The protagonist of Margery Sharp's 1977 novel, Summer Visits, is Cotton Hall, an old country house in East Anglia, modernized in the mid-19th century in the worst possible manner (think Viollet-le-Duc) and visited over the years by members of the Braithwaite family and eventually by others. The plot, which vastly overshadows character development or any of the other things we normally look for in a novel, is carefully braided with twists and turns that keep us hoping for the one change we would like to see, but witholding it from us until the very end. I don't think I'm giving away anything if I say this novel has a satisfactory ending. The fun is in how we get there.
The story begins in the 1850s when John Henry Braithwaite, a Lancashire manufacturer, buys the old house from the family that had owned it for 200 years. The old man's wife is dead and his two sons, Henry and George, have gone to university and are now respectively a barrister and soliciter. Of his two daughters, Charlotte and Flora, the former is now married and the latter, a plain, shy girl, still resident at Cotton Hall.
John Henry has made a will in which he leaves the house to his eldest son, Henry, and divides his other property, of which there is a great deal, among the four children. But that is about to change. The old man has hired Hilda, the daughter of his gardener, to be a laundry maid, then house-maid, then parlor-maid, and eventually mistress. Fortunately she and Flora get along very well and Hilda becomes an exceptionally competent housekeeper.
The fun begins when the ageing but innocent Flora finds herself pregnant by a fly-by-night artist and turns to Hilda for help. They work out a plan whereby Flora hides her condition with her voluminous crinolines and Hilda, who is pretty hefty to start with, tells John Henry she is going to have his child. The old man is delighted but the child is a daughter (named Margaret) so he marries Hilda hoping for another son.
Time goes by and there is no sign of another child until a local lad, Sergeant Butley, returns from the Crimea. Shortly after he leaves again Hilda announces she is going to have a child, and a child she has, this time a boy, named Benjamin by his proud "father." No one but Hilda and Flora knows the actual parentage of these children. Flora's siblings and their families don't like all this but when John Henry announces he has changed his will and left everything to this new son they are so angry they cease coming to Cotton Hall for their traditional month-long visit every summer.
The twisted root, as Sharp calls it, is increasingly entangled as the years go by and the old man dies, Benjamin, who has inherited the house, deeds it to Flora, who invites Anglican gentlewomen of small means to live there in a quasi-religious community. There are numerous chances for the few characters who know the real history of the family to set things right, but somehow the chances pass by and the house continues in the hands of people other than the rightful heirs, Henry Braithwaite, his son, and his grandson.
I said the ending is satisfactory, but really the entire novel is satisfactory, gratifying, delightful. Sharp, who wrote a number of very popular children's books, wrote 28 adult novels, all of which appear to be out print. However, as she is not "trendy" or well known except among a few of us who read off the beaten path, some of her books are available at abe.com for reasonable prices.