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This reading group guide forSummerset Abbeyincludes 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