THE SECRET GUESTS
By Benjamin Black
It’s an occupational hazard of royalty: becoming the coat hanger on which fictional mantles are hung. Queen Elizabeth II has done more than her fair share, propping up writers like Sue Townsend, Alan Bennett and Peter Morgan. And with Morgan’s scripts for “The Crown,” the current monarch is a gift that keeps on giving. The latest writer to use her for his invented ends is Benjamin Black, otherwise known as the Booker Prize-winning Irish writer John Banville. His latest novel, “The Secret Guests,” begins in October 1940, when the Germans are bent on bombing London into submission. Faced with difficult choices, George VI decides to protect his daughters, solemn 14-year-old Elizabeth and saucy 10-year-old Margaret Rose, by sending them to neutral Ireland to stay with a distant relative in County Tipperary.
The evacuation of the children is a deeply clandestine arrangement, with the little princesses instructed to call themselves Ellen and Mary. They are taken across the Irish Sea in what their naval escort dismisses as a battered “old tub,” accompanied by a young MI5 agent, Celia Nashe, whose only preparation for the task ahead is an afternoon at a shooting range in Surrey, where she’s taught how to use a Browning automatic. “The corporal in charge had complimented her on how quickly she had got the hang of the thing and told her what a good shot she was, then ruined it by asking her to go to the pictures with him.”
Nevertheless, Celia knows she’s lucky to be sent on active service, since “bloody women” are only tolerated on account of the exigencies of war. The exiled princesses are met on the Irish side by Garda Strafford, who, like Celia, is an anomaly: He’s the only Protestant detective in the Irish police force. And he’s further dislocated by being one of the Anglo-Irish. “That’s what the Irish call us,” he tells Ellen. “The English, of course, don’t know quite what we are.” Ellen’s reply sums up the tangled relations between the two countries: “It’s all very complicated, isn’t it.” As if to prove it, this unlikely deal has been brokered by the British diplomat Lascelles and the Irish minister Hegarty; the Irish will turn a blind eye to the presence of the princesses in return for much-needed shipments of coal.
As quite a few characters in “The Secret Guests” point out, the Republic of Ireland is a peculiar choice of sanctuary for the heirs to the throne, as it had won its battle of independence from Britain not that long ago, after a nasty civil war that left the six northern counties still part of the United Kingdom. And there is no love lost between Winston Churchill and the Irish taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, who has refused to breach Ireland’s neutrality by allowing the Allies access to the country’s deep-sea ports. It would be hard to think of a country where the two little princesses in their matching coats, hats and handbags would be more likely to be recognized and less likely to be welcomed.
The efforts to keep the princesses safe are curiously haphazard — or, worse, arrogantly blind to the local situation. The suave diplomat Lascelles decides to drive the girls and Celia to their temporary home in his maroon Bentley, “just the thing,” their host, the Duke of Edenmore, “reflected wryly, to pass unnoticed on the back roads of Tipperary.” He is not reassured by the presence of a group of Irish soldiers just outside the gates to the estate, under the command of Major de Valera, the taoiseach’s son.
Naturally, it doesn’t take long for the identity of the “secret guests” to be rumbled by Tom Clancy, the self-appointed leader of a local band of republican freedom fighters, who wants to be taken seriously by the “top brass” in Belfast and lets them know he’s ready to kidnap the girls. But the hard men from the north have their own ideas.
Clonmillis Hall, with its leaking roof, empty ballroom and neglected upper rooms smelling vaguely of rotten apples, has clearly seen better days. Black’s descriptions of the place — with its beady-eyed housekeeper, Mrs. O’Hanlon, and its widowed owner — are straight from Molly Keane’s black comedies of Anglo-Irish life. But here it’s the Irish characters who are more finely drawn than the fading aristocrats. The Duke of Edenmore has all the appurtenances of upper-crust decay, but as a character he is little more than the sum of his crumbling real estate.
The young princesses while away the boredom of their confinement by falling in love with the estate’s handsome gamekeeper, Billy Denton. The younger one “noticed how her sister avoided looking at Denton; probably she was in love with him too; it would be just like her, fastening onto things that other people wanted, and not caring how they felt when she took them away for herself.” Black is clearly setting “Mary” up for a lifetime of disappointment as Princess Margaret, and at times she seems remarkably mature. “Oh, but wouldn’t it be marvelous if they were all, even the servants, all of them in love with the wrong people,” she declares, “the way it was said to happen on country house weekends.”
According to his publisher, Benjamin Black has “good information” that the real English princesses were at some point in Ireland during the Blitz. It’s hard to know whether to take this claim seriously; it certainly doesn’t figure in any histories of their early lives that I have read. It seems scarcely credible that anyone would think it was a good idea to send them into what was only a barely neutral country. But then, as one character remarks to Celia, “You English think you are the rightful owners of the world, as if you, and not the Jews, were the Chosen People.” This may be Black’s point: that the entitlement of the British makes them incapable of understanding the depth of the hostility that centuries of oppression have created in Irish society. In any case, this ill-conceived plan is destined to put the girls in even greater danger than they would have faced from the Blitz. Given the historical record, it’s no spoiler to reveal that they emerge unscathed. But the same can’t be said for some of those they come in contact with.
“The Secret Guests” is not so much a thriller as what Graham Greene called “an entertainment,” and the tone is very reminiscent of the Greene of “England Made Me” or “Our Man in Havana.” Although the tone is light, the novel is a mordant observation of the palimpsest of arrogance and resentment that is the legacy of Britain’s dealings with its neighbor, one that’s still being played out today as Brexit threatens to destabilize both Ireland’s economy and the island’s fragile peace. As for the princesses, they are written with a republican zest, made all the keener by the knowledge that royalty, for all its anachronistic irrelevance, sells.