We're delighted to present an extract from The Guinness Girls: A Hint of Scandal, the new novel by Emily Hourican.
As Aileen, Maureen and Oonagh - the three privileged Guinness sisters, darlings of society in Dublin and London - settle into becoming wives and mothers, they quickly discover that their gilded upbringing could not have prepared them for the realities of married life.
For the eldest, Aileen, in Luttrellstown Castle outside Dublin, being married offers far less than she had expected ;for outspoken Maureen, in the crumbling Clandeboye in Northern Ireland, marriage means intense passion, but fiercerows; while Oonagh's dream of romantic love in London is shattered by her husband's lies.
And as 1930s Britain becomes increasingly politically polarised, the sisters' close friends, the Mitfords, find themselves under the media glare - causing the Guinness women to examine their own lives.
London, July 1932
Diana Mitford, then married to Bryan Guinness, is hosting a Coming-Out party for her sister, Unity Mitford, at her London house, 96 Cheyne walk
Number ninety-six Cheyne Walk was painted in carefully subdued blues and greys, like reflections in water of an endlessly mutable sky, and every painting, object and piece of furniture Oonagh saw was so perfectly right that she couldn't help saying in surprise, 'Why, Diana has the eye of an artist.’
Upstairs in the ballroom, Diana stood ready to greet her guests. She was wearing a dress of many layers of pale grey chiffon and tulle, and ‘All the diamonds she could lay her hands on,’ Oonagh hissed to Philip. She was radiant, her beauty, so often cold and rather repellent, conjured into a living, breathing thing. Oonagh thought she would not like to be Unity, whose party it was, and who was not at all beautiful. However, she was in high good humour, romping with a group of fellow debs – she stood head and shoulders above any of them so that she was like a grown-up at a gathering of children – and saying, ‘What marvellous fun it all is.’
‘Of course, it’s totally different for her,’ Nancy said, coming to meet them and beckoning a waiter with a tray of drinks. She took two, downed one quickly, then put the empty glass back on the tray. ‘By the time Unity was presented, she already knew half of London. Not like my coming-out, hiding in powder rooms and absolutely everything simply too shy-making. Remember that, Maureen?’ Maureen smiled vaguely. There was, Oonagh thought, no way she was going to admit that she, too, had once hidden in powder rooms.
Ernest’s appearance was the cue for the girls to begin to fuss, offering drinks, ashtrays, asking would he prefer to move closer to a window, but he waved a hand at them to be quiet. ‘Not now,’ he said, inclining his head towards Diana, who was making her way to them, cutting smoothly and gracefully through the waves of her excitable guests as though they were minor disturbances below the surface on which she glided. Oonagh thought of one of the mechanical toys Ernest had brought Tessa – a doll-like figure set on wheels that could be wound up and would move forward, inexorably, until the mechanism ran down, propelling
everything in its path out of the way. Diana moved in the same smooth, dauntless fashion. She came to a stop in front of the little group but said nothing at first, simply surveying them all with her top lip curling upwards in the way that was almost, but not quite, a smile.
With her was a man Oonagh recognised from his newspaper photographs: Mosley. In person he was slender, with a luxuriant black moustache that almost hid a thin red mouth, and liquid black eyes, like the tar on the roads that turned hot and sticky in the summer.
‘Ernest.’ He nodded. Diana introduced him to the girls. Oonagh noticed that she called him ‘Kit’. He smiled politely at each of them and said, ‘How do you do?’ Everything in his face, Oonagh saw, came forward to a point at the centre of his top lip. Exactly like a fox. Even his sharp white front teeth were thrust forward, so that he looked as if he would bite off the world, piece by piece, and consume it.
‘Oh, we’ve met,’ Maureen said, giving him a considering sort of look. ‘I remember it so well.’
There was a faint, awkward pause, then Ernest said, ‘Mosley,’ and nodded. As he did so, someone passing behind them bumped him so that he was pushed slightly forward, closer to the man before him. Oonagh saw that he stepped back immediately, as though he had encountered something unpleasant – an odour, excessive heat, something that repelled him – then said, ‘How’s the polo?’
They talked idly about sport and Oonagh asked Diana about her dress, but Diana ignored her because Mosley was saying to Ernest, ‘You will have seen that Hitler’s Schutzstaffel, the SS, are no longer banned in Germany, from today? Nor the SA. So, you see, more and more, the people are seeing where the future lies, and with whom.’
‘Thugs and paramilitaries,’ Ernest said loudly. ‘No respectable man would engage with them, and certainly not if he hopes to become a democratically elected leader, as I understand this Hitler does.’
‘The Reichspresident,’ Diana said. She pronounced the word correctly, respectfully – and Oonagh recalled once hearing her scream with laughter at a friend of Nancy’s who spoke perfectly accented Spanish, calling it ‘too bogus’.
‘Not thugs,’ Mosley countered. ‘Highly disciplined. And providing required protection. I’m thinking of starting my own version, a Defence Force for the BUF, to deal with the rabble who try to disrupt our rallies. For all that we are a modern movement, they go about disagreeing with us in the most old fashioned way. With bricks and bats.’
‘I hear your lot can be old-fashioned too in that regard,’ Ernest said drily.
Maureen and Aileen had drawn back and away, ducking out of a conversation they found dull and were looking around, greeting friends, but Diana, Oonagh saw, stayed close beside Mosley, so Oonagh stayed too. She wanted to hear what they said. And how they said it. Ernest, she could tell, was exasperated, and tried to out-argue Mosley, putting forward objections and disagreements. And Mosley, bouncing gently back and forth on the balls of his feet, in command of his body as he was of his arguments, took great satisfaction in demolishing everything Ernest said, like a child knocking down a line of dominoes. He paused deliberately at strategic moments, waiting a beat, as though to give Ernest time to catch up with him. His pride, Oonagh thought, was immense, like a strutting cockerel that he brought around with him on a string. Diana, in her cloud of pale grey, leaned close, almost to touch her arm to his – almost, but not quite. She remained at a fractional distance, and there, she almost vibrated with his nearness. His arrogance, Oonagh realised, was physical as much as it was intellectual. And Diana seemed utterly in thrall to it. She had a dazed look on her face, such that when he appealed to her to agree with him, she almost didn’t know what she was being asked, just nodded. Her pupils – always small – had almost disappeared entirely so that her eyes were a disconcertingly rudderless sea of blue, unclouded by whatever thoughts had brought a pink glow to her normally pale cheeks.
‘Where’s Bryan?’ Oonagh asked, and enjoyed the start Diana gave, the way something practical flooded the rapt emptiness of her face and her pinprick pupils flared momentarily.
The Guinness Girls: A Hint of Scandal, by Emily Hourican is out now, published by Hachette Books Ireland