As the twentieth century begins, a sweet young pliable American heiress marries Sir Nigel Anstruthers, an impoverished English gentleman. To her ill-luck, he proves to be a manipulative bully, and he makes her life miserable. A dozen years later, the heiress's younger sister Betty, who has more wits and pluck than most, arrives to rescue her sister.
Betty is an intoxicating character: cool and self-possessed, smart, perceptive, unfailingly kind, and inquisitive. When she's first introduced she's a square-faced little brat glaring at her sister's fiance. Years of expensive boarding schools and business trips with her father help transform her into a heroine. When she first descends upon her sister's village, it seems there is nothing beyond her talents. She instantly charms the villagers with her good sense and kind gifts, charms the gentry with her manners and beauty, and cheers up her downtrodden sister&nephew. By chance, Betty meets Lord Mount Dunstan, who is as sensible and active as she is, but alas, has no money to keep up his ancient family estate. We're told they're clearly made for each other (although Mount Dunstan is a mere shadow puppet compared to Betty's intense and deep characterization, and his continual whinings about having no money irked me), and it seems that the only plot to the novel will be whether Mount Dunstan will get over his pride and ask Betty to marry him.
But then! Sir Nigel Anstruthers reappears upon the scene. And damn, he is a nasty piece of work. At first, it seems that Betty will easily beat him--but as time goes on, Nigel's sly comments and male gender serve him well, and Betty's reputation grows precarious. Nigel is actually dangerously good at gaslighting and turning people against each other, and began to grow quiet worried. Just when I got really scared, though, first Mount Dunstan saves Betty from physical danger and then Nigel fortuitously has a stroke just when he's about to ruin his wife's reputation. It felt like a cop-out--it was very unsatisfying. I wanted Nigel taken down using the law or for Betty to socially destroy him. Instead, he becomes paralyzed&non-communicative (a terrible fate, to be sure) and everyone pretends he didn't torment his family and waste all their money. Providing a united front to the lower classes was apparently more important than justice.
This is an interesting book, because you can see the gleamings of feminism and class consciousness peaking through here and there, but Burnett always pulls back. For instance, this book was written & set long before the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923 made it possible for British women to divorce their husbands for anything less than proven adultery AND incest/bigamy/sodomy. Husbands could cheat on their spouses without fear of reprisal, and treat their wives as they pleased, generally--I remember a case where a judge ruled that a husband literally starving his wife wasn't abuse, because after all, if she wanted him to start feeding her she could just stop annoying him. In the event of a divorce (at this time, a very expensive and drawn out affair that required, iirc, 3 trials!), custody of children would always be awarded to their father. And of course, just trying to get a divorce was scandalous (see: The Age of Innocence). So in this story, Betty and Rosalie don't even talk about starting divorce proceedings against Nigel--it's not really an option for them. Betty's tactic is just to make Rosalie's home a comfortable one by lending her money, and hope that Nigel will stay away. It was really painful to read how few options or hope even a very resourceful, wealthy, popular, beautiful and fictional lady has in this era. But at no point does Burnett actually advocate for change, whether in society or in the law--her otherwise voluable characters remain silent in this regard. So too does Burnett pull back from examining whether it's fair that some people have millions while people literally freeze to death feet away from them. Her heroes spend a lot of time bemoaning the (virtuous) poor's poverty and providing charity, but the idea that perhaps fair wages should be mandated, or old age pensions provided to all, is never considered by anyone. The whole relationship between rich and poor in this book is like libertarianism mixed up with Victorian sentiment.
In the end, this was an odd mix of fantasy (from the very character of Betty, who is delightfully too good to be true, to the spiritualism that saves Mount Dunstan's life), gothic horror (Nigel and his treatment of his wife and son), and romance.