Title: The True Story of Maddie Bright
Author: Mary-Rose MacColl
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 1st April 2019
Synopsis: In 1920, seventeen-year old Maddie Bright is thrilled to take a job as a serving girl on the royal tour of Australia by Edward who was then Prince of Wales. She makes friends with Helen Burns, the prince’s vivacious press secretary, Rupert Waters, his most loyal man, and is in awe of Edward himself, the boy prince.
For Maddie, who longs to be a journalist like Helen, what starts as a desire to help her family after the devastation of war becomes a chance to work on something that matters. When the unthinkable happens, it is swift and life changing.
Decades later, Maddie Bright is living in a ramshackle house in Paddington, Brisbane. She has Ed, her drunken and devoted neighbour, to talk to, the television news to shout at, and door-knocker religions to join. But when London journalist Victoria Byrd gets the sniff of a story that might lead to the true identity of a famously reclusive writer, Maddie’s version of her own story may change.
1920, 1981 and 1997: the strands twist across the seas and over two continents, to build a compelling story of love and fame, motherhood and friendship. Set at key moments in the lives of Edward and Diana, a reader will find a friend and, by the novel’s close, that friend’s true and moving story.
Maddie Bright is seventeen when she is employed as a serving girl on the 1920 Royal Tour of Australia by Prince Edward, who would go on to become Edward VIII for a time in 1936. Soon, her talents are noticed by members of the Prince’s staff – Helen Burns, the press secretary and Rupert Waters, and she ascends to the position of letter writer, where she finds herself in awe of the prince, known as the ‘people’s’ prince – in a similar way that Diana was the ‘people’s’ princess of the 1980s and 1990s. What starts as a way to help her family earn some more money in a post-war Australia as nations around the world start to rebuild after The Great War, abruptly ends when the unthinkable happens.
In 1981, Maddie is watching from afar as Diana Spencer prepares to marry Charles, the Prince of Wales, the grandson of King George VI, Edward VIII’s brother. She now lives alone in Brisbane, with her neighbours for company. But in 1997, shortly after the death of Princess Diana, Maddie meet with a London journalist, Victoria, who was covering Diana’s death, and gets whiff of Maddie’s story and heads off to Australia, where she will discover a secret about her family that will have a rather large impact on her life.
As the novel moves in and out of 1920 , 1981 and 1997 – three key years in the history of the Royal Family, and also in the fictional lives of Maddie and Victoria, and the way the lives of Victoria and Maddie intersect, and the secrets that Maddie has kept for over seventy years – how will this impact on Victoria and her family if she gets to meet Maddie? The lives of Edward and Diana are in some ways similar: both are popular and tragic, and progressive for the times and eras they live in. They are also both charming and appear to understand the wounds of others. We all know what Diana did for those she visited in poorer communities and countries, for AIDS patients. For Edward, it was making contact with members of the Commonwealth who had lost family in the war and apologising for his family’s war. Apologising for dragging them into it – which is perhaps in stark contrast to the inside figure we see – the charming, secretive figure whose contact with women he shouldn’t have is kept hush hush on the tour, even though his staff know.
Despite the stories being quite different, and separated by decades, the story is woven across time, seas and continents, and the impact that Edward, Diana and the tragic events in their lives mirrored each other, and yet in Diana’s case, the outcome was much more tragic. This book cleverly takes three, seemingly unconnected lives, and tugs at the strings of history, family and friendship to create a mystery where all the hints are there – but the question is how and when they will be resolved – and in some ways, if. In this story, Maddie is also an author, and the story of her life is interspersed with excerpts from her novel that hint at what the truth behind the secrets she has kept are.
Moving in and out of 1920, 1981 and 1997 – Maddie’s parts are told in first person, and Victoria’s in third person – which suits the novel, the characters and overall narrative. Everything is carefully revealed in this novel, almost purposefully, so that the reader knows details when they need to know it, and just as the reader finds things out in this way, the characters find things out when they need to. I loved that this was about family and friendship, and the power of breaking away from situations that weren’t right for each character – though we all know of Edward’s abdication in 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson. The tragedy of these figures highlights how hard it must be to be in the spotlight constantly, but also, what the consequences can be for how they represent themselves, and the perceived way they represent the monarchy.
It is an intriguing story that at first, I thought would need a great deal of concentration because it felt so in depth and involved with so many strands and differing perspectives between Maddie and Victoria and told in first and third person. Yet it is a seamless transfer between Maddie’s fiction, between time periods and between first and third, Maddie and Victoria, that the entire book went by in a matter of days. It combines fictional characters and real-life figures well and in a seamless way, and has an authenticity about it that suggests something like this could have happened had someone like Edward had dalliances like the book hints at. It also explores the polarising cult of celebrity, and the hate versus the love of people like Edward and Diana, and also, ways celebrity can harm people’s lives.
It is also powerful because the story is told by two women – Maddie and Victoria, rather than the male figures around them who are in a more peripheral role, though still present, and still having an impact – Victoria and Maddie control the narrative and the direction the story goes in. A very well-written, and tightly plotted story, where the lives of women are mirrored in each other – Maddie, Diana and Victoria yet also starkly different in many ways, giving each figure their own power and vulnerabilities.