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Kate Meyrick: Background information when reading Shrines of Gaiety

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Shrines of Gaiety

A Novel

by Kate Atkinson

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson X
Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2022, 416 pages

    Paperback:
    May 2023, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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About this Book

Kate Meyrick

This article relates to Shrines of Gaiety

Print Review

black-and-white photograph of Kate Meyrick In an Author's Note in her novel Shrines of Gaiety, Kate Atkinson reveals that the real-life inspiration for her character Nellie Coker was Kate Meyrick, the impresario known as the "Queen of Nightclubs." Much like Atkinson's character, "Ma" Meyrick built an empire of sorts during the Jazz Age, owning and operating a string of clubs in London (and, for a brief time, in Paris), often with the assistance of her adult children.

Meyrick, who repeatedly separated from and reunited with her husband and the father of her eight children, was inspired to open her first club in 1919, when she found herself caring for her eldest daughter, who had caught influenza at college, without much support. Opening a nightclub enabled Meyrick to have her own income, gain financial independence and provide stability (of a sort) to her large family.

The most famous of Meyrick's clubs was the "43 Club," so called for its address at 43 Gerrard Street, Soho in what is now London's Chinatown. Opened in 1921, the 43 Club attracted a distinguished guest list: Greek and Romanian royalty, British aristocrats, and the newly fashionable Hollywood set, including Rudolph Valentino, as well as writers like Evelyn Waugh and Barbara Cartland. The character Ma Mayfield and the Old Hundredth Club, appearing in Waugh's A Handful of Dust and Brideshead Revisited, were inspired by Meyrick and the 43 Club.

The 43 Club and Meyrick's other establishments were frequent targets of police raids; although there was no outright Prohibition like in the United States at this time, the British Home Secretary still sought to crack down on liquor license violations. This meant that Meyrick's clubs were frequently shut down only to reopen under other names; and, just like Nellie Coker in the opening pages of Shrines of Gaiety, Meyrick served multiple stints in Holloway prison.

Atkinson acknowledges that although she fabricated many of the details of Nellie Coker's personality and escapades, she drew heavily from Kate Meyrick's colorful autobiography Secrets of the 43 Club, as well as Barbara Cartland's memoir We Danced All Night, which helped set the scene. Readers wanting to learn more about the fascinating historical background against which Atkinson's novel is set might wish to seek out those first-hand accounts themselves.

Kate Meyrick in the 1920s, via Wikimedia Commons

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Norah Piehl

This "beyond the book article" relates to Shrines of Gaiety. It originally ran in October 2022 and has been updated for the May 2023 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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