The nineteen-tens were such a turbulent time in English history, but except for a few references to cars, I feel like this book could have been set anywhere around the Regency/Georgian eras.
Lady Charlotte is the youngest of six and feels forgotten and overlooked. Her mother is an old-fashioned lady and wants Charlotte to follow in her footsteps by marrying a lord, having children, and running a household. But Charlotte’s a dreamer who wants to marry for love and write grand adventure stories. There is literally nothing in that description that couldn’t happen in any time period. I read that story set in 1280. I’ve read that story in 1820. And now I’m reading it in 1911. It’s boring and nothing new is brought to the table.
The other point of view, Janie, the adventurous kitchen maid, is a little more interesting, if only because I haven’t read a lot of novels set Downstairs. Janie was born at THE MANOR, but left for most of her childhood to starve on an uncle’s farm. Now she’s back and determined to keep her head down and do good work so she can stay forever. But Charlotte’s mom is super strict, especially about romance between staff members, which is unfortunate because Janie is trapped in a love triangle between the dashing footman and the dependable hall boy.
For a book with secrets in the title, the story is actually pretty light on them. It’s really about the friendship that blooms between a highborn lady and her servant and the backlash as the staff gossips uproariously and makes Janie’s life miserable for thinking above her station. I do like that idea, but it’s also where my biggest problem lies. Charlotte is a selfish, spoiled, pain in the ass. Her head is so far in the clouds, she can’t see what she’s doing to Janie’s life and she really doesn’t care.
This is highlighted clearly in a conversation between the main characters in which Charlotte throws a temper tantrum because Sarah, her maid, won’t send Janie upstairs. Janie finally arrives, terrified that Charlotte has information about a servant who is going to be sacked, maybe even Janie herself. Charlotte, without acknowledging the distress she’s put Janie through, confesses that her mother’s top marriage prospect is going to talk to her father after dinner. This is why she embarrassed Sarah, got Janie in trouble, and turned the staff upside down. Because she doesn’t want a proposal from a hot, rich lord.
I will shed one single tear for her. Ugh.
The book is at its most successful when Charlotte is Downstairs and learning about the lives and hopes of her staff. Unfortunately, too much time is devoted to the love heptagon, (Charlotte and Janie and Sarah all like Lawrence, who’s a bit of a cad, but Fran likes Andrew who likes Charlotte and Harry likes Janie who also likes him, but she likes Lawrence too, but he kissed...I need a lie down,) instead of the girls learning and growing. The big secret joining them all is actually a surprise when it’s revealed, but the way it plays out is pretty nuts. It asks us to forgive all of the villains, (who now act totally against type,) ignore the fallout of a scandal, and see characters change their lifelong dreams on a dime. There’s also a mysterious illness that is absolutely never explained.
Manor of Secrets is not poorly written, though, again, I wish the time period felt more impactful on daily life. Charlotte and Janie’s voices are different, which is always important to multi-POV stories. I don’t hate any of the love interests that I’m supposed to like. But, I also don’t like the characters I’m supposed to like. Even with the big twist end, I don’t have a single strong feeling about anything but the fact that Charlotte is an overdramatic crybaby.