"The end of the old world", people said about the long, hot summer of 1914. That summer Aunt Tilly comes to stay with her brother, the Rector, and his four lively daughters in the sleepy Sussex village of Ashden. Aunt Tilly's visit sparks off a chain of events which threatens to split Ashden apart. Agnes Pilbeam, the Rectory palourmaid, and her sweetheart, Jamie, find themselves bewilderingly caught up. Then, in August, the lamps go out all over Europe, and war bursts open the straitjacket of rural village life.
March 1915. Caroline Lilley's fiancé, Reggie, is away at the front, and Caroline gives up her job and returns home at his request. Frustrated in her desire to help the war effort, she throws herself into saving the harvest by organising the village women - and runs up against Reggie's mother, the formidable Lady Hunney. Caroline's sister, Felicia, departs to become an ambulance driver on the Western Front, and Phoebe and George eagerly await their chance to leave the village.
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By the summer of 1916, there is still no end to the war in sight and in the Sussex village of Ashden, optimism has given way to stoicism. While George Lilley leaves the Rectory to join the Royal Flying Corps, each of his four sisters finds her own way of contributing to the war effort. Gradually coming to terms with her broken engagement, Caroline Lilley numbly continues with her agricultural work at home, until tragedy forces her into leaving Ashden.
Christmas 1917, and as the Lilley family gathers at the Rectory in the Sussex village of Ashden, the mood is far from festive. But while the sisters face heartache and the new year brings fresh tragedy, the Rectory opens its doors to a new world, its inhabitants strengthened by the grief and happiness shared during the long years of war.