Her private enquiry business is doing well and she decides to take on a young woman, Sandra Tapley, as a part-time secretary. Sandra is recovering from the sudden death of her husband, Eric, at the garage where he worked.
Maisie is recruited by the British Secret Service to become a junior lecturer in philosophy at the College of St. Francis, a new institution at Cambridge. Her brief:
You must report back on any observed activities – by anyone – that are not in the interests of the Crown.
She will be an internal spy. Her brief reminded me of the role John Le Carre played at Cambridge a generation later in spying on fellow students. Maisie is less conflicted than Le Carre.
St. Francis was founded shortly after WW I to provide an education for English and foreign students, in
…. English and European literature and the moral sciences. It is no secret that an emphasis on the maintenance of peace in Europe underpins much of the teaching.
Its founder, Greville Liddicote, had been a Senior Fellow at Cambridge, who also wrote children’s books, until he was forced to leave his position after he published a children’s book “about a group of fatherless children who go to live in the woods, and who decide to journey to France to end the war”. The book created such a stir it was banned.
Secrets are plentiful around St. Francis. When Liddicote is killed which secret prompted the murder? Beyond the shock of violent death in an institution devoted to peace was it related to activities “not in the interests of the Crown”?
Liddicote’s literary past is not all that it seemed.
As with all the books in the series there are aspects of the plot related to WW I. Can it be that a children’s book had consequences at the Front that have remained secret?
Maisie’s secret purpose in being at the College fits well with the book’s theme of secrets.
On “activities” at the College I anticipated the Communist penetration of Cambridge that produced a group of proficient Russian spies in real life and a never ending sequence of works of fiction speculating on undiscovered spies. I was to be surprised. There are other activities of concern.
The book reminded me there was a powerful desire for peace around the world in the 1930’s. Pacifists were now respected in contrast to the scorn and imprisonment of conscientious objectors, “Conchies“, during WW I.
Though WW II is not yet on the horizon forces of darkness are starting to assemble in Europe.
Personally, the relationship of Maisie with Viscount James Crompton has deepened but is love enough to sustain them:
She had yet to trust happiness, that much she knew. It had been so fleeting with Simon, and she wondered what it might feel like for happiness to be a constant, so that she could rest in its cradle, rather than looking across the parapet for a marching army ready to shoot her contentment down in flames.
A Lesson in Secrets is a good book. It does not have the personally emotional power of Maisie in Among the Mad and The Mapping of Love and Death but it shows Maisie as a mature woman in her 30’s looking more to the future than the past.
****Winspear, Jacqueline – (2008) - Maisie Dobbs; (Best fiction of 2008) (2008) - Birds of a Feather; (2009) - Pardonable Lies; (2011) - Messenger of Truth; (2012) - An Incomplete Revenge; (2012) - Among the Mad; (2013) - The Mapping of Love and Death;