There's little doubt Manor of Secrets is one of several young adult novels that are attempting to capitalize on the popularity and success of the British miniseries, Downton Abbey. With a cover model who looks remarkably like Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) that's were the similarity ends in this plodding, tedious novel.
Sixteen year old Lady Charlotte Edmonds lives at The Manor, with her parents, Lord Edmonds and Lady Diane. Charlotte is bored and unhappy with her aristocratic life. She wishes to be free of the constraints her social class places on her and dreams of escape and adventure, of being a writer and living in the Cote d'Azur with a handsome man at her side. Her desires are often described in her secret writings, hidden in a box in her room and preoccupy her thoughts.
Janie Seward is a kitchen maid. Her mother, Mrs. Seward is the cook for The Manor. Janie has never known her father, who left to join the Army and died in South Africa. Janie grew up with poor relatives and has only recently come to work at The Manor.
Fran Caldwell is Charlotte's best friend. She doesn't understand Charlotte's desire not to marry and to be a writer. Fran wants to marry one of Charlotte's older brothers, David, so she can have a life of ease.
At a lawn party Charlotte and Fran see Janie sneaking down to the Manor lake and find her sans stockings, dipping her feet in the lake. Fran orders the maid back to the house despite Charlotte not wanting her to do this. After Fran leaves, impulsively Charlotte decides to dip her feet in the lake, soiling her dress with mud. Minutes later, the new, handsome footman, Lawrence, discovers Charlotte at the lake and helps her sneak into the house through the servant's entrance at the back, a part of the house she's not supposed to enter.
The next morning, while the kitchen staff, including Janie, Molly the scullery maid, Mrs. Seward and Tess are preparing breakfast for the Edmonds, the butler, Mr. Foyle informs them that an unexpected guest has arrived. That guest is Lady Diane's younger sister, Lady Beatrice Smythe. Lady Beatrice had run away with a rich commoner years ago, living on his plantations in India and Malaya. After his death she had moved to Italy. She has been away from England for sixteen years. Because of her indecorous past, there is tension between Lady Diane and her unconventional sister.
Charlotte finds her Aunt Beatrice to be very different from her mother's cold, distant manner. Lady Diane tells her daughter that Beatrice's unexpected arrival will make things awkward at the shooting party which is to be held over the next few days. Charlotte's mother advises her to pay special attention to eighteen year old Lord Andrew Broadhurst who is heir to the Earl of Ashdown and therefore a desirable marriage prospect. And little attention to the mysterious Aunt Beatrice who will be leaving soon. But Charlotte is not interested in the seemingly dull Lord Andrew. She wants a dashing man full of adventure at her side. And she's determined to discover why her mother and Beatrice are estranged, what brought her aunt to the Manor and why her mother wants her to leave so quickly.
To help her learn more about her Aunt Beatrice, Charlotte approaches Janie one evening in the downstairs of the household where the serving staff work asking her to keep her ears open for any information about Beatrice and to meet her regularly upstairs in her room.
Janie is suspicious of Charlotte's motives, but the hall boy, Harry Peasgood, suggests that maybe Charlotte is lonely. Janie decides to meet Charlotte partly to befriend Charlotte and partly out of curiosity about the forbidden upstairs of The Manor.
All of this sets the stage for a tangled web of interactions between Charlotte, Janie, Harry, and Lawrence. Charlotte is infatuated with Lawrence with whom she shares a secret kiss, only to learn later he's also attempted to kiss Janie and another household maid. Harry's in love with Janie but she doesn't notice this. Charlotte and Janie's meetings are quickly discovered and ended leaving Janie to cope with the fallout of being upstairs. When Janie is caught in the arms of Harry Peasgood she is sacked by Lady Diane.
The aristocrats gather for the hunting party which is to run from Friday to Sunday at the Manor. Lord Andrew Broadhurst, Lady Fran, Lord Buckden, Lord Ellis, and three of Charlotte's five brothers, Stephen, David, Freddie and others will be staying at the Manor. Charlotte continues to be infatuated with Lawrence, dreaming of running off with him and being a writer. However, an unexpected encounter with Lord Broadhurst on their way to the dinner, reveals his penchant for travel, making his own way and running his own business and a desire to have more out of life than parties. Charlotte considers that she may have misjudged Lord Andrew.
At the ball Charlotte learns that Janie has been sacked and impulsively she confronts her mother. Lady Diane shows her the writings which she believes are Janie's but Charlotte admits they belong to her. Furious at Charlotte's lack of decorum her mother decides to send her to finishing school. Charlotte angry at her mother's lack of understanding returns to the servant's ball and is found in a compromising situation with Lawrence by Fran and Lord Andrew. Realizing that she has created an enormous, Charlotte flees from The Manor. Her actions set in motion the revelation of a long buried secret that will forever change both Charlotte and Janie's life.
The Manor is a tedious read that never quite lives up to expectations based on the novel's cover. There is no real hook to capture the reader's interest and things don't start to happen until well past the halfway point in the novel. There are plenty of small secrets at the Manor; Janie fancies Harry, Charlotte's forbidden kiss with the handsome Lawrence, Charlotte's writing and so forth. But none of these are enough to keep the story interesting and the reader wanting more. The one interesting event, the mystery surrounding the arrival of Charlotte's Aunt Beatrice, is buried in the day to day details of manor living and the silly shenanigans of the impulsive and immature Charlotte.
Based on a passing reference in the novel to the enormous ship being built in Belfast, likely the Titanic, this novel is set sometime between 1909 and 1911 when Titanic was launched (she did not leave dock for her trials until April 2, 1912). This would have been the end of the Edwardian period, a time when workers and women were becoming increasingly forward about obtaining rights that the wealthy enjoy.
It's therefore understandable that a young person like Charlotte, seeing the old order beginning to change, would want to have more choice in her life. The idea that young, wealthy women like Charlotte might want to cook for themselves, work and travel, and choose their own husbands would still be considered fanciful. This aspect of Charlotte's character is very well developed. Her desire to live her own life leads her to create an imaginary world which she expresses through her writing. However, events soon force her to face the reality of her life and see people as they really are. This leads her to recognize Lawrence for the cad he is, willing to risk her reputation for what he considers a bit of fun and to recognize Andrew as honorable and trustworthy.'
A puzzling omission in this novel is the absence of Lord Edmond during the scandal and the revelation of Charlotte's parentage. He's only a minor character in the novel, but while Lady Diane is railing against Charlotte, ordering her off to finishing school and while Beatrice is revealing her past, Lord Edmond is nowhere to be found. As Lord of The Manor would he not have a say in what is happening in his own home?
There are many characters in this novel and a cast of characters at the beginning might have been helpful, removing the necessity of repeating character's titles throughout the novel.
If you especially like the Edwardian period, this book might be for you. But I'm betting that there are plenty of other well written historical novels to choose from.
Manor of Secrets by Katherine Longshore
New York: Point 2014