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Upstairs, downstairs, and in which lady’s chamber?
On the brink of World War II, two girls are sent to the grand English country estate of Starkers. Hannah, the half-Jewish daughter of a disgraced distant relative, has been living an artistic bohemian life in a cabaret in pre-war Germany and now is supposed to be welcomed into the family. Anna, the social-climbing daughter of working-class British fascists, is supposed to be hired as a maid so that she can...
Upstairs, downstairs, and in which lady’s chamber?
On the brink of World War II, two girls are sent to the grand English country estate of Starkers. Hannah, the half-Jewish daughter of a disgraced distant relative, has been living an artistic bohemian life in a cabaret in pre-war Germany and now is supposed to be welcomed into the family. Anna, the social-climbing daughter of working-class British fascists, is supposed to be hired as a maid so that she can spy for the Nazis. But there’s a mix-up, and nice Hannah is sent to the kitchen as a maid while arrogant Anna is welcomed as a relative.
And then both girls fall for the same man, the handsome heir of the estate . . . or do they?
In this sparkling, saucy romance, nearly everything goes wrong for two girls who are sent to a grand English estate on the brink of World War II—until it goes so very, very right!
"Hannah is a breath of fresh air both for her hosts and for readers, who will enjoy rooting for her."
"Sullivan's wry and evocative omniscient voice makes Hannah and Anna's escapades a pleasure to read."
"Sullivan delights in leading readers through a jaunty muddle of romantic misfortunes."
"A light and fun romance that should appeal to fans of Downton Abbey."
—School Library Journal
It takes so much work being better than everyone else, Anna Morgan mused. Of course, on one level, superiority is a matter of one’s birth. No, she hastily amended, recalling her father’s origins as a grocer: not birth, but blood. Rank and money don’t matter. What did it say above the National Fascist Front (NAFF) headquarters? “Rank is but the guinea-stamp; the man’s the gold for all that.” She didn’t mind—almost didn’t mind—that she wasn’t of noble birth, because she had enough pride simply in being British. There was nothing better than that.
But to appear instantly and unequivocally superior to the untrained eye, that took some work.
She had natural advantages, of course, being statuesque and fair, with high-piled blond curls arranged in careful bedroom disarray. Her hourglass lines were achieved through exercise and will; her elegant, floor-length attire suggested leisure and lofty social status. Her features were large, her jaw strongly defined, with those Pre-Raphaelite bones that can make a girl either a stunner or a bumpkin, depending on what she does with them. Anna had been learning what to do with them for seventeen years, and had it down to a science. She knew she was beautiful—if a little frightening, but that was a part of her beauty—and if she ever forgot it she had only to stroll down the street and learn it again from all the admiring stares she received.
From earliest childhood, she’d always had ideas about what she could be, but her seed would have been scattered on barren soil if her grocer father had not discovered his gift for oratory and hate. Several years ago, a Russian Jew had opened a small grocery store around the corner, and through diligence, friendliness, the ability to get oranges year-round, and a most un-English lack of rats and black-beetles in his storeroom, managed to lure away a good-size chunk of Mr. Morgan’s clientele. From that moment Mr. Morgan conceived a violent hatred of all things foreign and all things Jewish. He threw in communism for good measure, liberated a soapbox from the store room, and began to spout off to anyone who would listen to him.
His eloquent vitriol caught the attention of Reginald Darling, who thought Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists too soft and coddling, and he was recruited into the newly formed National Fascist Front. Mr. Morgan marched, he shouted, he smashed windows and broke heads, gradually rising to become Lord Darling’s right-hand man. When laws were passed and public opinion overwhelmingly turned against them, they took the organization underground (which was a relief to Anna, because it meant her father would never again have to wear the bloodred plus-fours that were part of the NAFF’s official uniform) and plotted to rid Britain of the parasitic foreigners who were sucking its lifeblood.
Which was all very well with Anna, particularly because it meant a move to London, where she could expand her horizons and learn to emulate the aristocracy. She was one of nature’s aristocrats, of that she was certain, so it was only right she should act like them. Her voice became cultivated, she always remembered to scoop her soup from the far side of her spoon, and she learned to apply her makeup in such a way that it seemed she had none on at all. All the while her father worked for the preservation of the true British way of life, and the well-being of the true British worker, and her mother hosted parties in their stylish new flat where people of like mind could plot the overthrow of the government for its own good. Anna kept her eyes open, looking for a “Lord,” or a “Sir,” or at worst an “Honorable” who might whisk her away to the life she knew she deserved.
Did she too hate foreigners, Jews, communists? Where there is such self-love there is very little room for anything else, even hate. She did not argue with her father, and she had a general and vague opinion that foreigners were dirty.
Germans, however, did not seem to count as foreigners in the eyes of the NAFF, so when her father received an invitation to be a secret envoy in Berlin, she was forced to revise her opinion slightly. It was not difficult to do. Queen Victoria had married a German.
Now Anna sat before a third-floor window in the Hotel Adlon, letting the streetlights cast her in a silvery outline that she knew was quite becoming. The man her parents were talking with had a Von in his name, which she thought meant he was something aristocratic. Not that she had any plans of settling for a German, but it was good to stay in practice. Though she had no official role in the NAFF, just a decorative one, she could tell that Herr Von Whoever-he-might-be was paying her particular attention. She let a small smile play on her lips, and began to listen to the conversation.
“Thanks to Mosley and his ham-handed tactics, the British have a bad opinion of fascism,” the Von said.
“He meant well,” Mr. Morgan replied, stung at a barb against his countryman.
“You and I, Germany and England, must be united in common cause. Lord Darling has told you, I’ve no doubt, of certain operations to place those sympathetic to our cause in positions of power. Unofficial, highly clandestine operations. The Nazi Party itself is unaware of them. The more forward-thinking of us will coordinate directly with Lord Darling. The English people do not wish to be at war with Germany—the Munich Agreement has made that clear—yet led as you are, I think war between our peoples is inevitable.”
Anna saw her father’s mouth twitch—he was itching to launch into his standard rhetoric, but Lord Darling had been teaching him patience.
The Von glanced at Anna, and she preened her curls. “We are all Aryans, the British, the Germans,” he said. “Yet those who are not friends of Germany must perforce be our enemies. We are noble people, soldiers, warriors; we do not recognize neutrality. It is another word for cowardice. If England does not join us, she will fall as the slave races fall . . . which will be a shame. Brandy?” He held out a glass.
“Thank you,” Mr. Morgan said, draining it at a gulp, without warming it or smelling it first. Anna saw a fleeting look of distaste cross the Von’s face. Unlike Anna, her father had not taken pains to improve himself. But then, Lord Darling liked his workingclass charm, offsetting, as it did, Lord Darling’s own aristocracy, helping the NAFF appeal to the masses.
“We have the germ of a plan, a master stroke that will ensure that England and Germany are forever allies, and we need your help.”
“Of course. Anything,” her father replied.
But he wasn’t looking at Mr. Morgan. He was looking at Anna.
“You have an intelligent daughter,” the Von said, “and a beautiful one.” He looked her up and down, lingering too long in the middle, until she felt something squirming inside her, something cold and unpleasant. “She is loyal to the cause?” He turned back to Mr. Morgan.
“We’ve talked about you at great length, my dear,” the Von said to Anna. “And I think you will do. If you succeed, you will be a heroine to two nations. You will have done your part to keep our races pure. Very likely you will have prevented a war. Are you willing?”
The chill worm still wiggled inside her, but something else warmed her now. Was it patriotism or pride? No, it was ambition. The only thing she really heard from him was the word “hero ine.” Heroines always marry well, don’t they?
“I am willing!” she said, low and thrilling. “What must I do?” “I can’t tell you everything yet. Now it is only necessary that you be put in the proper place and await instructions. There is a castle not far from London, a mile or two from Windsor Castle.
Starkers is the name. You will be sent there.”
For an instant the world around her disappeared. To think, a minute ago she’d been contemplating an alliance with a mere German Von, and now she was being sent to one of the grandest establishments in England, barely a step below the royal residences. Why, everyone knew that Their Majesties went fox hunting at Starkers every winter, that Their Highnesses spent long weekends dancing at Starkers balls and fishing for Starkers trout and strolling through Starkers shrubberies. And now by some miracle she would be a part of it! The cream had finally risen to the top.
“There is a cook at Starkers, sympathetic but not aligned with any organization, who has been at the castle for many years, so she is above suspicion. Through her, we have secured you a position as a kitchen maid. Once inside Starkers, you’ll be in a position to—”
“Kitchen maid!” The world crashed back in its ugliness. “Absolutely not! Do you know how many hours I’ve soaked these hands in paraffin?” She held up fingers encased in the softest kid gloves, which she never took off in public, and rarely even in private. “My hands are extraordinarily sensitive.”
It was the excuse she always gave for her perpetually gloved state. Actually, although she did indeed bathe them in paraffin and lanolin daily, and though they were preternaturally soft, no amount of cream treatment could reduce their size or squareness. They were broad peasant hands, and she hated them. She could exercise her waist into tininess, but her hands, she thought, betrayed her low origins, and she swore she would not remove her gloves in front of a man until her wedding night.
She refused to wither under the Von’s scathing look. How dare he belittle the effort she’d put into making her outside as worthy as her pure British inside? Kitchen maid, indeed! The Von kept his composure as he worked on her; her father did not. She knew she’d comply in the end. That word heroine still rang in her ears, and she knew if she succeeded in whatever they had planned, the world could open to her as she always dreamed. What could her task be, anyway? Passing a message on the sly? Stealing incriminating letters from a guest’s bedroom? And then . . . it would be worth the temporary humiliation if she was elevated to the position she deserved.
But she’d make them work for it.
“I suppose I could,” she said, cocking her head to catch her reflection in the silvered window. “Perhaps I could wear surgical gloves.”
“You’ll be posing as the lowest domestic. Chapped hands are a small price to pay for the glory of your country.”
“I don’t know . . .” She pretended to stare out the window, considering, but she was looking at the full curve of her own cheek, thinking, No amount of drudgery will mar that. Poor food might only improve my figure. She’d noticed a disturbing thickening of her waist since her father had gone on the NAFF payroll.
“Honestly, do you think I can pass as a kitchen skivvy?” she asked in her most cultivated voice.
“Perhaps we can get you in a slightly better post—a housemaid, maybe—but the important thing is that you are there at Starkers.”
“Why me?” she fished. Because you’re so clever, she willed him to say. Because we trust you.
“Because a servant, particularly a female servant, is anonymous and inconsequential. Especially in an upper-crust British estate, servants are so taken for granted that for all practical purposes they don’t exist. They are conveniently invisible. You come from the lower class—no, don’t scowl—but you know how to emulate the upper class. You can pass for one of the maids, but understand the masters. That may be necessary. Now, will you do it?”
Below her, through the naked boughs of the few remaining linden trees lining the boulevard, she could see a vague commotion. The window was propped open a crack, and through the gap came a cry, a wail that rose in frantic desperation until it cut off abruptly to strangled silence. Then the sound of shattering glass, so loud that she was certain her own window had been smashed, and she flinched back. But no, it was in the street. The sound seemed to echo . . . or was it more glass breaking, farther away?
“What’s that?” she gasped.
The Von snaked an arm behind her and snapped the heavy curtains closed.
“Nothing that need concern you. Internal affairs.”
When he had gone, Anna said petulantly to her father, “I’m happy to help in any way, of course, but really, a kitchen maid!”
Her father slapped her, hard, and that was that.