The Secret Guests by BW Black (John Banville)


published 2020








There are many key features in this book: alternate history, a decaying Irish house of the Protestant Ascendancy, and a fascination with Royals in a very anti-monarchist way – all absolute favourite themes on the blog. John Banville has featured a couple of times before, for one post – The Newton Letter, a big Irish house – I found one of my all-time favourite blog pictures, a land girl from WW2, and I could use that here:







‘With both hands she hoisted her corduroy slacks at the waist…’ – that’s Princess Margaret in The Secret Guests, which is set in 1940.

It is an intriguing book with a great setup: suppose during WW2 the King and Queen of England had decided their daughters should be transferred in great secrecy to live in Eire, where they would be safer? It didn’t happen, but... 



So Banville follows the two girls, Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen), 14, and Princess Margaret,10, to a life in the grand Irish house and estate of a fictional duke in County Tipperary. The girls have to take on assumed identities, and learn to live a less-Royal, but still very privileged, life. There is tension between the usual residents (including of course a gamekeeper who is young and handsome and also wears corduroy)  and the visitors, including a governess and an Irish policeman for security. 




Banville, an award-winning ‘serious’ novelist, has also written detective stories under the name Benjamin Black, and has chosen to put this book out under the name BW Black, so perhaps sees it as thriller-esque? There is some danger and jeopardy, and question marks over some people.

I liked this far more than those other Blacks, and was really really enjoying it, thinking ‘this is excellent’, but sadly I thought he lost it in the final quarter. Why would you start writing that book without apparently having a really strong ending? I was very disappointed that apparently all it was, was ‘yeah Margaret was a bit difficult but no wonder.’ Very let down. It seemed pointless to have an alternative history that just went looping back into reality without the slightest change or giving you anything to think about. But worth it for the good bits, which were like Banville of years ago.

And I always like a decaying Irish house of the Protestant Ascendancy: I wrote a blogpost here, with some lovely pictures, which does mention John Banville. 





I am going to make a really pedantic correction here: there is mention in the book of the Chalet School books, particularly the 1934 Eustacia goes to the Chalet School. The author claim that the books are set in the Swiss Alps, but they were not at that date – they were set in the Austrian Tirol. Now, it is true that the Chalet School does move to the Swiss Alps after the war, for the many post-war books in the series, but no-one could have known that in the early 1940s. The Chalet School had to escape from the Nazis, move to the Channel Islands, then England, then Wales, before moving to Switzerland. (As well argue with me about the Chalet School as about Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers ie don’t even think about it, even if you have a Booker Prize John Banville.)

And now a ton of links and connections:

Alternate history (satisfyingly, 'alternate' and 'alternative' history can be used equally, apparently. They are alternates!)   – I very much liked Jo Walton’s Small Change books, which also featured the British upper classes, just post-War, and have a connection with this book that I won’t spoiler.

Peter Dickinson wrote a couple of fascinating detective stories deeply mired in an alternative history of the Royal Family…

Monica Ali also did an alternative history novel, Untold Story, with a Royal connection – imagine that Princess Diana didn’t die in that car crash.

And Curtis Sittenfeld has just written Rodham, alternative history for Hilary Clinton. Her American Wife was a form of alternate history.


Edward St Aubyn’s Some Hope contains a memorable cameo by Princess Margaret (grown up). St Aubyn is forever claiming that the incident is completely fictional, and no-one believes him.

Craig Brown wrote a very funny and unputdownable book about Princess Margaret, a strange mixture of fact and fiction, called Ma’am Darling


More old Irish houses in the posts on Tana French’s The Likeness and JG Farrell’s masterpiece, Troubles.

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The Royal Family in 1937, from the Maritime Museum. I am strongly anti-monarchist, so have a deep fascination with the Royals, and I love this post about the Duchess of Windsor, and why you can’t be Royal AND fashionable, and where I compare the Duchess with someone else…

The Land Girl is a photo taken by Bryson Jack for the Ministry of Information  in 1944 – doesn’t it look like an oil painting? - and is from the Imperial War Museum.


The picture of the big house (and there are many to choose from) is from the National Library of Ireland, as is the gamekeeper – the full photo and details link in well with the book in fact.

Comments

  1. I'm more familiar with Black/Banville's Quirke novels than with this one, Moira, but I can see how it appealed, at least at first. That's a really interesting premise for a story, and the setting sounds excellent, too. Fiction that uses historical figures can be quite tricky, so I give Banville/Black credit for that. Still, a strong ending is important, and I can see why you'd hoped for more than you got.

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    1. I was disappointed, but still it was entertaining for a few hours reading. I'm interested to know what you made of the Benjamin Black books - I found them rather too long and miserable, and I did not like Quirke. But - he IS a good writer.

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  2. I do like alternative history, and specifically the books of Jo Walton and Peter Dickinson that you mentioned. You have given me some books to look into.

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    1. Yes, actually this one might be of interest to you Tracy, what with alternative history AND the wartime setting. But just wait till it turns up, I'm not sure you should rush to get this one.

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  3. As well argue with me about the Chalet School as about Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers ie don’t even think about it, even if you have a Booker Prize John Banville. Ha ha!

    Gosh, so much here. I read Craig Brown's book and found it very entertaining then, later, Anne Glenconner's autobiography in which she describes it as 'that horrible book'. Lady in Waiting was so much better than I expected; I couldn't put it down.

    I love Troubles; so much better than Molly Keane's books, which I can't stand.

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    1. Now I have been tempted by the Glenconner book but haven't read it yet, sounds as if I should give it a go. There is one Molly Keane book that I admired: Good Behaviour. Not taken with the others. But Troubles - now, there is a book. Wonderful.

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  4. I don't remember ever reading the Chalet books, Moira. Perhaps too late to start . . . Alternative histories can be fascinating. I am thinking, too, of Robert Harris's Fatherland.

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    1. Gosh, what a deprived youth you had Chrissie! I was a sucker for all school stories, and the great thing about the Chalet School was there were so many of them, over such a long period of time. I used to go to the public library on Saturdays hoping for a Biggles book and a Chalet School book.
      Not to be too stereotyped, but I remember buying Fatherland for my father, and realizing that half the people I knew were doing the same - perfect book for Dads! (I know, it IS stereotyping.) I like some of his books much more than that one - I'm very fussy about my alt hist in fact. Michael Chabon, of whom I am a big fan, did a very good one re-imgaining the outcome of WW2: I've just been surprised to find it must have been pre-blog, I was fully convinced I'd written a post on it! The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and yes, 2007.

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    2. Oh, yes, Biggles! My friend Linda and I used to buy the paperbacks with our pocket money.
      I too have posted about the Chabron - very clever and funny too (the Frozen Chosen!)

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    3. Armada paperbacks for 2/6. And very much looking for Biggles in the library - like Ian McMillan in his lovely poem about libraries. The library was just the key to everything. We had very good city libraries, and then there was the school library. I haunted them all!

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  5. My favourite summary of royal fashion is from the fashion column of Dancing Times (this was published September 1926, the magazine is still going): "Lots of jewellery I hear is to be worn in ballrooms this winter. Slim gold bands round our necks to match our slim gold frocks; crystal chains and bracelets like Jane Cowl and Spinelly have introduced; horse-shoe bracelets of heavy gold, studded with platinum “nails”, instead of the gold link ones which are no longer fashionable now they have come down to royalty. You know what I mean: royalty are dears, but they don’t pretend to be smart."

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    1. Oh that's marvellous, thanks so much for sharing. I love the idea of a fashion column in Dancing Times, I bet that's got many gems in it. I will save this description for future reference.

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  6. I've read a Black/Quirke but can't remember anything about it. I have some more but haven't rushed towards them, which possibly answers my own question.

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    1. I didn't love the Black/Quirke books, but more in your line than this one or his straight novels.

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