In 1861, Irish actress and vivacious music hall singer Nellie Cliffden embarked on an affair with nineteen year-old Bertie, Prince of Wales. This affair nearly tore the monarchy apart, at a time when Irish support for the Crown was at its weakest following the famine. Inspired by true events, A.’O Connor shapes both characters until their combined hopes and dreams of a united life is tangible and defined.
The Irish famine endured from 1845 until 1849 and the total deaths were estimated to be in the region of one million. Irish people died, ravaged by starvation; many more Irish emigrated, clutching at a chance of a better life.Public support was dangerously low for the English Crown following the famine. Many Irish felt as though Queen Victoria and her husband Albert had seen the suffering of the Irish people as inconvenient and trivial. Their son Bertie did not share their leadership strength in England and therefore, public support was quite low for him also. A training visit to the Curragh Camp in Kildare was deemed to be a good leadership exercise for the Prince and he left England for the freedom, as he saw it, of Ireland. A.O’Connor uses this visit as an extraordinary opportunity to highlight the ignorance of the monarchy towards the sufferings of Ireland. The Prince remarks upon the greatly reduced population, not realising that the numbers have been decimated through death and emigration. This ignorance is echoed during the visit of Queen Victoria and her husband to Killarney, where she noticed the ravaged appearances of the women and the ill mannered failure of the majority of the populace to come out to support her visit. A.O’Connor makes no attempt to hide his disdain at the reality of this being the reaction of the monarchy towards famine Ireland.
A famine orphan, Dublin born Nellie Cliffden has earned a name on stage for her daring, flirtatious manner of speaking to the audience and the haunting singing voice which contrasts with that persona. The memory of an empty stomach and the perpetual fear of returning to famine Ireland fuels her decision to spend the night with wealthy men in exchange for money, while maintaining her infamous stage presence. Bertie, Prince of Wales needs a lover, someone to see him as someone other than royalty and to embrace his strengths; Nellie needs money and so what seems initially to be a mutually beneficial tryst becomes two people swimming against the grain of tradition, lost in a love tainted by dishonour and social complexities.
Nellie returns to England with Bertie, leaving behind a cheap reputation and no family ties. Both believe that in England, Nellie can become Bertie’s wife and eventually rule England alongside him. A.O’Connor breathes humanity into the story of Bertie and Nellie, on one hand we are reminded of the preventable atrocities of the famine, one the other hand we are shown two people in love, rendered helpless by the rules of birthright. A.O’Connor attempts to bridge the chasm between England and Ireland by reminding us that behind each monarch is a face and a desire to do more than their role allowed, unexpectedly leaving us livid with a sense of injustice at the end.
The characters were well fleshed out and the plot was well researched with a captivating embellishment on historical facts. I felt that the ending was written for the readers, as opposed to being as savage as it could have been but this was a well presented and engrossing read, with a unique viewpoint on the aftermath of the famine in Ireland.
(c) Dymphna Nugent
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