19 June 2017

Book Launch Guest Post ~ The Secret of Summerhayes, by Merryn Allingham


Available for pre-order from Amazon UK and Amazon US

A war-torn summer A house fallen into ruin A family broken apart by scandal...Summer 1944: Bombed out by the blitz, Bethany Merston takes up a post as companion to elderly Alice Summer, last remaining inhabitant of the dilapidated and crumbling Summerhayes estate. An evocative and captivating tale, The Secret of Summerhayes tells of dark secrets, almost-forgotten scandals and a household 
teetering on the edge of ruin.

A sense of place has always been important to me and looking back at the books I’ve written over the past few years, it’s clear how often setting has been the inspiration behind a novel. Two years ago I made a memorable visit to the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, ‘lost’ because they were only rediscovered in 1990 and since that time have been lovingly restored – the work, in fact, is still ongoing. The gardens’ heyday was in the late Victorian/Edwardian period when their owners spent a great deal of money, time and effort in creating a beautiful and exotic paradise.

But when in 1914 war came to England, everything changed. Most of the gardening staff perished in the mud of Flanders and the gardens were left to a slow disintegration. It was as though they went to sleep for the next eighty years. And because they remained untouched, the buildings the gardeners had known in 1914 – the bothy, the bee boles, the pineapple pit, the summerhouse and wishing well, among others – stayed essentially the same.

These were what the pioneers who hacked their way through the undergrowth in 1990 discovered, along with what had once been a two acre vegetable garden, south facing walls for the fruit harvest and a series of beautifully designed individual spaces, among them the Flower Garden, the Sundial Garden, the Italian Garden and the Ravine. There was plenty evidence from earlier times, too. Lead and zinc Victorian plant tags lay buried in the soil. A giant vine weaved its way through broken panes of glass in the walled garden. True romance!

Not quite so romantic were the effects of requisitioning. In 1916 Heligan became a military hospital and during the Second World War housed the American army. The beautiful lawns, or what was left of them by then, were concreted to provide hard standing for tanks and jeeps and the trees, many of them rare, used as target practice.

My fictional estate, Summerhayes, is nestled in the Sussex countryside rather than Cornwall, but prior to 1914 it offered the same perfect idyll. And like Heligan that idyll is disrupted by the First World War, a conflict that serves as background to the first Summerhayes novel, The Buttonmaker’s Daughter.
 
The Secret of Summerhayes is set thirty years later during the summer of 1944 when Britain is once again fighting a world war. Sussex as a county is almost cut off from the rest of the country, its lanes filled with tanks, the Downs a practice area for the big guns and its coast the site of  rehearsal for the invasion of Europe. The Summerhayes estate is now a shadow of its former glory. Like Heligan, the house has been requisitioned by the military and its battered interior serves as offices for the Canadian army. Its wonderful gardens, the talk of the county in Edwardian times, are overgrown and uncared for.

Into this crumbling estate walks Bethany Merston, a young  teacher who has been bombed out of her London school by the blitz and forced to look for other work. She takes up a post as companion to the elderly Alice Summer, the last of the Summer family, forced now to live in an apartment at the top of her former home. Alice struggles to cope with the realities of wartime, but there is something darker haunting her, too. She is not a woman at peace, plagued by haunting visions of her old household and tormented by the anonymous letters that convince her they come from a daughter who disappeared thirty years earlier.

At first Beth tries to persuade her employer that the letters are fantasy, but it soon becomes clear they hide something more sinister. She sets out to unravel the mysteries surrounding the family’s uncomfortable past, and in doing so puts herself in danger. The final episode of a simmering family drama is played out against the background of the massive military might that leads to D Day and a turning point in the war.

Merryn Allingham
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About the Author

Merryn Allingham worked for many years as a university lecturer and between job, family and pets, there was little time to write. But when the pressures eased, she grabbed the chance to do something she’d always promised herself – to write a novel. Under the name of Isabelle Goddard, she published six Regency romances, but in 2013 adopted a new writing name and a new genre. The Daisy’s War trilogy, set in India and London during the 1930s and 40s, was the result. Her latest books explore two pivotal moments in the history of Britain. The Buttonmaker’s Daughter is set in Sussex in the summer of 1914 as the First World War looms ever nearer and its sequel, The Secret of Summerhayes, thirty years later in the summer of 1944 when D Day led to eventual victory in the Second World War. If you would like to keep in touch with Merryn, sign up for her newsletter at www.merrynallingham.com and find her on Facebook and Twitter: @MerrynWrites.

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