to want more from.”—Susan Meissner, bestselling author of The Nature of Fragile Things
 
When an ambitious female artist accepts an unexpected commission at a powerful earl's country estate in 1920s England, she finds his war-torn family crumbling under the weight of long-kept secrets. From debut author Courtney Ellis comes a captivating novel about finding the courage to heal after the ravages of war.


Alberta Preston accepts the commission of a lifetime when she receives an invitation from the Earl of Wakeford to spend a summer painting at His Lordship's country home, Castle Braemore. Bertie imagines her residence at the prodigious estate will finally enable her to embark on a professional career and prove her worth as an artist, regardless of her gender.

Upon her arrival, however, Bertie finds the opulent Braemore and its inhabitants diminished by the Great War. The earl has been living in isolation since returning from  the trenches,  locked away in his rooms and hiding battle scars behind a prosthetic mask. While his younger siblings eagerly welcome Bertie into their world, she soon sees chips in that world's gilded facade. As she and the earl develop an unexpected bond, Bertie becomes deeply entangled in the pain and secrets she discovers hidden within Castle Braemore and the hearts of its residents.

Threaded with hope, love, and loss, At Summer's End delivers a portrait of a noble family—and a world—changed forever by the war to end all wars.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593201299
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/10/2021
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 173,392
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Courtney Ellis began writing at a young age, and developed an interest in history from her grandfather’s stories of World War II. After obtaining her BA in English and Creative Writing, she went on to pursue a career in publishing. She lives in New York.

Read an Excerpt

1

June 1922

It didn't take much to excite the neighbors-only a little feature in the Times accompanying a photograph of my painting, the winner of an art contest put on by the Royal British Legion. Four years on, there were still plenty of funds needing to be raised for veterans of the Great War.

My painting had received first prize. I delighted in the opportunity to parade the crimson ribbon before my family, but the true victory was having my name in print. It was my name shortened, but no matter. Everyone who saw the feature would think Bertie Preston a man. Or so I hoped. For who would commission a painting from an unknown female artist?

Our neighbor Mrs. Lemm would, and after seeing the article, did. My very first.

On a Tuesday afternoon, I completed the portrait of her Yorkshire terrier, Duchess, and accepted annuity of four shillings, sixpence. The amount made no difference to me; I was only pleased to be paid for my work at last. It was only four shillings, sixpence, but it was four shillings, sixpence closer to a room in London and a life of my own.

Unmarried at twenty-eight, one might resolve to consider oneself a sad and lonely spinster. Only I wasn't sad, or lonely. I rather enjoyed an empty room with an easel in it.

After leaving Mrs. Lemm's house, I used my earnings to buy a bunch of peonies. It was while I was out that the earl's letter arrived.

Our maid Jane didn't come to the door, so I set down my easel, hung my cloche on the rack, and went through to the parlor, where I was accosted by the odor of wood glue. My father had lately taken the hobby of building model boats, which he then sailed on the local pond of an afternoon. Now he sat at a table once reserved for games of bridge, painting tiny strokes on his toy boat's hull. Painting! My father! Who, as a retired banker, was a man of numbers and not creativity. I never knew my parents to engage in the arts, which was why I'd been under their scorn since adolescence for lacking focus on anything apart from painting.

Mother came through from the kitchen, where she was surely bullying our cook about the state of dinner. Neither of them had noticed my arrival, so I announced, "Peonies!" and held the bunch in Mother's direction. "Won't they be lovely?"

Her mouth was permanently downturned, but the creases deepened at the sight of the flowers. "Oh, Bertie, you know your father's hay fever is the devil in June. Do put them outdoors."

Father peered over wire spectacles balanced on the end of his nose. "No, no bother to me, surely."

"I'll not have you bedridden over a few measly blooms. Please, Bertie?"

On cue, Father sneezed. I sent my eyes skyward and trudged back to the foyer, swung the door open, and tossed the flower bunch-which I'd spent a hard-earned penny on-to the front path. How remarkable the glue odor should have no effect whatsoever on Father's lungs.

Back in the parlor, Mother leaned over his shoulder, watching him tinker. "How does Mrs. Lemm do, Bertie?"

"Well," I answered. "Charming as always. I had a lovely time." I shrank to the window seat and pinched a piece of my newly chopped bob. A smudge of paint clung to my thumb, the rusty shade of a terrier's whiskers.

"So good of her to have you, wasn't it? She knows how much you enjoy doing your paintings." Here, Mother implied I wasn't an artist at all, but a hobbyist like my father. "Mrs. Flynn called by earlier; she'd seen the Times and wanted to have a look at the prize painting. You remember her boy John was killed on the Somme?-poor lamb burst into tears."

My painting, entitled Something for the Pain, had begun as a sketch I'd done whilst serving in the Voluntary Aid Detachment, stationed near the Western Front. It captured a nursing sister in her grey uniform and veil, standing with the strength of a soldier patient outside a tented ward. They'd been chatting about lice-Ever 'old a fag to one and 'eard them poppin', Sister?-and hadn't known I was drawing them.

Drawing had been my way to cope with the horrors I saw in my wartime career. I tried to capture the lovely moments in between, the now blurred memories of friendship and warmth between nurse and soldier, between men and women stuck in the worst of what the world had seen. Perhaps I ought to have been documenting the worst of it-the pain and torn flesh and mud. But in the end, I couldn't decide which was more important to remember, so I chose what caught my eye. One day it was the look of utter exhaustion on the face of the walking wounded, another, the beaming smile of a freckled VAD serving weak tea and dog biscuits.

"I remember John," I said. "Living in London, was he not?"

Mother nodded solemnly. "Left behind a wife and baby girl, God rest him." She selected an envelope from her pile and handed it to Father. "One from Violet, dear."

Violet was one of my two elder sisters. Father took it eagerly, setting his paintbrush aside.

We were similar, Father and I. In retirement, he worked ardently on his boats to keep busy, as I had done with the Red Cross in war. When armistice came, I hardly wished to leave my post. In peacetime, I was redundant, merely a single woman with no purpose or use. When the men returned, all were quick to forget what worth their women had.

"For you, Bertie."

I looked up from my thoughts. Mother held out a letter, eyes elsewhere. I stood to collect the envelope, turning it over and over as I paced the airless room. All windows were to be shut in summer months. Hay fever, of course.

It was postmarked Braemore, Wiltshire. I didn't recognize the hand, though my heart quickened all the same. For the letter was addressed to Mr. Bertie Preston.

Mister.

I tore open the envelope and removed a single, crisp bit of stationery. At the top was an embossed golden crest, and the words earl of wakeford, castle braemore.

"Good Lord!" I blurted.

Mother sighed, lifted her weary face. "Honestly, dear, you know I dislike you speaking so harshly."

I ignored her, began to pace. There was absolutely no reason I should have had a letter from a nobleman. I'd never met a lord, much less an earl. Or maybe I'd nursed one? An officer, perhaps? No; I certainly would not have forgot that.

I took a deep breath and read.

Dear Mr. Preston,

I am seeking to commission an artist for several paintings of my Wiltshire estate, Castle Braemore. As an admirer of your work, I would be delighted if you would be my guest at Braemore for the summer months to gather the inspiration necessary for your process. If you should accept the undertaking, please enclose with your response a list of materials you shall require, which will be provided upon your arrival.

I eagerly await your reply.

Sincerely,

Wakeford

My cheeks set flame. The room spun. I was not a woman who swooned-I'd been elbow deep in blood during the war and hadn't batted an eyelash-but now I thought my knees might give out. I ran to the window and threw it open.

Mother scoffed. "Bertie, what on earth-?"

Father stood, scraping back his chair. "Fantastic news, everyone-Violet's expecting a third!"

I thrust my head out the window and took a gulp of summer evening air, the letter crumpled under my hand on the windowsill. Behind me, my parents embraced, delighted to be grandparents yet again. My sisters were really rather good at producing children, and with Heather widowed and me hopeless, Violet was their champion.

Old news. For I had a commission! A real one!

I plucked a petunia from the flower box and brought my head back indoors, shutting the window with force. When I turned, my parents had gone. I could hear Father chatting to the operator in the other room, telephoning Violet to congratulate her. The letter shook in my hands.

Someone-a bloody earl!-wanted me to paint for him. For money. This had been my goal when entering the contest. But how could I ever have expected such a commission? An earl might display my paintings where his titled friends could see. It wouldn't be long before more commissions came through and I had the income for a solo show, to submit a piece for entry in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, to rent a flat with a view of Hyde Park.

Now I certainly was going to faint. I sat down in a nearby chair to save myself the fall and put the petunia under my nose to breathe the warm sweetness.

I was finally on my way.

Not wanting to follow up Violet's news too closely, I waited until dinner to give mine. As I settled in opposite Mother, I flapped the letter, beaming so hard my cheeks ached, waiting for someone to ask about it. Jane came forward with the tureen under her arm, offering me an odd glance as carrot and ginger soup was ladled into my bowl.

Father said to Mother, "We'll stop with Violet and Henry at the weekend. She'll be wanting you."

As ever, neither of them were paying me any attention at all. So I said, "I've had an exciting letter."

Eyes remained on soup. Mother sipped. "How nice. From whom?"

"Why, it came directly from the Earl of-" I had to read again; I'd forgot his name. "The Earl of Wakeford!"

Bless Jane, the only body to react, dropping the lid onto the tureen. Mother sent her a scowl before turning to me. "I do love you, but all this jesting can be so wearing."

"It isn't a jest!" I made to hand her the note, then changed my mind and gave it to Father. He set down his spoon and pushed his spectacles up his nose.

I watched his eyes dart back and forth as Mother waited impatiently, breathing more audibly than before, every exhale a sigh. Was there not more in life to be excited by than babies?

"'I am seeking to commission an artist for several paintings of my Wiltshire estate, Castle Braemore,'" Father read aloud. "A castle, Bertie?"

I could hardly sit still for how excited I was. "Indeed. And I to be the artist. I've already sent my reply, accepting."

Mother blinked rapidly and snatched the letter from Father's hand. She read it herself, mouthing the words, then tossed it down beside her soup. "His lordship writes to a Mr. Bertie Preston. It is all a mistake; you must write again immediately to set it right. A telegraph. Jane?"

"Naturally, it's a mistake," I said, shooting the maid a warning glance as she came forward. "A mistake I've been hoping someone might make. Nobody wishes to commission a painting from a woman, Mother, hence why I entered the contest as Bertie and not Alberta."

"And I suppose you mean to resemble a man as well?"

"Oh, for heaven's sake, it isn't that short." I self-consciously fluffed my bob. "Will you not be glad for me?"

Father played a tattoo on the table with his fingers. "You ought to have discussed this with us before responding."

I shrank in my chair. Father was my supporter. He had gifted me my first set of brushes. He'd given me permission to join the VAD in 1915, to accept a post abroad. Now I saw doubt in his eyes. He viewed my painting as my mother did-an accomplishment only. Something to show a young man to prove I was a woman of substance.

"This is a real opportunity," I said, "to prove myself, to make a name-"

"It isn't your name, Alberta!" Mother clapped her hand down on the table, rattling the china. "You cannot allow this man to carry on believing you're someone you are not."

"It was his mistake. He may turn me away if he likes, but I shan't forfeit the chance."

"At any rate, we cannot in good conscience allow you to stop at this strange man's home without a chaperone. Have you heard of this Wakeford, George?"

Father shook his head. "His lordship's note is rather brief . . ."

Mother gave an arrogant nod. "I've always been of the mind that a man of such few words has something to hide."

I sat up again to reach for the letter. "I'm more than sure he's an old, married chap."

"With unmarried sons, we may assume."

"Did I not stand over the beds of hundreds of men during the war, and return unscathed?"

Her face was unmoving. "I shall not allow it."

"I'm a grown woman; I don't require your permission."

"Yet you require our allowance." Mother was proud of her response, chin lifted. "Your father will not pay the train fare. Will you, George?"

Father shifted in his seat. His eyes drifted to the letter, now in my hands. I could tell he wished he'd held it longer, further dissected Wakeford's words to find a viable reason why I should be permitted to go. This time, however, he would not defend me. Whether it was my mother's glare, or some deeper belief that I was undeserving of the commission, I wasn't sure.

He lifted his spoon and said, "I'm sorry, Bertie."

The room hushed to scraping spoons and the sucking of soup. I stared at my plate, thinking of Violet and her swelling belly, sitting to dinner in Hertfordshire with her stodgy husband. Violet was the ideal daughter, everything I was meant to be but could not imagine emulating.

"With thanks to Mrs. Lemm, I've my own money now," I said, a calm threat. Surely, if they knew I was to go it alone, they would not withdraw their support.

It had worked on my father, at least. He set down his spoon again with a sigh, taking the moment to knead at his forehead. "Perhaps you will wait until I've written to the fellow . . ."

"How am I to be taken as a professional if my father writes ahead of me?"

Mother inserted, "You are not a professional."

"I may yet be!" I heard the pitch of my voice change and tried to steady myself. How could I explain to them that I felt my very life was at stake? "You know this is all I have ever worked towards. I've spent my years not looking for a husband, not building a family, but painting. I am nothing without it, and if I stay here, nothing I shall remain."

Reading Group Guide

Readers Guide:
At Summer's End by Courtney Ellis

Discussion Questions

1. Bertie’s painting resonated with Julian enough that he invited her to his home after years of isolation. What aspects of the painting do you think appealed to him most? Have you ever been affected by a work of art in this way?

2. Bertie becomes the first person other than Gwen that Julian has seen in nearly two years. What do you think made him open his door to her that first day? Why do you think he invited her back?

3. While this is mainly Bertie’s story, the author chose to include three other points of view in chapters that take place in years past. Why do you think these particular scenes were included? How do you feel they affected your understanding of the story? Did glimpsing the world through the Napiers’ lens influence, or even change, how you viewed their characters?

4. The Great War did a lot to further the fight for female equality, but the battle was far from won in the 1920s. Bertie, Celia, Gwen, Lily, and even the Dowager Lady Wakeford experienced misogyny and prejudice toward women. Did you notice any issues explored in this book that women are still experiencing today? Were there any specific moments that reflected your own life experience?

5. Despite being so young, Anna plays an important role in the book. How do you see her presence at Castle Braemore influence Bertie’s experience and feelings about the Napiers? How does Anna’s presence in the lives of her family affect their relationship to the world and to one another?

6. There are many types of women in this story, each of them having a unique experience of the war. In what ways do these women display their strengths—both traditional and nontraditional? Do you relate to any of them more than others? Why?

7. After spending years trying to keep Julian and Lily apart, Gwen was quick to support a romance between her brother and Bertie. What do you think influenced her decision? What might she and Julian have discussed that afternoon?

8. Apart from Bertie, Freddie is the only other character at Castle Braemore who is not a Napier. What does his inclusion bring to the story? How do his thoughts and opinions—which sometimes contrast with the Napiers’—influence Bertie?

9. When Julian confides in Bertie about his father scorning him for his nerves, she says, “It’s a dreadful shame that masculinity must mean hardness.” What ways do you see this idea affecting each of the men in this story, specifically Julian’s relationship with Roland? How do you think it might have influenced the young men who enlisted during the Great War? Do you think this concept is still prevalent today?

10. At the beginning of the book, Bertie is at odds with her mother, but when she returns home, they begin to see eye to eye. What did Bertie experience or learn at Castle Braemore that might have changed her mind about her family? What growth might Bertie’s family have noticed in her?

11. Celia went seven years without speaking to Julian, only able to see his side once she realized how unwell he had been. What do you think were the most significant driving factors behind her bitterness? How do you think the war further influenced those factors and her relationship with Julian?

12. At the start of the book, Bertie believes to marry would mean losing her independence, and asks, “Was there not more in life to be excited by than babies?” By the end, she is engaged to Julian and eagerly awaiting her own baby. How do you think the events of the book influence her change of heart? How has she retained her independence and freedom? Do you believe she made the right decision?

13. Take another look at the quote at the front of the book. Why do you think the author chose to include this particular quote? In what ways does art “repair the damages” that have been inflicted in the lives of these people? Has art (whether that be books, films, paintings, etc.) ever done this in your life? Provide examples.

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