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EXTRACT: The Glorious Guinness Girls by Emily Hourican

By October 17, 2020No Comments

Author Emily Hourican‘s latest novel, The Glorious Guinness Girls, set in 1920s London, gives beautifully written insight into family ties, careless youth and destiny. This week we’ve got an extract for you to enjoy…


The party is in a house on Regent’s Park Road, one of the narrow ones, and seems to be all staircase and heavy wood panelling. It is dark and solid and old, and the contrast with the party guests makes me laugh, because they are light and gay and young. Watching them, I think of rice thrown at a wedding – flung upwards in brittle, polished, delicate handfuls, drifting down to land in shiny, scattered drifts.

They move endlessly. Some are dancing, alone and in pairs, others are simply flinging themselves restlessly at one group and then another, taking snatches of gossip and jokes, like bees take pollen, distributing it throughout the party so that soon everyone is covered in it, breathing it in and out. It is the girls who move most, I see, and particularly the girls like Elizabeth, Baby, Zita, Maureen, whom everyone has a welcome for.

They move so constantly that I find that if I stay in one spot, close to a table that is covered with many different bottles – every guest has brought something; ‘it’s the new way,’ Maureen declared – it is easy to follow them as they loop around and around the room, keeping all the wheels of gaiety in motion.

‘What filthy stuff,’ says Bryan, beside me, tilting one of the many bottles and squinting. ‘I’m surprised at David.’ David must be the host, I think. Not that anyone seems to own this party more than anyone else – everyone here seems both equally proprietorial and equally indifferent. ‘Let me get you a proper drink,’ he says, disappearing.

To my left Ray Starita and his band play ‘Brown Sugar’. They might as well have tied lengths of string to the hands, knees and elbows of the entire party, I think, because every note is a twitch that sets the room in motion. I watch one girl with more tassels than dress flapping her arms vigorously, twisting her knees in and out. The music is exuberant, invigorating, discordant, and they love it. It speaks to them about them, telling them that they are young and daring and new and nothing like them has been seen before. It does not speak to them of mud and death and failure, of rising prices and discontent, or of duty and responsibility.

Those who don’t dance, talk, and what they talk of is the General Strike, exactly as if it is the most terrific entertainment, put on for their benefit. Some of the young men have joined the London police force as special constables and are keen to present themselves in heroic lights. ‘Really, it was nothing,’ one of them keeps saying. He has a long nose and is entirely without chin, face dwindling into his lanky frame without interruption. ‘Anyone would do the same,’ he persists. ‘You would, wouldn’t you?’ to anyone who will listen.

‘Isn’t it cosy?’ says Maureen. ‘I do like the feeling that we are in here and anything at all might happen on the streets. Why,

there might be a riot if those trade unionists get through,’ she says, face glowing.

‘Oh, but they won’t,’ says the chinless young man. ‘The police are awfully on top of things, and you know, we are here to protect you if there is any need.’

‘Well, I call that very reassuring,’ says Elizabeth Ponsonby, who is dressed in a frilled romper suit so short that it shows nearly all of her legs. ‘Don’t you call that reassuring, Maureen?’

‘I do not,’ Maureen says. ‘I can’t imagine how badly off I’d need to be to rely on you, Eddie,’ and the young man goes off looking mortified while Maureen laughs.

‘Too cruel,’ Elizabeth says in delight. ‘He’s the son of the Earl of Cranbrook, you know.’

It is, I think, indeed too cruel. But there is no point saying that to Maureen, who has grown to love the sharp intake of breath, the pin-drop silence, that follows her more outrageous put-downs, so that she now looks for exactly that, saying things that are deliberately styled in order to shock. That they also wound doesn’t seem to concern her. In fact, she seems not to notice that the hurt in the eyes of some of her victims is real, and not pantomime. She is rapidly forgetting that she was ever left on the outside, and how much that pained her.

I go and look for Oonagh, worried that she may be overwhelmed by a party that is noisier, more crowded, than any I have yet been to. If Maureen was quick to discover the secret life of London that was emerging among the select group of Baby and Bryan’s friends, gathering speed in the Cavendish Hotel and Café de Paris, then she was not the last. It seems that half of society has woken up to the same lure and followed her here. I see girls I recognise from last year’s frumpy debutante parties, Baby’s ‘Miss Mice’, now tricked out in shorts and sailor suits, their eyes blackened and cheeks rouged high up so that they look like sly, startled dolls. I wonder what their mamas must say. Even Marjorie of the Cadogan Square girls’ lunch is here, wearing a bonnet and waving a silver rattle madly in time to the music. I think how pleased she must be to be at least in the same room as ‘dear Lois’, who is dazzling in a Chinese silk kimono and bare feet, her hair held back with a silk headband the exact yellow of a blackbird’s beak.

Everywhere I look there are cocktails being shaken and poured, drinks slopping from glasses onto the floor that is by now sticky and filthy, large black-and-white tiles disappearing under a film of grey. People are shrieking, gaily, I suppose, although it is not always easy to tell, and some of the costumes are so daring that I cannot understand how they fit with the theme at all. I spot Brenda Dean Paul – I recognise her at once because of her almost shocking slenderness and that mass of dark hair, in tight shining waves – wearing a very short black dress covered in sequins. It cannot, I think, be anything like what she once wore.

Stephen, himself angelic in a white lace gown and silver paint on his eyelids, must agree, because he says loudly, ‘So what is it exactly that you’ve come as, Brenda, do tell? The Ghost of Virtue Long Past?’ I am shocked that he would be so rude, but Brenda just smiles vaguely and carries on dancing.

‘That girl has been altogether too long in Berlin,’ Stephen says. ‘It’s starting to show.’

‘Whatever do you mean?’ I ask.

‘Well, you know Berlin,’ he says confidingly. ‘Miles ahead of us in simply everything.’ But I do not know Berlin. I look again at Brenda. She is the one of Maureen’s new friends – although perhaps ‘friend’ is not exactly the word for those two – that Cloé

has taken against. ‘Something unpleasant about that girl,’ she said after the first time Brenda called. ‘Don’t bring her again.’

Brenda doesn’t look unpleasant to me. She looks uncertain. I recognise it, because it’s how I feel. For all the sophistication of her dress, her face is still that of a child. Her mouth is painted fire-engine red and set in a careful pout, but that does not disguise the bewildered look in her eyes, as though a camera flashbulb has just exploded in her face and she is momentarily disoriented.

I find Oonagh dancing with a boy in a velvet jacket. ‘Are you having fun?’ I yell over the sound of Ray Starita’s saxophone.

‘Oh yes!’ She takes a swig of the bottle she is holding. ‘And so should you be. Now go on and stop fussing.’

I walk back through the party towards the open front door because the balcony is so crowded that I cannot get air.

Aileen is sitting at the top of the stairs, a jacket thrown over her shoulders, smoking. ‘Sit,’ she says, holding a hand out to me. I sit beside her, although the stone step is cold and my dress is thin. ‘Here.’ She must notice, because she takes the jacket from her shoulders. ‘We can both sit on this. It belongs to Bryan, but he won’t mind.’ Bryan, I think, almost certainly will mind.

Below us, a group of revellers are dancing in the hall, shimmying up and down, bumping against each other with shrieks of laughter. The front door is open and I wonder what they must look like to passers-by. Except that it is too late for passers-by.

‘What are you thinking, Fliss?’ Aileen asks, leaning against me.

‘Oh, you know, various things,’ I say.

‘Tell me some of them.’

‘Well, I’m thinking that I’ve never seen a party anything like this before. And that I am not properly dressed for it.’ It is

true – I am wearing a plain black linen pinafore dress, almost a gymslip, and I know that in comparison with every other person I am ridiculously, laughably, dowdy – indeed, Maureen told me I would be, when I said no to borrowing any of her clothes.

‘It doesn’t matter what you wear, you know,’ Aileen says. ‘You always look the same.’ And then, hastily, ‘Which is a jolly nice thing. Anyway, go on.’

‘I’m thinking that I’ve never seen people drink so much, including Oonagh, who is drinking from the neck of a bottle like a pirate.’

‘Oh, never mind Oonagh. What else?’

‘That this is a very jolly party, but I can’t imagine how much I would like it if I had been to a party like this last night and had another one to go to tomorrow.’

‘Which is precisely what I’m thinking,’ Aileen says.


‘Goodness, yes. I’m thinking that if I close my eyes, this could be any party, in any house, that I have been to in the last year. That there isn’t a single thing Elizabeth has said to me this evening that I haven’t heard her say a thousand times before. That Stephen, whom I thought the most exotic, surprising creature alive when first I met him, now I find to be surprising always in the same way. I’m thinking that that whole eager crowd could be transported to the other side of the world and they wouldn’t even notice, would just carry on drinking and telling each other the latest scandal.’

‘So why come?’

‘Maureen persuades me. She likes us being together. She says she cannot be “The Glorious Guinness Girls” alone, can she? But now that she has Oonagh, perhaps she won’t go on so if I

decide to stay at home more.’

‘But Oonagh is too young. Cloé will never let her keep coming out like this.’

‘Oh, won’t she? Mamma’s grip is not as strong as it was. Haven’t you noticed? Anyway, she is just like Maureen – she sees the virtue in us being the Guinness girls. And Oonagh is far better suited to all this than me.’ There is a pause while she smokes, hunched forward over her knees. Then, ‘Perhaps I should have a job. Like you mean to?’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘I’ve noticed you have a sense of purpose now, since you have begun to learn your dictation and shorthand. Mildred does too. Always somewhere to go, people who need her. Sometimes I think it must be nice.’

‘But you have people who need you too.’

‘Not really. Do you honestly think this lot would notice if I didn’t appear? Except Maureen, and then only because she wants me for something.’

‘Well,’ I say, cautiously because I know Cloé would not approve, ‘you could have a job, I’m sure.’

‘No, it’s too late. I am thoroughly spoiled, I’m afraid.’ She leans further forward over her knees, resting her cheek on one and looking up at me. It is, I think, a sad phrase, but she has made it almost jaunty, as if ‘thoroughly spoiled’ were, after all, a fine thing.

‘It is different for me,’ I say. ‘I must have a job, because I will not be married.’

‘Don’t be hasty,’ she says, looking sideways at me. Then, ‘You know Bryan is in love?’

‘With who?’ My heart, to my shame, beats a little faster.

‘She’s called Diana Mitford. A sister of Nancy.’ Nancy,

I remember, is the one with the droll-looking eyes, who says things that are nearly as cutting as Maureen, but somehow wittier; less cruel.

‘I didn’t know she had a sister.’

‘She has heaps. All the same ages as us. Diana is Oonagh’s age.’

‘Goodness, so she’s . . .’

‘Barely sixteen. Yes. Bryan met her at a fancy-dress party at their house, Batsford Park, some weeks ago, and can talk of nothing and no one else. I think it’s why he’s being so kind to Oonagh. She reminds him, a little, of Diana. He says he has found the purpose of his life and swears that the moment she turns eighteen, he’ll ask for her hand. You’d think he would be a bore about it, but somehow, he’s not. It’s rather sweet, I think.’ She sounds wistful and stays quiet for a moment. ‘Am I awful?’ she asks then.

‘Why awful?’

‘To be so ungrateful?’

‘Are you ungrateful?’ It occurs to me that this is the most I have ever spoken to Aileen on such a serious note. Always the most aloof of the three, certainly with me, she doesn’t easily let on to the kinds of urgent emotions – of excitement or despair – that Maureen and Oonagh trade in.

‘I feel that I am. So lucky – everyone tells me, so it must be true – and so bored. Not bored – that’s not the right word, that’s what Elizabeth or Stephen would say. I mean, I don’t know what I’m doing and when I imagine my life, going on and on like this, well, I can hardly bear it.’

‘But it won’t,’ I say. ‘I mean, it can’t.’

‘No, you’re right. But all the same, sometimes it feels like I’ve

lived a thousand years already.’ She uncurls herself from the knot she has been in and stands up. ‘I’m going home now. Do you want to come?’

‘I’d better stay with Oonagh,’ I say.

‘Yes, probably you better had,’ she agrees. ‘Maureen can’t be trusted to watch her.’

Perhaps I am not so good at watching either, because I get distracted – Elizabeth wants to talk to me about something, urgently, but then cannot remember what it is she wanted to say so insists we go upstairs ‘to explore’. We walk up flights of narrow stairs, along half-lit corridors, and Elizabeth throws open doors. I expect these rooms to be empty, but they are not, not always. There are sometimes small groups of people, who look up, startled, at our appearance. They sit close together on beds or even on the floor. Sometimes, there are fewer people in the room, just two or three, always very close together, but Elizabeth closes the doors so fast that I see very little.

‘It wouldn’t do to intrude,’ she says with a laugh.

Downstairs, I find Brenda being sick behind a plant.

‘Are you all right?’ I ask.

‘Please don’t tell anyone,’ she says. Her eyes are bloodshot.

‘Of course I won’t.’

I offer her my handkerchief.

She takes it, then stares at me for a moment with it held to her lips. Mouth covered like that, her eyes are enormous and so black you could drown in them. ‘Can I help you find your coat?’ I say.

‘Oh, I’m not leaving. Not yet. I’m going to dance some more, and then have another drink. And then, we’ll see.’ She looks evasive suddenly. Or maybe I am just tired of never quite

knowing what anyone means here. She hands me back my handkerchief, which smells of vomit.

By the time I return to the ballroom, the party is hotter, noisier and stickier than ever. Oonagh is dancing together with Maureen, both of them doing the Charleston with grace and ease. Only I know how long they have practised. There are whoops of encouragement from all around and Ray Starita is waving his baton, conducting the girls. Perhaps Aileen is right, I think, and Oonagh is better suited.

‘Will you dance?’ Stephen asks, putting out a hand towards me. The silver paint from his eyelids has travelled down his face, catching along the cheekbones.

‘No, thanks,’ I say. ‘I’m really not very good. I prefer to watch others who are better.’

‘A lifelong member of the audience,’ he says wryly.

‘True, but I don’t mind that.’

‘Nothing to mind,’ he agrees. ‘Being always onstage is really rather tiring. Especially when the audience will keep goading one on. Of course, the trick is to ignore them. But not everyone can. Look at Elizabeth, always dancing to every tuppenny tune. She will soon exhaust herself.’

‘I worry that Maureen will too,’ I say.

‘Maureen?’ he says, eyebrows shooting high. ‘Surely not. She has never danced to another’s tune in her life. Or, come to think of it, done a single thing for anyone else. Unless one counts her practical jokes. Which I do not.’ I think about trying to tell him that isn’t exactly true. Of trying to explain about the dresses when I was a child, and the plans for Hughie’s farming, and getting Thomas the job, but it feels too difficult to get him to understand.

At last the band pack up and leave and the house shakes

itself free of people, like a dog shaking off water drops. I find Maureen, perched on the edge of a marble table, telling a story about something Gunnie has said to an enthralled group. It isn’t a very nice story – in it, Gunnie has mistaken Duke Ellington for an actual duke and is quizzing Maureen about who his people are, ‘“because I never heard of the Ellingtons, which is most odd”—’

‘Where is Oonagh?’ I interrupt to ask.

‘I haven’t the faintest,’ she says. ‘Asleep on some coats?’ And carries on ‘. . . my dears, her face when she found out that Duke is his name!’ The group around her dissolve into loud cries of ‘Too funny!’

Oonagh isn’t asleep on coats, but she is huddled in an armchair, face chalky with exhaustion, and gives a giant yawn and says, ‘Yes, please,’ when I say, ‘Shall we go?’ and holds up a hand for me to drag her to her feet.

We leave all together. Outside, the sun is trying to rise up over the curve of Regent’s Park but the angle is awkward, and it struggles.

‘Let’s go on,’ Maureen says to the group that is still thick around her.

‘I say, let’s go and take a shift at the Hyde Park canteen set up for the strike,’ says Elizabeth. ‘It’s the most tremendous fun. Mostly lorry drivers, but the occasional special constable. We serve them tea from great big urns and hand round plates of sandwiches and sometimes the men get together to sing ballads and it’s ever so jolly.’

‘I didn’t mean that kind of going on,’ says Maureen. ‘Sounds exactly like work to me. Like having a job.’ She gives me a look.

But everyone else seems to think Elizabeth’s idea is ‘splendid’, and so they set off, picking their way across the street, clinging

urgently to one another, stumbling and hesitating as though it were a fast-rushing river with only stepping stones to guide them. The sun is properly up now, triumphant at having scaled the houses, and follows them, spotlighting their clumsy moments – an ankle turned in impossible heels, a sudden lurch or dip.

‘Such a fun party,’ says Oonagh, watching them depart with another giant yawn. ‘But I think I’d like to go to bed now.’

‘Well, there’s no point going on anywhere with you two anyway,’ Maureen says, giving my arm an affectionate squeeze. ‘So we might as well.’ Then, ‘I say, isn’t Elizabeth absurd, with her lorry drivers. So déclassé.’ It is new with her – this sprinkling of French through her speech – and I think, with an inward laugh, of what Spanish would say, she who tried so hard, so unsuccessfully, to persuade Maureen to speak the language.

‘If I didn’t know better,’ Oonagh says slyly, ‘I’d say you’re drunk, Maureen.’ And, for all that her golden beauty is remarkably intact after such a long night, she is squinting in the hard morning light, and I realise that Oonagh is right. Maureen is drunk. Drunk on her own beauty, her success, the sureness of her wit. But drunk, too, on champagne and gin and whatever was in all those bottles.

Emily Hourican’s The Glorious Guinness Girls is available now, published by Hachette.