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[566] Princess Elizabeth’s Spy – Susan Elia MacNeal


“You grew up in America, after all—exactly what do you know about British aristocracy?”
“Not much beyond the historical, I’m afraid,” Maggie said.
“All right, impromptu quiz—what do you say when you meet the King and Queen?”
Maggie gave David a wry look. Frain had forgotten about royal etiquette lessons. “Hello?”
David smacked himself on the head. “Oh, my dear Eliza Doolittle — we have a long night ahead of us.” (Ch.5, p.52)

This book is Maggie Hope Mystery #2, a sequel to Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. After she has discovered and broken the hidden Nazi code that points to three specific attacks in London, Maggie Hope is no longer Winston Churchill’s secretary at Number Ten. She has proven that her scientific acumen, intelligence, problem-solving skills and ability to handle dangerous situations make her a great asset to the British war effort. The beginning of Princess Elizabeth’s Spy sees Maggie entering MI-5 school for spies. Although her grades are stellar, she doesn’t do well enough on the physical tests to be sent abroad to gather intelligence for the British front.

Maggie shook her head. A decapitated Lady-in-Waiting, rabid corgis, and a man who lives with birds? ‘I thought living in a castle would be interesting, Sir Owens,’ she said, ‘but nothing—absolutely nothing—prepared me for this. . . Maggie went back into the sitting room. She stopped by the bookcase, which was empty. She squinted at it. The dust indicated books had been there for a time and had recently been removed. Now, that’s odd, she thought. Why would someone take Lily’s books? (Ch.9, p.102-3)

Instead MI-5 finds a job for her as math tutor to Princess Elizabeth, a post as an undercover, so she can keep an eye on Elizabeth, fondly known as Lilibet, who, as heir to the throne, may be a Nazi target. Soon she realizes danger is on the prowl on castle grounds when a lady-in-waiting is murdered. Her book, removed from the shelf of her quarter, is proof of connection to another murder at the Claridge’s in London. Castle life quickly proves more dangerous and her assignment, after all, is not cushy but one that involves intrigue, kidnapping, and treason. In this novel, besides the conspiracy that places the entire royal family in peril, Maggie Hope also grapples with the loss of her boyfriend and the possible truth that her father, Edmund Hope, an expert in code and cipher at Bletchley, might have been a German spy.

As Maggie needs to discern who the German agents are that have infiltrated the castle, she races against time to save England and its heir from a most disturbing fate. Although Princess Elizabeth’s Spy is not a historical fiction, more a fictional story set in the past with real characters, the book is very well-researched. The Windsor Castle, with its grandeur and staidness, is a workplace like “living in a museum—and terribly cold in winter” during the war. The King and Queen were strict about rationing, so even the princesses were limited to one egg per week, and the rest of the restrictions the British people lived through. The castle’s dungeons were used a bomb shelter where servants and the Princesses move their beds, changes of clothes, books, kitchen utensil and furniture in to keep calm and carry on. This light mystery gives one a glimpse of what it was like to live in war-time England and the story constantly keeps one on the edge using humor and red herrings.

369 pp. Bantam Books. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[549] Below Stairs – Margaret Powell


” We always called them ‘them.’ ‘Them’ was the enemy. ‘Them’ overworked us, and ‘Them’ underpaid us, and to ‘Them’ servants were a race apart, a necessary evil. ” (Ch.14, p.91)

In 1968 debut author Margaret Powell published Below Stairs, a memoir of the ten years she had spent in domestic service earlier in the century. Daughter of a seasonally-employed house painter and a char lady, who cannot afford her education, Powell had no choice about going into service. By the age of eight the little girl (eldest of seven kids) already knew what it was like to queue at the soup kitchen and collection banisters for fuel.

Although much of what I have said may make you think I was envious of the lives of other people this wasn’t really the case. It was the inequality and the unfairness that struck me so much of the time. (Ch.16, p.117)

Although she won a scholarship to attend grammar school at age 13, at her parents’ insistence she started working in a commercial laundry until she was 15. Used to cooking for her six siblings and loathing needlework, Powell opted to be a kitchen maid, “the lowest of the low,” (Ch.8, p.41) rather than take a slightly more genteel post as under-housemaid. Powell is very good at dramatizing those mortifying moments when a servant’s lack of self-hood are brought painfully home to her. In one household she was looked down as something sub-human when he tried to hand her mistress a newspaper (without placing it on a silver tray). In another provisions were rationed, as the mistress insisted on keeping the key to the store cupboard with her at all times. Still another expressed surprise that one of her maids should want to borrow a book from her library shelves.

Girls like me who they considered came from poverty-stricken homes should be glad to work in a large home with food and warmth. To them upstairs, any home was better than the one that you lived in with your parents. . . . And as for domestic servants having aspirations to rise above the basement, such a thing was incredible to them. (Ch.21, p.167)

Despite what her memoir may sound like, Powell claims that she is not embittered about having had to go into domestic service. In fact, the memoir reflects the fact that during her time, almost 70 percent of the Britain population engaged in a workforce serving the privileged minority. While acknowledging that individual employers could be kind, Powell reassures readers of a maid’s lowly position and the inferiority complex the job triggers. But behind their impassive expressions and respectful demeanor hide servants’ scorn and derision. What angers Powell the most is the unfairness: Getting married is the only legitimate reason for quitting the job, yet having a boyfriend was an offense that would send a girl packing. Filled with keen observation, forthrightness, and honesty, Below Stairs gives a glimpse of life in the strictly class-driven society of 20th century England. What the book does not convey is the in-depth look into the domestic service since she quit after 10 years.

212 pp. St. Martin’s Griffin. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[432] Put Out More Flags – Evelyn Waugh

” You know exactly what I mean. Basil’s needed a war. He’s not meant for peace. ” (12)

Put Out More Flags is so typically Waugh: he has developed a wickedly hilarious and yet spot-on assault (if you’re familiar with British history) on traditional values. The book is set in the week that precedes the outbreak of World War II, the days of “surmise and apprehension which cannot, without irony, be called the last days of peace.” (3) As the Prime Minister declares England at war on the radio, three rich women are all mindful of Basil Seal, the anti-hero of the book. They are his sister, his mother, and his mistress. Through them we learn how Basil makes the most out of the war.

… and if you had gone into the Army when you left Oxford you would be a major by now. Promotion is very quick in war-time because so many people get killed. (182)

Right when war is breaking out, Basil accepts his sister Barbara’s suggestion to billet—to place urban children with rural families to protect them from incipient bombings. Soon Bail turns billeting into a lucrative business as country house residents are more than happy to pay him for not hosting three monstrous children. “What’s it worth to you to have those children moved from you?” (124)

There’s a lot to be said for a uniform. For one thing you’ll have to call me ‘sir’ and if there’s any funny stuff with the female staff I can take disciplinary action. For another thing it’s the best possible disguise for a man of intelligence. (190)

Meanwhile, Basil mother’s mother sets her heart o enlisting her son into a decent regiment. Lady Seal believes that a patriotic commission will save him from his unaccountable taste for low company that had led him into many vexatious scrapes. But the unemployable Basil is able to insinuate into a peculiar role during mobilization. He finds a job with the Ministry of Intelligence where he discovers that the secret to success is to level charges of Communism and Nazism against his friends and inform on them. Those who fell under Basil’s recondite pretexts of patriotism include a Jewish atheist who launches a fascist magazine. Waugh also makes fun of pampered aristocrats’ amateurish attempt of patriotism and fighting. An upper-class man enlists as a soldier because he believes that “he would make as good a target as anyone else for the King’s enemies to shoot at.”

The novel is a myopic look at England in her last fateful moment of history. Beneath the humor and jokes is grim reality that the upper-class people, deprived of values except pleasure-seeking, fail to grasp. The book itself is not without flaws. It’s worth skimming, but not Waugh’s best. A coherent narrative thread is absent in Put Out More Flags, rendering it a potpourri of barely disguised concepts and clippings from previous novels loosely thrown together.

286 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Literary Coincidence

Wolf Hall is a fictionalized biography concerning the rapid rise to power of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex in the court of Henry VIII of England. Born to a lower-class family of no position or name, Cromwell first became the right-hand of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, and then, after Wolsey’s fall from grace, the chief minister to Henry VIII. In that role, he oversaw the break with Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries, and Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. I put away the novel for the moment because the stupendous dramatis personae is intimidating.

Fate has it that I won’t be disentangled from this historical period when I pick up An Instance of Fingerpost, which is set in 1663, just after the restoration of the monarchy following the English Civil War, when the authority of King Charles II is not yet settled, and conspiracies abound. The two novels overlap not only in time period but the conspiracies, espionage, and incidents of the court. Iain Pears’s book has been a one that is full of intrigues, although it has not been a quick read. Awaiting in every turn of the page is some misdirection and red herrings that would compound the puzzle.