Ma Meyrick Inspires Again

Novelist Kate Atkinson has written a book about a London night club hostess from the 1920s that has received considerable press coverage. This is entitled Shrines of Gaiety. The opening of this article by Jake Kerridge in the Daily Telegraph is typical of the comments:

In the London of the Roaring Twenties, no woman – not even the feistiest flapper – provided more pleasure for more people than Kate Meyrick. Ma Meyrick, as she was universally known, was the proprietress of the city’s most exciting night clubs, rackety spots endowed with glamour by their clientele of aristocrats and celebrities.

She was a rather incongruous figure in such company – Barbara Cartland once described her as “a wispy little woman who always had holes in her stockings”. But if she didn’t match anybody’s mental image of the woman the press dubbed the “Night Club Queen”, that was an apt reminder of the bizarre transition she had made in her 40s from unremarkable doctor’s wife to tutelary spirit of London’s nightlife.

Unsurprisingly, novelists have been fascinated by this unlikely character over the decades – Evelyn Waugh put her into his books as “Ma Mayfield”, with her most famous club, The 43 in Soho, renamed “The Old Hundredth”. Now Kate Atkinson has appropriated Ma Meyrick’s story for her latest novel, Shrines of Gaiety, in which the formidable “Old Ma Coker” battles the business rivals trying to take over her night club empire.

After a fairly detailed discussion of Meyrick’s history, Kerridge returns to Waugh’s coverage in Brideshead:

The question of what attracted these upstanding male members [to her clubs] was addressed by Ma in the chapter on “Dance Hostesses” in her memoir, Secrets of the 43 Club. How could the hostesses “command the substantial earnings they do without descending into ways that are dubious”? The answer was that “a great many of the rich men who come to night clubs are dancing mad” and would tip “an expert dancing partner” extravagantly.

The hostesses needed to lead temperate lives to keep themselves fit and attractive – “How does such a regime fit in with the picture of night clubs as ‘dens of iniquity’ which uninformed people are so fond of painting?”, Ma asked. One assumes that the two hostesses Charles and Sebastian pick up in Brideshead Revisited – “One had the face of a skull, the other of a sickly child” – were having an off day.

Writing in the New York Sun , Jude Russo reviews Atkinson’s book as well as Meyrick’s contribution:

“Shrines of Gaiety” follows the tribulations of the Coker clan, a family running an underground jazz club empire under the canny eye of their matriarch, Nellie — a formidable presence modeled on the historical “Night Club Queen,” Kate Meyrick, who also inspired Evelyn Waugh’s Ma Mayfield in “Brideshead Revisited.” Chief Inspector John Frobisher sets himself to ending their reign of vice with the aid of a peppy librarian, Gwendolen Kelling.

Readers familiar with P.G. Wodehouse and Waugh will find much that is pleasantly familiar in “Shrines of Gaiety” — toffs and toughs, antique cars, flappers, corrupt policemen, hardboiled policemen. Ms. Atkinson’s work as a detective story writer has served her well; it is in the crime novel strain of this latest book that her skill for plotting is most evident. Despite its scale, “Shrines of Gaiety” comes together like the innards of a fine Swiss watch.

Laura Miller reviewing Atkinson’s book in Slate also notes the literary connection somewhat more more broadly:

London in the 1920s, and especially the shenanigans of the Bright Young Things—a group of socialites famous for their extravagant costume parties and excessive drinking—has provided fodder for dozens of novelists, including Waugh, Nancy Mitford, and Anthony Powell, all of whom were counted among the Bright Young Things themselves. In Shrines of Gaiety, everyone in town is talking about a bestselling book, later adapted for the stage, portraying this milieu: The Green Hat by Michael Arlen, a real novel now long forgotten. There’s also a character evidently based on Waugh, who despite fawning over the Bright Young Things in person, is at work on a book about how their brightness has become “tarnished.” This plan chagrins Nellie’s feckless son Ramsay, who fancies himself the writer best positioned to depict the intersection of the aristocracy and the underworld where his mother’s businesses flourish. That is, if he can manage to actually write.

The Economist’s reviewer also offers this comment on Ramsay’s book: “Another of Nellie’s sons tries to capture the zeitgeist in a dreadful novel called “The Age of Glitter”, a nod to “Vile Bodies”, Evelyn Waugh’s satire of the era of the Bright Young Things.”

The book was also favorably reviewed in the Guardian, the Minneapolis StarTribune and the New York Times. The latter explains why so many reviewers were able to identify the connection between Atkinson’s character and Waugh’s:

A cast list of this teeming tapestry up front might have been helpful, though at least one figure may be familiar to some readers; Atkinson notes in the afterword that her nightlife maven Nellie Coker was inspired by the famed 1920s club impresario Kate Meyrick, already immortalized as Ma Mayfield in “Brideshead Revisited.” A middle-aged turnip of mysterious provenance, Nellie has molded herself through sheer will and ruthlessness — is there ever any ruth, when it comes to this kind? — into the queen of Soho’s demimonde, supplying all manner of nocturnal pleasures to the government ministers, movie stars and Bright Young Things who can afford her entrance fees.

Atkinson’s book was published earlier this week in both London and New York. The US edition is available at this link.

UPDATE (30 September 2022): A reference to The Economist’s review was added.


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