Sunday 15 December 2019

A Great Beauty: Epic tale of war, betrayal and the Michael Collins love triangle

Fiction: A Great Beauty

A O'Connor

Poolbeg paperback, 486 pages, €15.99

Hazel Lavery
Hazel Lavery

Ann Dunne

We all know about the War of Independence, fought between 1919 and 1921, and the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in December 1921 and ratified a year later, causing a bitter Civil War that split the country, friends and families and which still has ramifications today.

However, we may be less aware of a woman whose face graced our bank notes as a personification of Ireland from 1928 until the 1970s and then ephemerally as a watermark until we adopted the euro in 2002. That woman was Hazel Lavery, wife of celebrated Irish artist Sir John Lavery, who was knighted for his work as a war artist. Lady Lavery played a significant part in the treaty negotiations and was rumoured to have had an affair with the main negotiator, Michael Collins.

A O'Connor is the bestselling author of brilliant historical novels including the much-loved Armstrong House trilogy, The Footman and On Sackville Street. The books have had rave reviews, becoming bestsellers in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Russia.

Last year, O'Connor's meticulously researched By Royal Appointment, a riveting novel about a little-known scandalous affair between King Edward VII and Irish actress Nellie Clifden, was a great success.

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Michael Collins
Michael Collins

Now, 100 years after the start of the War of Independence, who better to depict another relationship which shocked London High Society, and the woman involved who has been almost airbrushed from history? A Great Beauty is O'Connor's interpretation of two love triangles which were perhaps pivotal to the events that took place during and after the War of Independence.

Hazel, from a wealthy Chicago family, is a great beauty and famous London society hostess, as the Roaring Twenties begin. Widowed with a small daughter Alice, she married John, who was more than 20 years her senior. After her younger sister dies of anorexia alone and in poor circumstances, Hazel is vilified in the American press. She consequently rejects her native country and embraces the fight for Irish independence.

Kitty Kiernan
Kitty Kiernan

In Ireland, despite the background of a bitter and brutal war with the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, young people still fall in love and marry. Collins, the most wanted man in Ireland, falls for his best friend Harry Boland's girlfriend, Kitty Kiernan, daughter of a wealthy Longford merchant and hotelier, while Harry is in America with éamon De Valera raising funds for the cause. As a truce is called, Michael and Kitty become engaged, sparking enmity between Boland and Collins. De Valera sends Michael to London with a delegation to negotiate a treaty with Britain. Talks run for months. Lady Lavery, who counts Winston Churchill, royalty and Anglo-Irish aristocrats among her friends, becomes a confidante of Michael and works as a go-between for the two parties. In O'Connor's version of events, the two become lovers, which results in negative publicity back in Ireland and death threats to Lady Lavery.

Ireland is now bitterly divided between pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty followers. Boland is tragically killed and there are several attempts on Collins' life. The Laverys arrive in Dublin to support Collins. Kitty has also travelled to Dublin and is in despair knowing of Michael's feelings for Hazel as August 22 1922 approaches with news that Collins has been shot.

A Great Beauty by A O'Connor
A Great Beauty by A O'Connor

After the Civil War, people tended not to talk about it, preferring to bury the past. Kitty and Hazel were all but forgotten. O'Connor brings them back to life in this engrossing epic tale of war, love, betrayal and murder. With echoes of Downton Abbey and The Great Gatsby, O'Connor's impeccable portrayal of the period is sure to bring success to this, his 15th novel.

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