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.
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Prudence Tate paused before the arched doorway to allow Victoria time to regain her composure. In front of her, the sanctuary was so filled with black feathered hats, it looked as though a flock of ravens might have overrun the church. The scent of stale incense, decaying flowers, and ancient prayers permeated the foyer, but Prudence barely noticed these things.
Next to her, Victoria’s slight body trembled with grief and exhaustion. “Do I really have to do this?” Victoria asked, her voice more of a wish than a whisper.
Born too soon to a dying mother, Victoria had always been frail, but what she lacked in health and vigor she more than made up for in temperament. Only the death of her father had lately diminished the audacious glint in her china-blue eyes.
“We have to.” Prudence slipped her arm lightly around the younger girl’s shoulders. Tears slid down Victoria’s face and Prudence feared she would fall apart completely before they made their way down the aisle.
Funerals were as scripted as coronations, and custom dictated the familial order of the church procession. Rowena, as Victoria’s older sister, had gone ahead of them on her uncle’s arm and was no doubt waiting for Victoria at their pew. Sir Philip Buxton’s closest contemporaries, all men in fussy black mourning coats, stood behind them, waiting to go in. They fidgeted, looking at anything but the two girls.
Tradition dictated that Prudence, as the governess’s daughter, wait in the back of the procession with the staff, but Sir Philip’s bohemian household had never given a fig for tradition.
Looking at Victoria, Prudence felt her chest squeeze around her heart so tightly that she couldn’t breathe. Recent weeks had taken such a toll on the girl that even though the woolen, crepe-trimmed mourning dress had just been fitted, it hung on her as if there were nothing of substance underneath. Victoria had never been conventionally pretty; her face was too thin and her eyes were too big, but she usually displayed a vivacity that, in spite of her weak lungs, made her the most arresting person in the room. Today that vibrancy had dimmed and dark circles bruised her eyes.
Prudence reached down and took a firm grip of Victoria’s hand. “Come. They’re waiting.”
Victoria cast her a wobbly smile as they walked through the doorway and down the aisle to where Rowena and their uncle, the Earl of Summerset, waited.
When they reached the pew, the Earl gave Prudence a look so disdainful that she almost stumbled. His nose twitched with contempt, as if she were one step away from an Irish peasant with dung still clinging to her shoes.
Before she’d died, Prudence’s mother had gently warned her that even though she’d been raised as one of Sir Philip’s girls, there were many who would think of her as nothing more than a cheeky and presumptuous servant. Evidently, Lord Summerset was among that group.
Rowena, on the other side of her uncle, looked beautiful in a stylish silk crepe mourning gown that skimmed her ankles. A cunning little toque perched atop her upswept dark hair, and she wore a gold locket clasped around her neck. Rowena held out her hand and, relieved, Prudence reached out and clasped it with her own. Without letting go of either girl, she and Victoria scooted past the Earl to join Rowena.
They stood as the rest of the procession solemnly made their way to their proper places, but Prudence, thankful to be tucked firmly between the two people she loved best in the world, took no notice.
A lump rose in her throat as she caught sight of the ornate casket, draped with a full spray of lilies, carnations, and palm fronds. The only reason she was here, clutching Rowena’s and Victoria’s hands in hers instead of shrinking into the background with the other servants, was the kindness of the man who lay inside. After Prudence’s father had died, her mother, who had worked at Sir Philip’s estate as a girl, had been sent to attend to Rowena and Victoria’s ailing mother. When his wife died, Sir Philip asked her to stay on to help raise the girls, and Prudence, exactly between his daughters in age, became part of the family. Prudence, who volunteered her time at several different poorhouses in the city, knew exactly what happened to young girls left alone in the world. She would forever be grateful to Sir Philip for not allowing that to happen to her.
She blinked away her tears and occupied herself by looking at the rest of the congregation. Only a few looked familiar. Among them were Rupert Brooke, the high-strung and handsome young poet; Ben Tillett, the iron-jawed union leader; and Roger Fry, the controversial artist responsible for bringing London’s shocked attention to postimpressionism some years prior. These were some of Sir Philip’s friends, a motley collection of artists, intellectuals, and misfits.
Because the Earl had arranged the funeral, most of the people in attendance were his peers, men from the House of Lords and others from the cream of London society.
Sir Philip would have hated it.
The beautiful gold arches and polished marble of St. Bride’s Church gleamed, just as they had the few times the family had attended church. Sir Philip had chosen St. Bride’s because, as he used to say, “Sir Christopher Wren built the kind of church that God might actually enjoy.”
Gradually, Prudence became aware of a young man staring at her from across the aisle. Her eyes darted in his direction, then away. Moments later, unable to help herself, she glanced back to see whether he was still looking at her. He was. She turned slightly and stared fixedly at the bronze candelabra to the left of him, her cheeks burning.
Victoria leaned around her to whisper to Rowena. “Look, Lord Billingsly has noticed our Prudence.”
“I’m right here,” Prudence whispered, and gave both their hands a hard squeeze for emphasis.
She didn’t look his way again.
Once the service started, Prudence sank into a well of grief that threatened to drown her. The waves of it lapped at her from all sides, covered her head, and made sight almost impossible. Inside, her heart broke and a waterfall of sorrow poured from the cracks. On one side, Victoria sobbed quietly, while Rowena’s stiff resolve buoyed her from the other. She clung to their hands as the service passed in a blur of speeches.
They remained that way until it was time to get into the ornate black and gold funeral carriages that would take them back to their home in Mayfair for the reception. Behind the carriages stood a line of motorcars; most of the wealthy guests had long given up their carriages for the convenience and speed of automobiles. The Earl himself had several, and Sir Philip’s sleek Eton-blue Belsize sat idle in the carriage house, but the Earl insisted on traditional horse-drawn carriages.
“Miss Tate will ride in the staff carriage.” The Earl’s voice brooked no opposition and his square jaw firmed. Prudence knew that look. Rowena’s pretty face held the same expression when she got all stubborn about something.
Victoria’s eyes widened. “Prudence rides with us.”
“Nonsense. The Duke of Plymouth wishes to join us and there isn’t enough room.”
Prudence placed her hands on Victoria’s shoulders. Tension vibrated through the young girl’s slender body and Prudence’s stomach knotted, sure that Victoria was going to throw a fit, the kind she used to throw when the family still called her baby and she wanted the biggest sweet in the shop. Even at eighteen, Victoria wasn’t above a tantrum or two if she thought the situation warranted it. But her waiflike face suddenly fell and her lower lip trembled.
“It’ll be all right,” Prudence whispered. “I’ll go back with the staff and meet you at home.”
But upon arriving at the house, Prudence found herself so busy helping Hodgekins, their butler, and Mrs. Tannin, their housekeeper, that she barely got to see Rowena and Victoria, who were stuck in some kind of morbid receiving line in the marbled foyer. After the guests offered their hushed condolences, they went either into the pale green and white sitting room on the right, or to the formal dining room on the left to gobble up indelicate amounts of food.
Prudence slipped adroitly through the crowd, making sure there was enough port, brandy, and mulled wine. Carl, their footman, served oyster patties and croquettes, while the sideboard held silver platters of ginger biscuits from Biarritz and fine Belgian chocolates.
The hothouse flowers had been delivered and arranged earlier in the day. Black beribboned vases of lilies stood on every table and the enormous silver bowls on the dining room table overflowed with white chrysanthemums. The scent made Prudence’s stomach churn and she wondered whether she would ever again enjoy the smell of flowers.
As she busied herself with mundane tasks, Prudence noticed that except for a few of Sir Philip’s closest friends, who offered her their heartfelt condolences, the guests looked through her as if she didn’t exist. When one pinched-faced woman wearing a black velvet turban handed her an empty glass, Prudence realized why she was invisible.
The Earl’s friends considered her staff.
She stood in the middle of the wide marbled hall, holding a Waterford wineglass, tears pricking at the backs of her eyes. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Prudence set the glass down on the nearest table and slipped away from the crowd into a small alcove near the curving mahogany staircase. She placed her hands on her heated cheeks and drew in several deep breaths.
“I know the daughters, of course,” a female voice said, quite close to where Prudence was secreted. “They attended a house party at Stanton last summer with the Earl’s family, but I don’t know the girl who sat with them at the service.”
“That was the governess’s daughter,” said a second woman. “Sir Philip raised her like one of his own and kept her on even after her mother died several years ago. Can you believe it? He had such liberal ideas. The girls practically ran wild in London.”
The voices drew nearer and Prudence shrank farther back into the alcove.
“How bizarre. They seemed like very nice girls.”
“Oh, they’re nice enough. But I’ve heard the eldest is a member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and the youngest says the most startling things. She has the tendency to bring up in conversation bizarre subjects young girls shouldn’t even think about—strange talk of plants and herbs and such. And she’s delicate, you know.”
“I’ve never seen the girl at Summerset or at any balls during the season.”
The second woman tittered. “Well, of course not. You don’t think Sir Philip would push the Earl that far, do you?”
The voices moved away and Prudence leaned her back against the wall, almost upsetting a small occasional table with a marble statue of Circe on top. She reached out and steadied it with one hand, her cheeks burning. What did the woman mean about Sir Philip not wanting to push the Earl? Prudence wished she could hide away forever, but it wasn’t fair to leave Hodgekins and Miss Tannin with all the work. They were grieving, too.
Pushing the conversation from her mind, Prudence hurried to the larder and pulled two extra bottles of port from the shelf, where they’d been sitting upright, ready for the occasion. She dusted them off and took them to the butler’s pantry for Hodgekins to decant.
That done, she decided enough was enough. She may not be a daughter of the house, but she was a part of the family and she desperately needed Victoria and Rowena’s comforting presence to erase the hurtful words still ringing in her ears. She turned the corner and stopped just short of running into a man putting on a black serge overcoat.
“I’m so sorry.” She was about to step around him when she realized it was the same man who’d stared at her during the service. Her breath caught as she stared up into the obsidian darkness of his eyes.
“No, I’m sorry. I thought I could just leave through the back.” He looked down at her and colored when he realized who it was. “I’m sorry. I only meant that I didn’t want to trouble the family further. I didn’t know Sir Philip very well.”
“Then why are you here?” Her cheeks heated at her rudeness. Why did she say that? She couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe with him so close. She took a step back.
“My mother is ill and she wanted me to pay our respects. My parents know the Earl well and I’m good friends with Colin, the Earl’s son.”
“Oh.” She risked a glance up at his face. Burnished brown curls fell over a high forehead and he regarded her steadily beneath quizzical brows. They stared at each other for a long moment and she wondered whether he felt as dazed as she did. Her heart sped up as the moment lengthened. She finally broke eye contact. “Thank you.”
She moved to go past him and he caught her by her elbow. “Wait,” he said, his voice almost urgent. “I don’t even know your name.”
“Prudence,” she said, before pulling her arm away and moving down the hall.
“But who are you?” he called after her.
She couldn’t tell him, for at that moment she didn’t know.
Prudence found the girls still standing in the marble foyer, greeting guests. Alarm spread through her as she spied Victoria on the other side of a potted palm. She hurried to the Earl, who was speaking to a gaunt gentleman in a top hat.
“Excuse me, sir,” she whispered.
He continued talking, though she’d seen him glance her way.
Pressing her lips together, she tugged on his arm. “Lord Summerset, I must speak with you.”
He turned to her, irritation written all over his face. “What?” he snapped.
“It’s Victoria. I think she should be excused from the receiving line. She doesn’t look well.”
“I’m sure she’s fine.” He turned his head to where Victoria stood and his jaw tightened. Victoria’s skin had paled to muslin white and she swayed on her feet. He sighed.
“Take her upstairs and sit with her. Rowena can do the receiving by herself.”
She hurried to Victoria’s side without the courtesy of a reply.
Slipping her arm around Victoria’s waist, she whispered, “Come with me. You’re done for the evening.”
Victoria, always on guard against being coddled, stiffened in annoyance. There was nothing she hated more than being babied for her breathing affliction, but Prudence could feel tremors running up and down her slim body.
“I’m perfectly fine,” she started to say, and then gave Prudence a wry smile as her legs trembled. “I guess I could use a break.” She leaned against Prudence and let herself be led away.
“I’m just so sad and that’s what makes me tired,” Victoria said, as they slowly climbed the stairs to her bedroom.
Prudence kissed her cheek. “You’ll feel better after some sleep.”
“Do you really believe that?”
Prudence hesitated, her very bones aching with sadness. “Not really. But what else can we do?”
* * *
Rowena watched them go, Prudence’s dark head leaning against Victoria’s blonde one, and wished she could join them. But someone had to play hostess and it was a duty she’d been taking on more and more as she got older, though rarely at occasions as formal as this. Her father had never stood much on formality. He could trot out the pomp and ceremony when he needed to, but his taste ran more to last-minute late suppers with friends, or hearty sandwiches in the sitting room with a couple of bottles of good wine. The kind of guests they usually entertained appreciated the generous simplicity of her father’s hospitality.
She turned quickly to the stout woman in front of her as the tears locked behind her eyes threatened to spill over. If she began crying, she might never stop, and she still had hours until this ghastly reception was over. “Thank you so much for coming . . .” Her mind blanked as she desperately tried to come up with a name.
“Your father was a good man, dear.” The still nameless woman patted her hand and moved on.
When the tide of mourners coming through the door waned, she was finally able to leave the foyer. Snatching up a glass of brandy, she gulped it down, ignoring her uncle’s frown from across the room. She needed something to help her get through the rest of the evening.
That done, she wandered from room to room, looking above people’s heads so she wouldn’t have to make the obligatory society chitchat. Her father had been contemptuous of that sort of empty nattering and Rowena shared the sentiment. Aristocratic prattle made her contrary and apt to say things like “Beastly weather, isn’t it?” even if there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
So she avoided it, plumping the pillows on the winged-back sofa and wiping away a water ring on a Chinese bamboo side table. Before her parents had moved into the stuffy old Victorian home, her father had gutted it, making the rooms larger, adding a glass dome above the staircase to let in more light and plastering the walls in a creamy white. From the sash windows in the front to the gleaming mahogany floors dotted with Oriental rugs, everything about her house was beloved. Her mother had decorated it for comfort rather than show and had ended up creating a spacious, airy home that was both supremely comfortable and pleasing to the eye.
Her uncle came to her side. “As soon as the crowd thins out a bit, I need you to meet me in the study. Your father’s solicitor wishes to discuss the details of your father’s will with us.”
“Will?” she asked stupidly. Perhaps the brandy hadn’t been a good idea.
“Of course. You didn’t think he would leave you and Victoria without means, did you?”
Without means? She turned the phrase over in her mind. Well, no. She had never thought about money at all. Her father took care of household expenses. She suddenly realized that he wouldn’t be able to do that anymore. Her throat tightened. Wouldn’t the solicitor take care of that? Or the bank?
Her uncle continued. “We need to discuss your future. He never spoke about any of this with you?”
She shook her head, bewildered, and her uncle awkwardly patted her shoulder. “Never mind, dear. We will talk about it with Mr. Barry.”
He moved away, leaving her to ponder his words. Her future? The thought of her future had always filled her with a certain anxiety. Her girlfriends or their parents always had so many plans regarding their futures, while hers remained a frustrating blank. She just couldn’t seem to make up her mind as to what she wanted to do, despite her efforts to fill the void. One summer, on the advice of a friend, she had thrown herself into sports until she could play lawn tennis with a vengeance and golf as well as any man, but once she realized the void was still there, her racquet and clubs were relegated to the attic. Finally, at her father’s gentle nudging, she’d dedicated herself to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Because she wanted to please her father, she remained involved long after she would have drifted away on her own. The women there made her uncomfortable. Confident and self-reliant, they were all charting their own paths, while her own remained a mystery. She supposed that someday she would marry, but it wasn’t really a priority and she had yet to meet a young man who interested her. Most of the girls she’d grown up with thought marriage was the epitome of their life ambitions, while many of the women at the suffrage meetings decried marriage as a form of slavery. Though her father never agreed with that sentiment, he wasn’t keen on the idea of her marrying young either. “Plenty of time for that,” her father always said. So Rowena had drifted, strangely apathetic about her own future.
How quickly things changed. Her father had been in excellent health until he had caught cold several weeks ago. The cold rapidly turned into pneumonia, and then he was beyond talking to her about her future or anything else.
Rowena took another brandy for good measure and made her way through the throng of people to the upstairs library.
Once inside she stopped, the scent of worn leather, pipe tobacco, and dried foliage triggering thousands of memories. No room in the house was more her father’s than this one. Part study, part library; she, Victoria, and Prudence had spent many hours reading or playing quietly while her father worked, categorizing and recategorizing the dozens of plant specimens he collected or grew in the conservatory. A noted botanist, he never grew tired of discussing his work, and she often asked questions just to hear the warmth and excitement of his voice as he answered.
Swallowing, she avoided the captain’s chair behind the polished wooden desk and sat in a comfortable chenille chair facing one of the four dormer windows lining the wall.
She sipped her brandy, letting the warmth slowly course through her body, calming her nerves.
“I’m sorry your wife couldn’t accompany you,” a voice said behind her. Rowena recognized it as her father’s solicitor.
“She was feeling poorly and I thought it prudent that she remain at home. London in the fall is rife with illness,” her uncle said.
Rowena leaned forward to announce her presence, but her uncle continued.
“Besides, she always disapproved of the way our nieces were raised. Poor Philip was a bit of an individualist, I’m afraid. It’s a wonder both girls aren’t raging suffragists.”
She’d best put a stop to this immediately. She coughed discreetly and stood, facing her uncle.
Both men startled. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I must have dozed off.”
“And it’s no wonder,” Mr. Barry put in quickly. “It’s been a trying day for all of us. My deepest condolences, Miss Buxton.”
“Thank you.” She turned to her uncle. “Have the guests left?”
“The last of them are leaving now. The servants are taking care of it. Shall we be seated?”
She liked Mr. Barry, who wore his thin, hawked nose like a badge of honor, a contrast to the untidy tufts of white hair now freed from his hat. He went to her father’s desk and opened a valise. As he sat at her father’s chair, Rowena looked away and took one of the seats in front of the desk. Her uncle sat at the other.
Mr. Barry cleared his throat. “There are really no surprises here. Your father not only had the allowance from the family estate, but he received a good sum of money when he was knighted. He invested well, and you and Victoria are the only beneficiaries.”
She nodded. Who else would there be? As the youngest son, her father had no precious title to bestow on a male heir.
“However, he did appoint your uncle as guardian of your financial trust until you reach the age of twenty-five or marry an appropriate man, whichever comes first.”
She frowned, drumming her fingers on the arm of her chair. “What does that mean, exactly?”
“It means that your uncle or his solicitor will pay all of your expenses and oversee your investments until you are old enough to inherit. It was your father’s way of protecting you and Victoria from common fortune-seekers.”
On the surface, it seemed reasonable, but underneath, the first stirrings of unease niggled. Did that mean her uncle would be in charge of her life for the next three years? Or that he had to approve of her choice of husband before she could marry? Not that marriage was imminent, but the thought of having to consult with her uncle on expenditures . . .
“So really, nothing will change, correct? Our household expenses and bills will simply be sent to my uncle instead of my”—she choked slightly on the word—“father?”
Mr. Barry nodded. “Exactly.”
Her uncle cleared his throat. “Your aunt and I discussed the matter and we feel it best if you spend the winter at Summerset.”
She chose her words carefully. “Thank you for your offer, Uncle, but I think it would be beneficial for Victoria if we did not make too many changes all at once. We should stick as closely as possible to our regular routine . . .” Her voice trailed off, knowing how impossible that would be with her father’s absence.
“Would you please leave us, Mr. Barry? This is family business now,” Uncle Conrad said.
The solicitor nodded. “Again, my condolences, Miss Rowena. Your father was a good man and a good friend.”
She nodded, unable to speak.
When Mr. Barry had gone, her uncle turned to her, his eyes kinder than she had ever seen them. The family resemblance to her father took her breath away. They had the same firm jaw and aquiline nose and the same green eyes. No, not the same, she decided. Her father’s eyes were warm and humorous, whereas her uncle’s were somber, no doubt from years of carrying the responsibility of the family estate and title.
“Don’t you think it would be better to make a complete break with the past? The house will be full of sad memories for you and your sister. Besides, your aunt Charlotte and I aren’t sure we will even keep the house. The house in Belgravia is much larger and better located.”
Her head jerked up. “What do you mean, not keep our house? Of course we’re keeping our house! This is our home!”
“But for how long? When you and Victoria are married, you both will have homes of your own. I’m not entirely sure I want to have the expense of maintaining two London houses.”
She leaned forward, gripping the arms of the chair. “Why should you have to maintain it? The expense will come from father’s money, surely?”
“The house did not belong to your father,” he told her gently. “It belongs to the estate. My father bought it for him as a wedding gift, but retained the deed.”
She glanced around her father’s beloved study, which wasn’t his after all. And because it wasn’t his, it wasn’t hers.
“Please don’t sell it,” she pleaded. “What about the furniture? The servants?”
He patted her hand.
“I did not wish to upset you,” he said, placating her. He stood as if the conversation was over. “These decisions do not have to be made today. But I must insist that you and Victoria accompany me home. We will be laying your father to rest in the family crypt. Surely you wish to be there for that. And Victoria loves Summerset.”
She leaned back into the chair, trembling with anger and loss. “Of course. When do you wish to leave?”
“Decency demands we do it as soon as possible, but I have business to attend to in the morning. We can leave the day after.”
His voice sounded relieved that she wasn’t making more of a fuss. But why would she? She wasn’t a child and his arguments were reasonable. She would deal with the house issue at a later date. She could not allow him to sell their home. But right now, she just wished to escape to her room to think.
“Very well,” she said. “I will have Victoria and Prudence pack their things.”
Her uncle had turned to the door, but now he paused. “There is no need to bring servants. You’ll be well cared for at our home, as always.”
She stiffened. “Prudence isn’t a servant.”
“Of course she is. She was the governess’s daughter. It’s only because of your father’s generosity that she was kept on after her mother passed.”
“My father loved Prudence, as do my sister and I,” she flared. “She is part of the family.”
Her uncle blanched. “I’m afraid your father allowed you and your sister too much latitude concerning this girl. She certainly is not a part of the family.”
“She is! She’s been a member of our family for almost as long as I can remember. He treated her no differently than he treated Victoria and me. She was educated with us, went shopping with us, and—”
“Your father was a good man, but he had dangerously liberal convictions. I allowed him that privilege because he never disgraced the family name. Though not formally introducing you to society came perilously close.”
Rowena stood and faced her uncle. “We were so suitably introduced to society! Both Victoria and I were presented to the Queen, as is proper, but neither one of us wanted a coming-out ball. We detest that kind of showy, excessive waste. Did you know you could feed one hundred families for a year on the money spent just on the flowers for one ball? We did our duty by attending the occasional society or charity function, but we simply weren’t interested in that sort of thing. Our father respected that.”
His jaw tightened. “That is precisely what I am talking about. How are you to find a suitable husband if you don’t enter society? Your aunt especially has been worried about the both of you. I should have stepped in years ago. Never mind that now. You and your sister will accompany me to Summerset and Prudence will remain in London.”
His voice was implacable and Rowena stilled, her stomach coiling into knots. Instinctively, she knew she would get nowhere if she defied him outright, but leaving Prudence behind was unthinkable. She took a deep breath and, keeping her voice steady, tried a different tactic.
“Prudence has been like a sister to us, but more important, she has always been Victoria’s companion. No one can settle Victoria as she can, and Victoria is so delicate . . . With our father’s death, I’m afraid one more loss would be harmful to her health.” She paused, letting that sink in. To deny his sickly niece her companion would seem heartless. Besides, even her uncle had a soft spot for Victoria. “If you will allow us to take her as our lady’s maid, it would be beneficial for Victoria, as well as being perfectly appropriate. Surely you wouldn’t deny us our lady’s maid?”
She pressed her hands in front of her and lowered her eyes. Inside she seethed.
Her uncle’s jaw worked. They both knew she’d backed him into a corner. “Of course, if you insist. But just remember, she is coming as staff, not a guest in our home.”
He inclined his head and left the room. Trembling, Rowena fell back into the chair and covered her face with her hands. The enormity of her responsibilities choked her. Father, what have you done? A man who had raised her to independence had essentially shackled her to a man who didn’t believe women should be independent at all. She could lose the house, Prudence . . . everything.
Drawing in a deep breath, she collected her thoughts. How independent had she been, really? She knew nothing of finances and had never bothered to ask. She’d 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.
It was a mistake she couldn’t afford to make again. Not with Prudence and Victoria depending on her, even though the thought of having people depend on her for good decisions terrified her. Decision making had never been her forte.
She stood, glancing about the room, at the wooden telescope by the corner window, the globe she and the little girls had played with so often, pretending to be world travelers, the lamb’s wool rug she and Prudence had lain upon, their toes pointed toward the fire as they read.
It was up to her to keep this precious room and her little family intact. There was no one but herself to do it.
What People are Saying About This
"Loyalties are tested, passions found, and secrets are uncovered as Rowena,Victoria, and Prudence confront their futures [...] 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.
"Wonderful and captivating tale of women raised to think ahead of the curve!
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Summerset Abbey includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Though her mother worked as a governess in the London home of Sir Philip, second son of the Earl of Summerset, Prudence Tate was raised as a sister to Sir Philip’s own daughters, Rowena and Victoria. The three girls believe their bond to be stronger than any blood ties, but when Sir Philip dies, their relationship changes forever. Forced to move from London to the sweeping grounds of Summerset Abbey where their aunt and uncle reside, it is suddenly clear to Rowena and Victoria that not everyone welcomes Prudence into the high-society world they now inhabit. Instead of being seen as their equal, Prudence is relegated to the position of their lady’s maid, and as each day passes the divide between them grows larger. Rowena, the elder, cannot deal with the responsibilities now placed on her shoulders, while Victoria struggles to be seen as something more than a sickly child. And Prudence, shocked by her treatment and stung by the attitudes of those around her, realizes that solving the mystery of her past might be the only way to find herself a future beyond the everpresent specter of class expectations that haunts all three girls.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Though the terms of Sir Philip’s will were perfectly normal for the time period, what did you think about his decision to place the future of his daughters in the hands of the Earl? Were you surprised that he left no allowance for Prudence? Do you think he did this because he expected the situation to turn out differently, that he believed his brother and daughters would look out for her?
2. Throughout the book, Victoria makes certain observations about secrets. For example, she reflects that “The only secrets [she] enjoyed were her own” (pg. 21), and that “The most important thing she’d learned about secrets is that you never knew when one was staring you in the face” (pg. 222). Do you agree with her observations? Many of the characters including Victoria carry their own secrets, some trivial, some life-altering. Do you think they would’ve been better off sharing those secrets with each other from the beginning? Do you feel secrets push people apart?
3. What did you think of Rowena’s first betrayal, the decision not to tell Prudence of the Earl’s condition for her accompanying them to Summerset? Do you think it was selfish or that, in that moment, she had no other choice? What about by the end? What might you have done in her shoes?
4. Think about how Victoria’s sickness defines her as a character: How does it shape how others see her? How does it shape how she sees herself? Do you agree with Prudence’s assessment at the end that she had “all of her father’s sweet idealism, but little of his wisdom” (pg. 286)?
5. At Summerset, Prudence finds herself straddling worlds in a way she had never experienced before, unable to truly fit into one place or the other. How does this inform her decisions? Do you think she ever judges anyone unfairly, as unfairly judged as she is? How does she reconcile her duty to Rowena and Victoria with her bewilderment at being relegated to the maids’ quarters?
6. Though much of the story follows Prudence, we also get to see chapters from Rowena and Victoria’s perspective. How did that influence your view of each of the girls and their separate motivations? If you could ask the author to insert a chapter from another character’s point of view, who would it be and why?
7. Though Lady Summerset can be seen as the main antagonist of the novel, her motivations are complicated. Consider a woman’s position at the time, and the choices (or lack thereof ) she had regarding her futures. In that sense, do you think she was doing the best she could to protect herself and her own family, even if it meant hurting Prudence?
8. Similarly, at one point, Rowena rages against their circumstances, reflecting that “she was as trapped as a fox in a hole. Trapped by her responsibilities, trapped by her social status, trapped by being a woman. Her uncle possessed all the power and she possessed none” (pg. 55). Discuss how this statement applies to all the women, regardless of social stratum. Ultimately, is it the Earl who has all the power?
9. Many of the young men in the book feel equally constrained, albeit in different ways. Consider the varying attitudes and actions of the male characters such as Kit, Sebastian, Andrew, and Jon, and how those attitudes and actions define their relationships with the women around them.
10. The young women of Summerset have their own ideas about what the future should hold for them. What are the differing views held by Prudence, Rowena, Victoria, Elaine, and even characters like Susie and Katie. Were you surprised by their attitude toward women of the previous generation (such as Lady Summerset)?
11. Do you believe Elaine knew the truth about Alice, and Prudence’s birthright? Why or why not?
12. A question that many of the younger characters struggle with (regardless of class) is whether privilege (or lack thereof ) that we are born with is privilege we truly deserve; or, put another way, what rights can or should be decreed by birth and what rights should we earn? At one point Rowena wonders whether, by loving Summerset and the way of life there, she and Victoria are perpetuating the problem between classes, as symbolized by Prudence. What do you think?
13. Before Rowena goes up in the plane with Jon, Mr. Dirkes tells her “Adapt or die!” Do you think this is what each girl was doing over the course of the story, in her own way? Is this a motto you would live by?
14. How do you see Rowena’s story turning out? Victoria’s?
15. Were you surprised when Prudence chose Andrew in the end? Who did you think would be better suited for her, him or Sebastian? Do you feel that, by denying her attraction to Sebastian, Prudence took the easy way out, in a manner of speaking? Or do you think she made the only logical choice?
16. At the very end Prudence notes, “She would just have to make her own family. Her own home.” What was your reaction to this ending? Do you think that the families and homes we grow up with aren’t really families of our own making?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Elaine and the rest of the Cunning Coterie fancy American cocktails such as the gin sling. Follow the recipe at http://cocktails.about.com/od/ginrecipes/r/gin_sling.htm and treat your club to a cocktail hour.
2. Have a viewing party of the popular PBS series Downton Abbey or a similar upstairs/downstairs type film such as Gosford Park. If Summerset Abbey was made into a movie, who would you cast?
3. Read a nonfiction account of life during this time such as Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by the Countess of Carnarvon or Below Stairs by Margaret Powell. Compare these accounts to the novel.
4. Learn more about author T. J. Brown and the women of Summerset by visiting her website, tjbrownbooks.com