Readers who think Downton-style drama could never happen in reality should look at Caroline Sandon’s Georgian soap opera, a tale of jealousy, passion, extravagance, and revenge based on the lives of the former residents of her husband’s family’s longtime home. Burnt Norton is a large manor house in Gloucestershire, and its unusual name didn’t come about by accident. While the English country scene on the novel’s jacket appears peaceful and coolly elegant, the chronicle within is anything but.
For the family of Sir William Keyt, MP for Warwick in the year 1731, the tragedies begin immediately and run downhill from there. After a horrible carriage accident that kills his youngest son and leaves his eldest daughter paralyzed, Sir William loses himself in drink, neglecting his wife, ignoring his heir, Thomas, and firing the governess. When he brings Molly Johnson, an innkeeper’s pretty daughter, back to Norton House to be Lady Keyt’s maid, the scene is set for calamities on a grand scale. Over time, obsessed by having Molly for himself, Sir William builds her a brand new, lavishly decorated mansion, heedless of the cost to his finances or to his wife and children. Although Molly loves Thomas, and he loves her, she is powerless to fight her fate. Meanwhile, Sir William’s younger daughter Dorothy, who starts out as a sympathetic figure, grows progressively more unpleasant as she plans the downfall of the woman who she believes tore her family apart.
The emphasis here is the eventful plot, which is spiced up with even more sordid shenanigans than happened in history. Aside from the easy-to-root-for Molly, the characterization can be thin and inconsistent, but the story has a can’t-look-away quality that exerts a strong pull nonetheless.