Even as a child growing up in the UK, I had heard of Guinness beer. I have vague memories of, at one point in my life (not as a child, obviously!), being advised to drink stout because of its iron content—a suggestion that went nowhere because I never developed a liking for stout. But the idea that a particular brand of beer must be the brain child of an individual with a vision, and that the individual in question might have a family worthy of a novel, never occurred to me until a publicist pitched Emily Hourican’s The Glorious Guinness Girls for a New Books Network interview that didn’t fit into my schedule. I read the book, enjoyed it, learned a lot about 1920s high society, and am delighted to have the opportunity to share with you this interview with the author. Read on to find out more, and don’t forget to admire that gorgeous cover, with its Guinness harp smack dab in the center!
This is not your first novel, but it is your first historical novel. What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing historical versus contemporary fiction, in your view?
Yes, I had written four contemporary novels before switching to historical fiction. I was ready for a change. I wanted to keep writing, but to write in a slightly different way. Historical fiction throws up certainties—boundaries—which make it very interesting from an imaginative perspective.
It was interesting to work within a factual framework. To have a skeleton structure that couldn’t be altered—dates of birth, of marriage, the significant events of the time, small dates such as when the Guinnesses were known to have attended a party or been in a certain place. Within that, then, the challenge was to fill out a story that didn’t alter the facts, that took account of them and worked together to create something.
So instead of contemporary fiction, in which the only limit is your imagination and the psychology of your characters, there were fixed points I couldn’t mess with. I loved that. It made it feel like a jigsaw puzzle with some bits complete, and I had to fill in the rest.
Disadvantages? The same thing, from a different perspective! Sometimes it would have been easier for the story if I had been able to move the girls around more freely, ignore the fact that they couldn’t have been in a certain place at a certain time, because history had already recorded them as being somewhere else, for example. But in general, I didn’t find those disadvantages to be significant at all. The fun was far more than the irritations!
Your main character—Felicity, known as Fliss—is not one of the Guinness girls of your title. Unlike them, she is also your creation. How would you characterize her, and how does she become part of the Guinness world?
Fliss is someone who would have been far more typical of her time (the Guinness girls were definitely not typical; they were too rich!). Fliss is the daughter of an impoverished Anglo-Irish family (basically, that meant a big house, a lot of land, and very little actual money; for a girl like Fliss, that meant very few prospects in a world in which she could only have married within a narrow social sphere, and so many young men had died in the Great War).
She goes to live with the Guinness girls, initially to do lessons and be company for the girls—that kind of thing happened often enough to girls like Fliss. Often, it wasn’t a particularly happy arrangement, but in Fliss’s case, it works out very well. She and the Guinness girls become very close, and she stays on living with them long past the schoolroom.
For me, Fliss is a way to see into the Guinnesses’ world from a new and fresh perspective. Aileen, Maureen, and Oonagh themselves couldn’t have understood the extraordinary privilege of their lives. I wanted somehow who could—who could look at the way they lived, and know how very much it was removed from any ordinary experience.
I could also, through Fliss, show a different kind of possibility and outcome for the young women of the 1920s. The Guinness girls all stuck with very traditional roles—they were wives, mothers, hostesses, and patrons rather than doers, makers, creators. At a time when careers, independence, and agency were suddenly more available to women than ever before, the Guinnesses chose not to pursue them.
With Fliss, I was able to show something of the alternate world—the path the Guinnesses didn’t take. I loved the freedom she allowed me to do this.
Fliss’s brother, Hugh, has a very different personality from his sister, as often happens with siblings. His role in the novel, although secondary, is crucial. What can you tell us about him and what he adds to your tale?
Hughie, for me, was many things. He was male and therefore had freedom, autonomy, agency, in a way that his sister, certainly as a young person, did not. He had an education. The property, such as it was, would go to him. He could move about the countryside freely in a way that she could not. There were women of Fliss’s social class who got involved in the struggle for Irish independence—but they were always older, and usually richer, than Fliss.
Hughie could get involved with the fight for Irish freedom, with the world of politics and revolution, and he could bring that with him into the much smaller world that Fliss and the Guinness girls inhabited.
It wouldn’t have been credible to involve these girls directly in the political and social upheaval going on around them, and yet they lived through it. They watched the burning of the Four Courts in Dublin city on June 30, 1922. They were witnesses, if not participants, to these extraordinary events in Irish history, and Hughie, for me, was a way to bring those events closer to them.
He was also, for me, some much-needed male energy in their world—and male energy always seems to change things within a group of women!
You’ve mentioned that Maureen is your favorite among the three Guinness daughters. What sets her apart from her sisters, Aileen and Oonagh, as far as you’re concerned?
When I was researching this novel, I spoke to a wonderful man, also a writer, called Thomas Pakenham, who was a godson of Maureen’s. His father Frank was best man at Maureen’s wedding to Basil Blackwood. Thomas’s memories of Maureen are very vivid, and he recalls her as someone who was intelligent and very compelling, as well as very snobbish and self-centered. She had a strong personality and became monstrously self-centered and rude in later life. I was interested in the young Maureen—before she became like that. After all, no one is monstrous at ten, or sixteen, or twenty. She became a kind of caricature in later life, all diamond-studded cat-eyed sunglasses, blue hair, and vulgar practical jokes; I wanted to know what such a person was like before she became like that. I imagine she would have been charming, dynamic, entertaining, before she became too nasty and too selfish.
When the four girls—the Guinness sisters and Fliss—get to London, it’s the early 1920s. They encounter two separate social worlds: high society and the Bright Young Things. Could you sketch this environment, and the girls’ reactions to it, for us?
The 1920s were a fascinating point in UK society. The Great War, which ended in 1918, changed everything and accelerated social upheaval. Women had known a taste of freedom—working, nursing, seizing opportunities as they came—and were unwilling to go back. Meanwhile young people were sick of gloom and death and misery and determined to enjoy themselves. Many were also determined to forget the niggling guilt of not having fought in the War to End All Wars because they were too young. Many had lost fathers, brothers, cousins, and so on. They were driven by unacknowledged grief and a sense that life was short.
The result was an explosion of energy—cocktails, jazz, short skirts, fancy dress—that tore up the old, decorous rule book around what could and couldn’t be done. Girls got their hair cut, got drunk, and went wild. Older society matrons were horrified. The newspapers were delighted—they had endless parties and scandals to write about. It was a period of manic energy that expressed itself in parties and frivolity until the Great Crash of 1929 brought it to an abrupt end.
The Guinness girls were a big part of this 1920s scene. There was even something called The Guinness Set that revolved around their cousin Bryan, his wife Diana Mitford, and the Guinness girls. They were the giddiest, showiest, and richest of all the showy and giddy scene.
Despite years of living in luxury, albeit as a kind of glorified servant or charity case, Fliss ultimately chooses to pursue a career rather than, say, marry for money. Why did you include this element in your novel?
I became very fond of Fliss as I wrote this book. She is a truly generous and kindly person, and the idea of abandoning her to a fate like Gunnie’s, in which she is a companion and subordinate for her entire life—I just couldn’t do it! Neither did I want her to switch from one kind of servitude—with the Guinnesses—straight into another kind, which would have been marriage in those days. I wanted Fliss to make good on all her subtle intelligence and decency and choose a life for herself that allowed her to become a person of substance in her own right.
I also wanted her to demonstrate, through her choice, the interesting (to me!) fact that the Guinness girls did not make that kind of choice. A path diverged for women in the early 1920s, and Fliss chose what I believe was the more dynamic route.
Are you already working on something new?
I am! I am deep into writing the second book in the series. It’s called The Glorious Guinness Girls: A Hint of Scandal, and it follows the girls’ lives through the very troubled 1930s, when they are wives and mothers and encounter personal difficulties at the same time as Europe is moving toward the Second World War.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Thank you so much for asking me!
Emily Hourican is the author of four contemporary novels and The Glorious Guinness Girls, nominated for the Best Popular Fiction Awards at the 2020 Irish Book Awards. A former editor and journalist, she lives in Dublin with her husband and children. Find out more about her at https://www.emilyhourican.com.
Photograph of Maureen Guinness (1933) by Bassano, public domain through Wikimedia Commons.