Secret History Revealed by Lady Peggy O’MalleyMarch 1, 2008
When I read It Happened in Egypt last year, it was because I had just discovered the existence of the Williamsons (A.M. and C.N.), a husband and wife pair of adventure novelists, and I thought I ought to read one of their books to see what they were like.
It turns out that I was wrong in assuming that once I’d read one, I’d know what they were all like. It Happened in Egypt was okay — a mildly entertaining romp through Egypt with a few really good moments and a disappointing ending — but Secret History Revealed by Lady Peggy O’Malley is kind of wonderful, and actively exciting all the way through. I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted to describe a book as “gripping” before. There’s a bit of a disappointment in the last chapter, when the two main characters start speaking as if they’re acting in a bad melodrama, or as if they were suddenly being written by Horatio Alger, but they’re so nice that rest of the time that I’m inclined to forgive them.
Lady Peggy, the narrator, is 16 when the story opens. Her father is Lord Ballyconal, an impoverished Irish Earl, and she has a half-sister, Diana, aged 23. Diana is gorgeous and flirtatious and not very nice — although she pretends to be in front of everyone but Peggy — and the three of them have come to London for the Season hoping that she’ll land a rich husband. Diana and Lord Ballyconal are close, but neither of them cares much about Peggy, who was the product of a marriage for money that ended up not making Lord Ballyconal as rich as he had hoped.
Anyway, Peggy sees a gown in the window at Selfridges and decides she has to have it. She doesn’t have any occasion to wear it — Diana and their father go to lots of parties, but they never let her come — but she just wants it because its pretty and she loves it. She decides to sell a lace scarf that she inherited from her mother, and she is rescued from an antique dealer who tries to get it for much less than it’s worth by Captain Eagleston March, an American aviator.
Captain March, who is better known as Eagle, thinks Peggy is 12 or 13 and takes a liking to her. As well as buying the lace for a fair price, he escorts her to Selfridges to buy the dress and takes her out to lunch. He promises to take her up in his airplane and tells her that he’ll get her family invitations to a party at the American Embassy so that Peggy will have an occasion to wear her dress. He’s pretty great, and Peggy falls in love with him, not expecting anything in return — she knows he thinks she’s a child — but kind of worshipping him all the same.
Diana won’t let Peggy go to the party, because she’s basically pretty horrible, and then to make matters worse, Eagle is introduced to Diana at the party and promptly falls in love with her. He’s still friendly with Peggy, and makes a confidant of her, but he’s a little obsessed with Diana. He had told Peggy that he would let her be the first girl to ride in his plane, but once he meets Diana, he offers her that honor instead, although he still plans to take Peggy up afterwards. While Diana pretends to be interested in Eagle’s talk about the plane, Peggy, who is mechanically minded, longs to ask lots of technical questions. When Diana goes up in the plane, she immediately shrieks, asks to come down again, and blames her fear on a weak heart, but when Peggy goes up afterwards, she has Eagle take her way up, and then, when there if a fuel leak near her seat, fixes it with a wrench he hands her. It’s pretty obvious that they have a lot more in common than he and Diana do.
Diana likes Eagle, but mostly just hopes that his interest in her will make other, richer men interested, too. She and her father use him as an excuse to travel to America some months later, and there they meet a number of other American soldiers, including handsome, rich Major Sidney Vandyke, and young Lieutenant Tony Dalziel, who Peggy thinks looks like a Billiken doll.
Tony is sweet and funny and falls in love with Peggy, and although she’s not in love with him, he becomes her closest friend next to Eagle. Meanwhile, Eagle and Major Vandyke are vying for Diana’s affections. She doesn’t know which one she likes better: Major Vandyke is far wealthier, but Eagle is a well-liked public figure. She and her father go off on a trip through California, leaving Peggy with Tony’s family, hoping that one or the other of them will distinguish himself in the fighting against Mexico.
I know I’m not doing a great job at describing this. I can’t convey he tension that’s present all the way through, first because Peggy is secretly in love with a man who is openly in love with her sister, who clearly isn’t good enough for him, and then because Major Vandyke conspires to force Eagle to resign from the army. Aside from the enormous injustice of this, which only Peggy sees, because everyone else believes Eagle to be guilty of the offense of which he’s been accused, there’s a horrible irony; Eagle is a born soldier, and no other profession could make him happy, while Vandyke is perfectly happy to resign from the army, too, as soon as he marries Diana.
The plot is kind of complicated, but after Diana’s marriage, this is how things stand: Diana and Sidney hate Peggy. Peggy is sort of provisionally engaged to Tony Dalziel, although he knows that she’s really in love with Eagle. Lord Ballyconal is now married to a rich American widow. No one knows where Eagle is, and only Peggy really cares.
At this point, Peggy just wants to go home to her father’s castle in Ireland, but instead she goes to Belgium with the Dalziels, and in the middle of their trip World War I breaks out. Peggy, who has a little experience nursing, immediately goes to work in a hospital in Liége and insists on staying when the Dalziels leave. Soon a mysterious airman, “Monsieur Mars,” who has been working for the Belgians, is wounded in a fight with a German Zeppelin and when he arrives at the hospital, Peggy discovers that he is, of course, Eagle March. She immediately breaks off her engagement to Tony.
When the hospital staff discover that she knows him, they allow her to nurse him, and they reestablish their friendship. He recovers, and flies her to Brussels where she meets up with a couple of rich spinsters traveling back to England. What they’ve seen in Brussels inspires them to make their house in Hampstead into a home for refugees, and Peggy, who really has nowhere else to go, since she’s not on the best terms with her family, joins them and works with them.
This is kind of a wonderful bit. Peggy and her spinster friends are some of the only people in London who have actually seen what’s going on in Europe, and they’re working hard and being really useful. Meanwhile, Diana and all her society friends are coming up with lots of really stupid ways to help people who don’t really need help, and doing it badly. The contrast is really satisfying somehow, and so s the sense that Peggy has grown up into a really strong, capable person.
Then there’s a bit where Eagle comes back from Europe, ad he’s wounded, and no one realizes who he is — except Peggy, of course — and he and Diana and Vandyke come face to face at a dinner party and it’s hilariously awkward. And then…oh, the usual, I guess. Eagle is vindicated, but he’s so honorable that he won’t say anything because he doesn’t want to ruin Diana. Not because he’s in love with her still, but because he’s in love with Peggy, and he doesn’t want things between her and her family to be any worse than they already are.
I know I’m not doing this book justice, because the plot isn’t what makes it so much fun. I’m not saying it’s a great book. I really enjoyed it, but my standards are a little weird; I happen to think that the 1910s were a great decade for popular fiction, and this is the kind of book that makes me think that.