Book Review: A Royal Affair by Allison Montclair
By Janet WebbJuly 23, 2020
Miss Iris Sparks (Cambridge grad and serial fiancée) and Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge (former debutante, widow, related to the Royals) opened The Right Sort Marriage Bureau, in 1946. They hit it off at the wedding of George and Emily Bascombe, where Gwen was the “match-maker,” for the seemingly mismatched couple and Iris, at the behest of the bride, quietly investigated the potential groom. Iris and Gwen were the fairy godmothers for the newlyweds…and what a felicitous encounter, as it resulted in their matchmaking business.
The two women have connections up the wazoo. Iris Sparks was an integral part of the war machine, although she refuses to discuss her service. Very hush hush. Gwen lost her much-loved husband to battle: her despair was so overwhelming that she was institutionalized for four months in a sanitorium. She and her six-year-old son Ronnie live with her titled in-laws, an unpleasant situation since Lord and Lady Bainbridge have custody of her son.
Miss Hardiman, a new client, tells Iris in her booming voice how much she envies her.
“Me? Why me?”
“You still have purpose,” said Miss Hardiman. “You’re in charge here.”
“I am only in charge of myself,” said Sparks. “Mrs. Bainbridge and I are equal partners and have no other employees. I’m hardly a mover and a shaker.”
“But you run your own show, with no ridiculous men to boss you about,” said Miss Hardiman. “That seems like paradise, in a way.”
What Miss Hardiman says has resonance: in the aftermath of the war, many women who had been vital cogs in the war machine, lost their jobs and their purpose.
Gwen arrives, dangling keys to an office down the hall once occupied by ‘Cooper and Lyons, Chartered Public Accountants.’ The women enter the long-abandoned office and are awestruck by the two “massive matched mahogany desks” in front of each window. Gwen is in alt.
She knelt reverentially in front of one of the desks to examine the logos on the drawers.
“Harrods,” she breathed. “Partners’ desks from Harrods, Iris. I could positively swoon!”
It’s clearly time to expand the business. Perhaps they’ll even hire a “secretary slash receptionist slash clerk,” although they’ll need to double their income to expand. No rest for the weary or the wicked. They have two potential clients scheduled, Miss Oona Travis and Miss Catherine Prescott, so it’s rather inconvenient when Gwen’s cousin Patience, Lady Matheson, arrives unexpectedly. Gwen makes the introduction.
“She’s not exactly a lady-in-waiting—”
“Oh, heaven forbid!” said Lady Matheson, giving an exaggerated shudder.
“But she works for the Queen in some capacity.”
“Do you?” said Iris. “I’ve always found the phrase ‘in some capacity’ both wonderfully vague and intentionally concealing.”
Lady Matheson tells the women that she is their eleven-thirty client and their twelve o’clock as well before asking them to “close and lock your door, if you don’t mind.” There goes the ten pounds they would have earned. Lady Matheson has investigated them thoroughly and wants to engage their services—not to find her a husband (she has one) but something else. She demands absolute confidentiality, at which Iris demurs, pointing out that when they solved a murder a few months back, the police insisted on cooperation. Iris and Patience go back and forth fruitlessly, until Gwen speaks up.
“This involves the Queen in some way, doesn’t it?” she asked quietly.
“Miss Sparks, do I have your word?” asked Lady Matheson. “I am asking on behalf of Queen and country.”
“I served the King during the war,” said Iris. “I suppose I ought to extend the courtesy to his missus. You have my word, under the condition that the moment things turn sour, it is no longer binding upon me.
“Done,” said Lady Matheson. “And I anticipate that all of this legal-ish verbiage will turn out to be quite unnecessary. Now, to the matter. We would like the two of you to vet someone, much as you did with George Bascombe.”
Iris wonders why someone at the Palace can’t do this seemingly easy task, but Lady Matheson says its “a matter of particular delicacy.” Neither she nor the Queen wants internal gossip or, heaven forfend, for the Press to get wind. No doubt clever readers will guess the subject of discreet inquiries. Gwen certainly does: “Patience,” said Gwen. “Are you asking us to vet Prince Philip?” Yes indeed: “a blackmail note has arrived, alluding to some potentially damaging information about said prince.” Gwen and Iris agree to the assignment, understanding the weight of responsibility that now weighs on their shoulders. They will be operating without a safety net and the future Queen of England’s happiness is in their hands. Iris is initially shocked at Lady Matheson, surprised that the Queen “would have someone like her, but it makes sense.”
“They all need someone to clean up their messes behind the scenes, even if they’re wearing white gloves while they’re doing it.”
The Right Sort Marriage Bureau proprietors have agreed to undertake just that: a behind the scenes operation, while wearing gloves. Fortunately, Gwen and Iris are up to the task plus they need the money if they are to achieve their goal of siting behind matching partners’ desks. Their circle of friends and associates is wide and varied, ranging from aristocratic gentlemen, a NQOCD (not quite our class, dear) gangster, and invisible civil servants high up in the corridors of power. The repartee is fast and amusing, as when Gwen and Iris discuss the gentlemen who “swarmed” Gwen at a party.
“The Grenadiers attempted to try me on,” said Gwen. “The first seemed MTF. The second was definitely NST.”
“What on earth are you on about?” asked Sally.
“Deb code,” explained Iris, snickering. “MTF means Must Touch Flesh, and NST means Not Safe in Taxis.”
There’s even a sprinkling of royalty, both foreign and domestic, to grace the pages.
A Royal Affair: A Sparks & Bainbridge Mystery is so enjoyable readers will undoubtedly race to buy The Right Sort of Man, the first Sparks Bainbridge mystery, as soon as they finish it. Allison Montclair has created two fascinating characters in Iris and Gwen: they are captivating, drawing us effortlessly into their lives, both personal and professional. I look forward to their next adventure in the turbulent world of post-war England.