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A Glorious Guinness Girls Novel
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It's the dawn of the 1930s and the three privileged Guinness sisters, Aileen, Maureen and Oonagh, settle into becoming wives and mothers: Aileen in Luttrellstown Castle outside Dublin, Maureen in Clandeboye in Northern Ireland, and Oonagh in Rutland Place in London.
But while Britain becomes increasingly politically polarized, Aileen, Maureen and Oonagh discover conflict within their own marriages.
Oonagh's dream of romantic love is countered by her husband's lies; the intense nature of Maureen's marriage means passion, but also rows; while Aileen begins to discover that, for her, being married offers far less than she had expected.
Meanwhile, Kathleen, a housemaid from their childhood home in Glenmaroon, travels between the three sisters, helping, listening, watching–even as her own life brings her into conflict with the clash between fascism and communism.
As affairs are uncovered and secrets exposed, the three women begin to realize that their gilded upbringing could not have prepared them for the realities of married life, nor for the scandals that seem to follow them around.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Oonagh Guinness, now Oonagh Kindersley
Philip Kindersley, Oonagh’s husband
Ernest Guinness, the girls’ father
Cloé Guinness, their mother
Kathleen, former housemaid, now qualified as a teacher thanks to Ernest Guinness
Violet Valerie French, known as “Valsie,” Oonagh’s friend
Victor Brougham, 4th Baron Brougham and Vaux, Valsie’s fiancé
Nancy Mitford, the eldest of the Mitford sisters
Diana Mitford, Nancy’s sister
Unity Mitford, Nancy and Diana’s sister
Bryan Guinness, cousin of the Guinness sisters and Diana’s husband
Bright Young People: Stephen Tennant, Elizabeth Ponsonby, Teresa “Baby” Jungman, Zita Jungman
Evelyn Waugh, writer
Henry Channon, “Chips,” American diarist and politician
Oswald Mosley, British politician
Mary, Irish nursemaid at Bryan Guinness and Diana Mitford’s home
Ned, Mary’s brother
Luttrellstown Castle, Dublin
Aileen Guinness, now Aileen Plunket
Brinsley Sheridan Bushe Plunket, “Brinny,” Aileen’s husband (nicknamed the Great Oouja by Maureen)
Annie, Cousin Mildred’s protegée
Clandeboye, Co. Down
Maureen Guinness, now Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava
Basil Blackwood, “Duff,” 4th Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, Maureen’s husband
Lady Brenda, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, Maureen’s mother-in-law
Helen, housemaid at Clandeboye
Castle MacGarratt, Co. Mayo
Dominick Geoffrey Edward Browne, 4th Baron Oranmore and Browne
Mildred, his wife
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
This is a novel, not a history book. The characters are based on real people, but they are my imagined versions of these people. I have spent many years researching the Guinness sisters and family for The Glorious Guinness Girls and now Mummy Darlings. During this time I feel I have come to know these women. Because of that, for this novel I wanted to view each of them up close, rather than through the eyes of a single external narrator. The novel is built on real life events and people (apart from Kathleen and her story), but my hope is that through my imagination and my interpretation of those events, I convey a sense of the girls’ inner lives and go some way to bringing these three fascinating and enigmatic women to life.
Rutland Gate, London
Dr. Gilliatt says you’re to move about more,” Kathleen said, marching into Oonagh’s room after the doctor had left. She hauled back the pale green curtains, the color of lichen that grows on bark, so that the sun came spilling in and nudged at the end of Oonagh’s bed as a dog might, head butting against a leg or arm when it wants something.
“Kathleen, don’t!” Oonagh said, putting a hand up to shield her eyes from the brightness. With more light, she became conscious of the stuffiness of the room. A smell that was dense and inhabited—layers of Bois des Îles perfume laid one over another, last night’s fresh scent mingling with an older, sourer memory, and beneath that a tired, fretful odor that reminded her of the bad night just passed. “He didn’t say any such thing.” She struggled to a sitting position, allowing Kathleen, who had a wiry strength, to help her up and settle her against the carved wooden headboard.
“He did. Only not to you because he knows you won’t listen to him. He said it to me.”
“Because he knows I’ll listen to you?” she asked wryly.
“Indeed.” Kathleen grinned. “And you will, too. I’ll ring for Burton to dress you and then we’ll take a turn about the gardens.” Her gray eyes allowed no possibility of refusal.
“Must I?” Oonagh said. “Oh, of course I must, if the doctor says so, but later. I’m so tired.” She put a hand to her stomach, and winced at a solid blow from within.
“Wait until the first time you feel it kick,” her mother Cloé had said many weeks before, when Oonagh had called to the house in Grosvenor Place where she had lived until her marriage to Philip almost a year ago. Cloé had peeled her lips back over her teeth in what was not a smile. “Dreadful.” She shuddered. “Quite the oddest feeling…” Oonagh had bent her head low over the tea tray so Cloé wouldn’t see her lips twitch with laughter, and had thought how typical that was of her mother.
But the first movements had taken her by surprise. Gentler than the thudding of her own heart. Apologetic almost, as though the baby didn’t wish to disturb her. And yet strange in ways that made her agitated. Somehow, she had not known that having a baby really meant, well, having it herself.
“You might have told me it would be like this,” she’d wailed on the phone to Aileen in Ireland, married a year longer than Oonagh and mother to little Neelia, which was Aileen’s own name spelled backward, so that Maureen, first hearing it, had rolled her eyes and said, “What is it exactly that she hopes to undo with that?”
“Well, whatever did you think?” Aileen had snapped. “That the maid could do it for you?” They had giggled a little, before Aileen stopped abruptly and demanded to know “the latest” on Maureen’s wedding plans. “If I’m to come over to London, I want at least to know it will be worth it,” she had said, and Oonagh had been reminded of how Aileen liked always to behave as though she acted from duress and not desire; giving in, not taking part.
Oonagh had got used to the flutterings over the past couple of weeks, and come to feel fond, but even so, much about having a baby discomfited her: Dr. Gilliatt’s hands on her bare skin—hands he had carefully warmed in a bowl of water brought by Kathleen from the kitchen, just the way Mrs. Taylor, the cook, when making pastry, would put hers in ice water to cool them. The way he moved those hands around, probing with his fingers across her stretched skin, like a blind man reading a face: that was obscene too. She had learned not to ask him anything more than the most basic questions—what must she eat, the date of her delivery—afraid that he would talk to her about what was happening within, and that she would be sickened.
“If he says ‘womb,’ I shall scream, I know it,” she had confided to Maureen just days earlier.
Maureen, unmarried, still lived at home in Grosvenor Place, for another couple of months anyway, and with both her sisters gone, was bored enough to visit often. Maureen had retorted, “Surely the point of a man like Gilliatt, physician to the royal family, is that he would never say such a thing.”
That morning, Gilliatt had repeated his advice that she not agitate herself. “Babies like a quiet mother,” he had said jovially, patting her hand as though testing the bristles on a brush.
“Mothers like a quiet baby,” Oonagh had heard Kathleen murmur beside her, and had giggled.
“I am so tired,” she said again. “Sit with me for a minute, Kathleen, before Burton comes, and then I promise, I will make the effort. Such a wretched night, you cannot imagine.”
“I don’t need to,” Kathleen said. “I can hear you very well from upstairs, tossing and turning and sighing.”
“Do I really sigh?”
“Yes, loudly too. It’s like sleeping above stables.”
Oonagh giggled. “I’m not used to being so much in bed,” she said. “Why, before the baby, I spent more time in my bedchamber getting dressed than I did sleeping. Such parties, Kathleen. When we first came to London for Aileen’s coming-out, it was like the whole city burst into a wild frenzy of merriment, like the opening number of a big show. Night after night, and always as though each one were the first.” Her voice was buoyant with remembered excitement, and she plucked at the bedsheet with busy fingers, as though keeping time with a distant beat.
“It’s no wonder you’re tired,” Kathleen said tartly. “You must have worn yourself out before the baby ever started.”
“Oh, but the fun, Kathleen! Fancy-dress parties, with everyone costumed as pirates, or babies, or circus people, scavenger hunts for a policeman’s helmet or a napkin from the Ritz, dancing till dawn and gathering for lunch just a few hours later. Every day and night something new and delightful. Not always lying here, a slow and swollen creature that everyone’s forgotten.”
“Hardly! There isn’t a day goes by that that drawing room isn’t full of your sisters and your friends. As giddy a bunch as I ever saw. Baby, Zita, Valsie.” She emphasized the names to show she thought them foolish. “Stephen, Elizabeth—those Mitford girls, Nancy and Diana.”
“Well, them,” Oonagh said, making a face. “Of course they come. What else are they to do? Anyway, even that is nothing to what it was. You’ve only been here a few weeks.” Kathleen had come for the baby, sent for by Oonagh’s father, Ernest, as extra help for her as soon as he had been told this was to be what Dr. Gilliatt called a “complicated” pregnancy. For Ernest, every problem carried a solution, one to be executed by him quickly and neatly. “I promise this is positively tame compared with what we were like.”
“You sound as though you long for those times again?”
“Only a little,” Oonagh said truthfully. “Mostly I long for this baby. I cannot wait to hold him, for I’m sure it’s a him, in my arms. Kathleen, you cannot imagine how much I simply long for that.”
“How you do exaggerate,” Kathleen said disapprovingly. “Mr. Ernest is downstairs. Shall I ask him to come up?”
“Is Philip here?” Oonagh asked.
“I haven’t seen him this morning,” Kathleen said. “I can ask Peters? But if I do, I know exactly what he’ll say.”
“And what’s that?”
“Neither yes nor no, but ‘May I carry a message to him, Miss?’” Kathleen said with a laugh. “He guards access to your husband as though the man were a vault in the Bank of England.” Oonagh smiled at that, so Kathleen continued. “Burton likes me even less, I think.”
“It’s because you knew me as a child, back in Ireland, at Glenmaroon. Burton is rather jealous, I dare say.”
“I don’t know what she has to be jealous of,” Kathleen retorted. “All that means is that I’ve had more years of fetching and carrying for Guinnesses than she has.”
“Silly Kathleen! Why, at Glenmaroon we were practically playmates. You aren’t that many years older than me, you know.”
“We were not friends! I was a maid, with work to do every day—fires and dusting and a great deal more besides. All made slower by you, following after me, asking could you help and saying, ‘Do I do it like this, Kathleen?’ after I gave you a little brush of your own to do the grates.” Kathleen’s voice was sharp but her look was fond.
“I remember,” Oonagh said. “Often you were the only one in the house who was kind to me.”
“Nonsense,” Kathleen said, and Oonagh let her, even though they both knew it wasn’t nonsense. That in a house full of servants but very often empty of their parents, the three Guinness girls, and Oonagh, the youngest most of all, for all they were rich and grand, had been no more proof against the moods of nannies and governesses than a puppy might have been. To be pinched and neglected when sour moods came upon them, to be locked into her room when they were angry, to be ignored when she cried because it didn’t suit them to go to her.
She shifted in the high soft bed. “Do you remember the time Gunnie found us and I was sweeping out the drawing-room fire while you did the brasses? She was scandalized. I don’t know who she was more cross with—you or me?” She recalled the horror on her aunt’s face. Gunnie held tight to all those responsibilities that Cloé ignored, so it had fallen to her to be shocked at finding Oonagh doing the work of a servant.
“I do know,” Kathleen said. “And so do you, really.”
“Well, perhaps.” Oonagh shifted on the bed, uncomfortable, as always, at Kathleen’s directness. “Tell Peters to show Papa up. And see if you can find Philip before he goes to his office.”
Waiting for her father to bound up the stairs, Oonagh thought how often, now, she seemed to be silently tracking Philip through the house as she lay in bed or on the drawing-room sofa—listening for the sound of his footsteps or the closing of a door, sending servants to look for him while pretending to be casual in her interest. And how, a year ago, when they were first married, they had flown together through those same spaces, matched like swallows in the harmony of their movements, turning and wheeling and circling, always together. She wondered did Philip remember.
Ernest was shown in and Oonagh offered to ring for coffee, then watched as he went straight to the sash window and pulled it up high.
“You’ll let in a draft,” she said.
“Nonsense. The air will do you good. You’re like your mother, believing fresh air to be injurious.” Because she wanted to be nothing like her mother, certainly not in Ernest’s eyes, Oonagh allowed it, even though the greasy slick of petrol that lay across the soft smell of damp grass and leaves turned her stomach. And when Kathleen returned, she got up and took the high-backed armchair by the small round table where Ernest sat.
“What does Gilliatt say?” Ernest asked, when she was seated, draped in a pearly silk dressing gown.
“You know…” Oonagh shrugged helplessly. “That I must rest, but also I must take more exercise…”
“Well, never mind, he’ll telephone me later and give me his report. Now, Kathleen…”—he turned around and fixed his bright dark eyes, like black beetles, Oonagh sometimes thought, on Kathleen, who leaned against the bedpost, arms folded comfortably behind her in the hollow of her back—“… you’re settled in, I hope? I’ve hardly seen you since you arrived.”
“How did you like your studies?”
“Very well,” she said. “They were interesting. Difficult too.”
“That’s the ticket,” Ernest said, eyes twinkling above a brisk mustache. Oonagh recalled what he had said when he first proposed sending Kathleen to the teacher-training college at Carysfort in Dublin: “A sharp mind like that must not be wasted on housework, and her father will never think to send her, or afford it.” He had, Oonagh had thought then, a need to do good that was like a twitch. But she was glad his scheme with Kathleen had turned out so well. Educated, and with the certainty that had brought to her, Kathleen at twenty-six was far more a force than she had been when she was sixteen and her duties were just fires and brass. With two younger sisters at home in the flat above the ironmonger’s shop in Castleknock and a mother long dead, Kathleen had always had the habit of command, Oonagh thought with a grin, but now she had authority too. And a kind of determination that was given her by her education, but maybe by something else too—something that had to do with why she had been so quick to come from Dublin to London, to accept a position that really, Oonagh thought, was beneath a qualified teacher. But she had said nothing that would explain this, and Oonagh hadn’t asked.
“What—” Ernest began, but Philip arrived to interrupt them.
“I can’t stay long,” he said cheerfully, coming in and making so quickly for the open window that Oonagh wondered did the room still smell sour. She pinched her cheeks a little to bring color to them and sat up straighter, turning her chair toward him. After the men had swapped pleasantries, Ernest left, saying he would return the next day, and Philip sat down in his empty chair, taking Oonagh’s tiny white hands in his and rubbing them.
“Put your hand here,” she said, thinking how handsome he was with his shiny black hair, which he had taken to arranging so as to cover the place where it was thinning, although he was only twenty-three. He placed his hand where she showed him, where the baby erupted beneath her skin, then snatched it away, as though she had done something indecent. Oonagh felt offended on the baby’s behalf. “The kicks won’t hurt you,” she said, “only me.” She tried to sound light, amused, as she drew Philip’s hand back toward her.
He let her bring it halfway, then pulled it back and made a show of consulting his watch, shaking his wrist from side to side, then holding it to his ear. “I wouldn’t want to do something wrong,” he said. “To either of you.”
“You won’t,” she said. “You couldn’t.” But he wouldn’t give her his hand again. The way he had looked in wary fascination from her face to the round lump of her middle made Oonagh realize that he, too, had only then really understood what was going on. Like her, he had somehow thought that “having a baby” meant something else.
“Any more names?” he asked then. It was a game they played, a way to talk about the baby that was not medical.
“Let’s call him Celestin, because he will be as beautiful as an angel,” Oonagh said.
“Or Hermes because he will be born with tiny wings that grow from his ankles so that he flies where others walk.”
They talked nonsense, laughing and teasing one another, making silly jokes, and Oonagh thought how much more at ease Philip was with this than when she had tried to have him put his hand on her to feel the baby kick. How, she wondered, would he be when there was an actual child to hold?
“Better get on,” he said then, and she nodded and said, “Of course,” even though part of her wanted to tease that he behaved as though his job—stockbroker in the City—was vital and urgent, rather than something handed to him by his father as one might hand a parcel to someone to hold, a parcel Philip held politely even though he didn’t know or care what was in it. She forced herself not to ask if he would be home for dinner, just as Aileen had told her. “Do not be forever clinging,” Aileen had said, when Oonagh breathed a question about why men, husbands, were so often busy, even when that busyness involved a different room under the same roof: a decanter, a newspaper and the refusal of female company. “Men must feel themselves free,” Aileen had continued, full of the worldly wisdom of her extra year of marriage.
And so Oonagh nodded and smiled brightly, but as the door closed behind Philip, she felt her show of energy fade too. “Let’s not go out, Kathleen,” she said, when Kathleen came to her soon after. “It’s too cold.”
“You need air,” Kathleen insisted, and so they did, although their walk around the tiny oblong of green that lay at the center of Rutland Gate, shared by all the houses in that huddle, was slow.
“Could you not tell those friends of yours not to be calling?” Kathleen asked, as they arrived back to the house. “Your date is soon now, and then Maureen’s wedding. You need your strength.”
“I couldn’t,” Oonagh said. “It would seem so odd.” What she didn’t say was that without her friends to distract her—to demand her attention with their tales and antics, no matter how those tales pained her because she wasn’t part of them—she felt entirely alone and forgotten, something trapped in the filthy mud of a riverbank while the water flowed swift and clean and far away.
Cowes, Isle of Wight
The Fantome swayed and creaked as the crew piloted her around the Cowes breakwater and into harbor in a way that was, Maureen thought, both soothing and unsettling, like being rocked in a large, wood-paneled cradle that might tip over at any moment. She stretched out on the soft leather of the salon sofa, enjoying the way the low-ceilinged paneled room moved and shifted around her and the water danced in reflection on the wooden ceiling.
“Miss Maureen?” The knock was loud and firm. “Miss Maureen,” the voice came again, “we’ll be docking shortly.”
“An hour later than expected,” she snapped back. The captain didn’t respond, and Maureen was reminded of how, beneath the polite deference the crew showed her, it was very clear that she mattered nothing, was simply cargo and not the focus of their attention, which was the yacht, always the yacht, and not those who traveled on her. Unless Ernest was there. The reminder annoyed her, and she looked for comfort around the cozy room with its polished walls, the oil lamps behind their dusky pink tasseled shades already lit and glowing, for the windows were small and the late-afternoon light dim. She breathed deep the smell of leather, lavender beeswax and cigars that had sunk into the wood, overlying the tang of salt water, and watched light reflect off the decanter tops. “It’s like traveling in Papa’s dressing case,” she said.
“Your move,” Duff said, putting down one of the ivory backgammon pieces with a satisfying clack. He took a sip of whiskey, then put his arms above his head and stretched. “Will we dine on board, or go ashore?”
“Whatever you like,” Maureen said, looking over the small games table at him. Because Cloé wasn’t there, she had shaded black pencil around her eyes so that they stood out more startlingly blue-gray than ever. On deck, on a clear day, they were, Duff had told her, the color of the flax that grew around Clandeboye. Did he notice the makeup, or only the effect of it? Men, she thought, never much noticed anything unless you pointed it out to them. Not like women, who were made up of mostly eyes. And curiosity.
“I cannot wait to be Lady Dufferin,” she said then. “And not ‘Miss Maureen,’” she imitated. “The captain may as well be saying ‘Miss Moppet’ or ‘Miss Mouse.’”
“You’ll wear it well,” Duff said, smiling at her. Then, “Do you mind that we won’t live at Clandeboye?” This was the Blackwood family estate, some three thousand acres in the north of Ireland. “Not at first, anyway,” he continued. “I know my father would move from the main house if I asked, but I fear what such a change might do to my mother’s nerves.”
“Lord, no. I’d rather it. I may be ready for the title,” Maureen grinned, “but I am not at all ready for the responsibility. Let’s have some years in London first, just you and me, where we can have fun, before settling down to all that.” She made a face. She didn’t respond to the comment about Lady Brenda’s nerves, because she didn’t know what to say. They were much talked of, these “nerves,” but as yet Maureen had no real idea what they were, beyond a thing that must be said in hushed tones, as though “the nerves” might overhear and be offended.
“The children will be brought up there, of course, regardless of where we are,” he said.
“Children?” She looked at him with limpid curiosity. “What children?”
“Our children.” He took her hand across the tiny games table and squeezed it.
“Hmm… Yes, naturally. I mean, eventually. But some fun years first,” she repeated firmly. She didn’t say it—Maureen never liked to express anything that showed her to be uncertain or uneasy—but it alarmed her how quickly everyone, even Duff, had jumped from congratulations on the engagement, to plans for the wedding and then, immediately further on, into a world of nurseries and weighty duties. And all this when the wedding was still well over a month away. “You won’t be doing that after you’re married,” Cloé had said, with satisfaction, just days before, on hearing Maureen give minute instructions to her dressmaker for a costume to be created for a fancy-dress party.
“Why won’t I?” Maureen had snapped.
“You simply won’t have time,” Cloé had said, pleased. Maureen had thought of asking why not, what else would she be doing, but had thought better of it. She didn’t like what she suspected the answer would be. “Marriage is a job,” Cloé had said then, and Maureen had muttered, “Not one you seem to be terribly good at.” But quietly.
“Do you love it?” she asked Duff now. “Clandeboye?”
- "A great selection for book clubs!"—Booklist
- On Sale
- Apr 18, 2023
- Page Count
- 496 pages
- Grand Central Publishing
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AND DON’T MISS THE FIRST GLORIOUS GUINNESS GIRLS NOVEL
Descendants of the founder of the Guinness beer empire, they were the toast of 1920s high society, darlings of the press, with not a care in the world. But Felicity knows better. Sent to live with them as a child because her mother could no longer care for her, she grows up as the sisters’ companion. Both an outsider and a part of the family, she witnesses the complex lives upstairs and downstairs, sees the compromises and sacrifices beneath the glamorous surface. Then, at a party one summer’s evening, something happens that sends shock waves through the entire household.
Inspired by a remarkable true story and fascinating real events, The Glorious Guinness Girls is an unforgettable novel about the haves and have-nots, one that will make you ask if where you find yourself is where you truly belong.