A Song for Summer, by Eva Ibbotson
The Norchester sisters, Charlotte, Annie and Phyllis, intellectuals and life-long suffragists*, are surprised to discover that Charlotte's daughter doesn't share their passions. When she expresses interest in the domestic arts and sciences, they are somewhat dismayed. But they are a loving and supportive family, and they want Ellen to be happy. After graduating summa cum laude from the Lucy Hatton School of Cookery, Ellen leaves England for Austria, where she takes up a domestic post at the Hallendorf School:
A tangle of creepers seemed to be all that held up the boathouse; a shutter flapped on its hinges on an upstairs window; the yew hedges were fuzzy and overgrown. And this of course made it only lovelier, for who could help thinking of the Sleeping Beauty and a castle in a fairy tale? Except that, as they came in to land, Ellen saw the words EURYTHMICS IS CRAP painted on the walls of a small Greek temple by the water's edge.
"The children are wild," hissed the old woman into her ear. "They're like wild animals."
The old woman wasn't exaggerating. The children are wild, as are most of the teachers. But they're also willing to love, desperate to be loved, and the gentle order Ellen brings to Hallendorf is welcomed by almost everyone, including Marek, the handsome handyman/fencing master.
For a time, life at Hallendorf is close to idyllic, if a bit eccentric. But World War II looms.
Ellen isn't the usual sparky/witty/feisty/somewhat selfish heroine who usually wins my immediate adoration—she's very nice and sweet and placid and self-sacrificing**—but she has such strength and courage that it'd be impossible to not at least admire her and root for her.
Suffragists and a musical genius, a tortoise on wheels, nude sunbathing and poor little rich kids, longing and loss and love and defenestration and a Russian ballerina (sort of) and so much food it made me hungry.
I wasn't immediately won over by A Song for Summer the way I was by A Countess Below Stairs, but, when the time came, I found myself boo-hooing like a champ. Just the right sort of book to read now that the lilacs are blooming—almost too sweet, maybe, but I missed it when it was over.
*Twenty years after women gained the vote, their parlor is still decked out in purple, green and white.
**She does have a mostly secret, almost invisible streak of snark (it's very well hidden, but I swear it's there) that appears every so often. Watch for it.