Emily Carter is the much-loved daughter of a farmer and secondhand goods salesman living near the English market town of Ely. Though times are hard, she tries to remain upbeat but must contend with her resentful mother and lecherous uncle, a classic villain. Although the blurb promises a Downton Abbey-style experience, the plot goes beyond this description. A full third takes place before Emily goes into service at nearby Priorsfield Manor to pay for her sick father’s medical expenses. This provides a more complete picture of Emily as a person.
At a social event, Emily shares a dance with Nicolas Barton, the younger grandson of Lady Prior of Priorsfield, and makes a strong impression on him (and vice versa) despite her tawdry homemade dress and unfashionable boots. He continues to admire her even after she applies to work at his home. The novel realistically shows Emily’s adjustment to her place of employment – the ornate and old-fashioned décor, the women’s beautiful gowns, her amazement at the family’s rich meals – and her accompanying loss of independence. She makes friends there and moves up in status over time.
Included periodically are the viewpoints of the two Barton daughters: beautiful, snobbish Amy, who has more depth than first appears; and kindly Lizzie, who loves Austen’s novels as well as her sister’s beau. The action unfolds against a backdrop of changing social attitudes and the encroaching specter of war. Despite the author’s tendency to repeat facts and an overabundance of soap opera drama in the last 50 pages, this is an appealing story.
The Downstairs Maid was published by Ebury in 2014 (£5.99, paperback, 445pp). This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review and is based on a personal purchase.