I ended up loving this book SO MUCH!
The heroine, Bettina Vanderpoel, is fresh and dynamic. Heiress to an American fortune made in commerce, she is everything new world, a breath of fresh air, as breezy and brisk as a stiff breeze off the ocean. The story begins with her sister, the pretty, girlish Rosalie, marrying Nigel Anstruther, an out-at-the-pockets British nobleman who turns out to be a truly awful person. Rosy disappears into the English countryside, leaving her family wondering what has happened.
Betty, who is 8 when Rosy marries, bides her time and grows into a formidable young woman. She has a mind built for commerce and educated in different international schools, including France and Germany. She is very close to her father, Reuben Vanderpoel, who has tremendous respect for her brains.
One of the most delightful things about this book was the relationship between Betty & Reuben. And Betty's total self-confidence:
“You ought to have been a man, Betty,” he used to say to her sometimes. But Betty had not agreed with him. “You say that,” she once replied to him, “because you see I am inclined to do things, to change them, if they need changing. Well, one is either born like that, or one is not. Sometimes I think that perhaps the people who must ACT are of a distinct race. A kind of vigorous restlessness drives them. I remember that when I was a child I could not see a pin lying upon the ground without picking it up, or pass a drawer which needed closing, without giving it a push. But there has always been as much for women to do as for men.”
And Betty is a doer - she makes her way to England, and proceeds to her sister's estate, where she finds Rosy, who has been bullied into total submission by the horrible Nigel. She appears older than her age, dresses in rags, and is living among the ruins of an estate that he refuses to maintain. Nigel has gone to the south of France with his current inamorata, leaving Rosy and her son, Ughtred, to try to scrape together food and watch the house deteriorate.
Betty shows up with her American money and immediately begins to set things to rights in the most wonderful way possible. Not throwing her weight around obnoxiously, not focused on superficial crap, but repairing tenant cottages, and restoring the gardens, and bringing Rosy back to herself. There are definitely shades of The Secret Garden in Burnett's descriptions of flower beds and her discussions of the restorative properties of the gardens at the Court.
And, of course, there is Lord Mount Dunstan, the last of the Mount Dustans, son and brother of a pair of rotters who have done their best to leave their estate in rack and ruin, full of manly pride, lovely and swoony and just the man for our gorgeous Bettina.
"He paused a pondering moment, and then drew a sharp breath which was an exclamation in itself. “She’s Life!” he said. “She’s Life itself! Good God! what a thing it is for a man or woman to be Life — instead of a mass of tissue and muscle and nerve, dragged about by the mere mechanism of living!”
So many things that I loved about this book. It is quirky and unique and Betty is a heroine for the ages. I would never have expected this from the author of The Secret Garden.