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Gone with the Windsors

by Laurie Graham

Maybell Brumby is a rich, thirty-something widow from Baltimore who visits her sister, Lady Violet Melhuish, in London, at a time when marrying such as she was prevalent among impecunious English lords. Or even well to do lords, come to that.

The sisters could hardly have differed more from one another. Maybell is happily and serenely rich, while Violet has become as English as Melhuish's grouse moors, or their close friend, Elizabeth (Bertie) York. Violet gives unstinting time to Fisherman's Orphans, Pit Ponies, Unmarried Mothers, Blood Banks, Consumptives, Lepers and Fallen Women, while keeping her children at a healthy arms length. Maybell would rather write a cheque.

When Maybell is persuaded to accompany Violet's family to Drumcanna for August she finds herself lodged in a turret room reached by a narrow stone staircase; there is no en suite. In fact, there is no bathroom, just night potties carried down in the morning and hot water carried up. Midges eat her alive and unless she joins the shooting lunch on the moors she will go hungry. The guns return in the evening, down large whiskies and then dash off and take all the hot water. They talk of nothing at dinner but the bag, gamekeepers and dogs. Then they play billiards or fall into bed. Gallantry is nonexistent if bags are good. And dinner is always salmon or grouse. By the time Maybell returns to London she is all too ready for a fillet mignon and gaiety, gossip and nightlife. She wastes no time in seeking out her liveliest friends, among whom is her old school friend Wallis Warfield.

This book is written as a very confidential diary, and bowls along at a great pace without any disorientating flashbacks. It records the sensational butterfly years between the wars. In it Maybell gives a revealing insider account of European and royal night life and summer holidays spent with HRH and Wally & Co., sailing round the Mediterranean. Some of Maybell's observations are understandably and amusingly bitchy, and some are kindness itself. But unlike Wally, Maybell keeps her friends to the very end, and her maid, and all her diary entries are historically correct.

Laurie Graham's writing is exceptionally polished and her work is immaculately researched and very sophisticated. This story is racy and funny and sad, but never for a single moment is it dull. Maybell is a fictional character, but many of the other people in the book were very much alive at that time. It is a fascinating historical story and should not be missed.

The Downs Bookgroup, Brighton

Published by Harper Perennial 512pp.

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