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My Friend the Chauffeur

March 15, 2008

I enjoyed Secret History Revealed by Lady Peggy O’Malley so much that I immediately went in search of another book by the Williamsons. My Friend the Chauffeur is different from either Peggy O’Malley or It Happened in Egypt, but I think I’m beginning to get a feel for how the Williamsons write.

The chauffeur in question is not actually a chauffeur. He is Lord Terence Barrymore, an impoverished Irish nobleman (the Williamsons are obviously very fond of impoverished Irish noblemen, as they have appeared prominently in all three of the Williamson books I have read). Terry’s best friend is an English baronet named Ralph Moray, who spends his winters at the Riviera, where he edits the English newspaper. Sir Ralph, in an attempt to make some money for Terry, has placed the following advertisement in his paper:

“WANTED, LADIES, TO CONDUCT. An amateur automobilist (English, titled) who drives his own motor-car accommodating five persons, offers to conduct two or three ladies, Americans preferred, to any picturesque centres in Europe which they may desire to visit. Car has capacity for carrying small luggage, and is of best type. Journeys of about 100 miles a day. Novel and delightful way of travelling; owner of car well up in history, art, and architecture of different countries. Inclusive terms five guineas a day each, or slight reduction made for extensive trip. Address—”

Terry thinks this is ridiculous, and when some ladies arrive in answer to the ad, he tells them that Sir Ralph is the titled amateur automobilist, and that he is Sir Ralph’s chauffeur, Mr. Barrymore. He only agrees to go at all because he has fallen in love at first sight with one of the ladies, Miss Maida Destrey. Maida is the apparently poor niece of Mrs. Kathryn Kidder of Denver, AKA the Countess Dalmar — she has just bought the title from an adventurer, Prince Dalmar-Kahn, along with an estate in Dalmatia. The Prince has yet to decide which of the three women he’s most serious about, although Maida is the most attractive, and the Countess is the only one who likes him at all.

The third woman, Beechy Kidder, is the Countess’ daughter, and although she is seventeen, she has agreed to pretend to be thirteen so that her mother can more convincingly lie about her age. She’s constantly threatening to put on a long dress and put up her hair, so the Countess mostly does what Beechy tells her to, except when it comes to the Prince.

Ralph, Terry and their three charges set out on a tour across Italy to Dalmatia, the Prince following in his own car, which is vastly more expensive and powerful than Terry’s, but, due to the Prince’s poor handling of it, frequently breaks down. Each of the five main characters narrate several chapters in turn, first Sir Ralph, followed by Beechy, the Countess, Maida and Terry, driving from town to town and describing each in enough detail that it’s safe to assume that the Williamsons have seen it firsthand. The whole book is primarily a travelogue.

It’s good that Ralph and Beechy are towards the beginning, because as soon as he finds out, near the end of the book, that she’s seventeen and not thirteen, he proposes. The fact that neither of them have been among the last three narrators allows the Williamsons to skirt the question of whether he’s been thinking about marrying her when he thought she was thirteen. I like them, though, They’re much more fun than Terry and Maida, although Terry does get to rescue Maida from the Prince’s clutches in a wayside inn in Montenegro, after which she finds out that he’s a member of the aristocracy, and he finds out that she’s fabulously wealthy.

The Countess seems to be well on her way to marrying the Prince, and now that Beechy is assured of a home of her own with Sir Ralph, she’s willing to let her mother deal with her own folly.

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