At Summer's End
At Summer’s End is a lovely historical novel with a sense of fresh purpose. It’s both a careful portrait of the pageantry of life in the 1920s and a lovely drama capturing the mores and manners of the era. Ellis knows how to give us glossy soap, and glossy soap we are given. Unfortunately, the way she chooses to handle several topics knocked the grade down several pegs, in spite of her ebullient writing style.
It’s 1922, and Alberta – Bertie – Preston has been invited by the Julian Napier, Earl of Wakeford to paint a series of portraits at his palatial but crumbling family country estate, Castle Braemore. Bertie jumps at this chance – it will establish her as an artistic presence at last, outside of the misogynistic world of art into which she wants to enter, and allow her to attract the rich patrons she needs in order to establish a studio. She has no desire to marry or have children, so art is all she wants. But soon she realizes she’s stumbled right into the middle of a familial fire fight. And that the Earl – seeing her nickname – hired her believing that she was a man.
The Great War has taken its toll on the estate, both in the matter of those lives claimed and the fact that it has damaged the estate financially. Bertie meets the Napiers – Julian and his older sister, Gwen, a war widow who functions as Julian’s helpmeet and is the only person Julian will see in person; his younger sister Celia (Cece) – who until this day had avoided her brother for the past seven years – and their younger brother Roland who runs the estate. Each of the Napier siblings is the walking wounded in an entirely different way, as is their mother, the dowager countess.
Julian, who suffers from anxiety, suicidal idiation and post-traumatic stress disorder as well as a physical disfigurement earned in battle, has shut himself away on the estate in the wake of a major personal loss, and has had little to do with the outside world until chancing upon Bertie’s work. He also operates under constant concern for his siblings, and awareness that the family estate has been bankrupted by the war and will be sold off at the end of the summer.
Bertie wants to meet him in person but he’s reluctant to do that. Slowly but surely, her presence at the house begins to affect others – and her feelings for Julian evolve as she coaxes him out of his shell. Slowly but surely, Bertie learns about Julian’s past – his father’s mistreatment in light of Julian’s sensitive nature, his pre-war love for one of the house’s maids, and that the end of that love affair has worsened his mental state and resulted in a secret shared between himself and his sisters. Can Bertie overcome his past hurts and her fear of giving herself over to romance?
At Summer’s End is lushly written with many delicate, soapy touches, but it struggles and falters in how it treats its very heavy subject matter.
I liked Bertie’s independence, so I wasn’t altogether wooed by the fact that she chooses house and hearth in spite of her long struggle against the bonds of domesticity. Her practical background in nursing is excellently portrayed and she often comes off as a no-nonsense, brilliant toughie stuck in the wrong time period.
I liked the equally practical strain that exists in Julian, but his melodramatic self-loathing made him feel as though he’d escaped from The Phantom of the Opera. Yet it’s touching that Julian is timid, anxious, and that the war has had an understandable effect upon him. Ellis manages to accurately portray his mental sufferings with a deft hand – mostly. The romance he and Bertie embark on is soapy and isn’t fully believable, but it manages to force itself into being via sheer narrative stubbornness.
I also liked the Napier siblings a lot – specifically Roland, who adds just the right note of jocular to the story. Cece and Gwen both felt like individuals who were believably shaped by their circumstances.
Yet the ending Ellis gives them feels a little too sunshine-y, even though she’s realistic about Julian’s mental status and how things might not always be easy for them. I felt as though Bertie was not fully prepared for the consequences of her actions; as if neither of them were really thinking things through, avoiding considering the damage Julian had been through.
Call it a Happy For Now ending. The sort which might rankle realists and romantics who delve into At Summer’s End alike.