59 pages 1 hour read

Kate Atkinson

Shrines of Gaiety

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2022

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Summary and Study Guide


Shrines of Gaiety is a fictional novel set in 1926 London by author Kate Atkinson. It tells the story of Nellie Coker, a famous London nightclub owner, and the people trying to ruin her business. The character is inspired by a real person, Kate Meyrick. Although Atkinson acknowledges that parts of her novel are rooted in history, she emphasizes that she takes liberties with the facts and, in an author’s note, asserts: “Shrines of Gaiety is fiction, not history” (515).

Atkinson is an acclaimed novelist and playwright. Her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award (now the Costa Book of the Year Award). Other works include Life After Life (which was adapted to a BBC TV Series) and A God in Ruins, both of which won the Costa Award, as well as Transcription.

This study guide is based on the Penguin Random House UK paperback edition, published in 2023.

Content Warning: Shrines of Gaiety and this study guide contain descriptions of alcohol addiction, drug overdose, death by suicide, capital punishment, abortion, and sexual assault. The book also includes profane language and stigmatizing language about mental health conditions.

Plot Summary

The book opens with Nellie Coker being released from Holloway Prison. Nellie is a famous nightclub owner who went to prison for six months after a raid on one of her nightclubs. Many of Nellie’s clubs illegally serve alcohol (without a liquor license) and foster criminal activities like gambling and sex work. Nellie has long employed a policeman, Sergeant Arthur Maddox, to warn her about imminent raids. In this most recent instance, Maddox failed to warn Nellie, who realizes that the policeman is scheming to take her clubs away from her. Although Nellie pays Maddox for his protection, he’s getting greedy. Maddox doesn’t just want a payout—he wants Nellie’s clubs.

Nellie is welcomed home by her children: Niven, Edith, Betty, Shirley, Ramsay, and Kitty (in order from oldest to youngest). While Nellie is released from Holloway, she’s watched by a detective, Private Investigator Frobisher, and a woman, Gwendolen Kelling, whom Frobisher has hired to infiltrate Nellie’s clubs. Like Maddox, Frobisher wants to destroy Nellie’s empire, albeit for different reasons. Frobisher believes that Nellie’s clubs are dens of illicit, and often illegal, activity and wants to shut them down for the good of London society.

Gwendolen has come to London to look for two girls who ran away from home: Freda Murgatroyd and Florence Ingram. Gwendolen is a “spinster” without family obligations, so she agreed to look for the girls as a favor to Freda’s aunt, a close friend. When Gwendolen went to the London police to report Freda and Florence’s disappearance, she met Frobisher, who asked if she’d go undercover for him. Freda and Florence ran away because Freda wants to become an actress. While Freda pursues her dreams, Frobisher looks for her. He is also looking into the disappearances and murders of other lost girls. Throughout the narrative, Freda narrowly escapes various dangers, such as being sexually assaulted or killed, as she pursues her ambition. Nonetheless, she survives. Florence ultimately leaves London and returns home to her parents, unharmed.

Additionally, Frobisher keeps an eye on Nellie’s empire with Gwendolen’s help. The storylines of Frobisher, Gwendolen, and Nellie intertwine one night at the Amethyst, Nellie’s premiere nightclub, when a man is shot, and Gwendolen—who was a nurse in World War I—helps the man. Nellie offers Gwendolen a job managing one of Nellie’s clubs. Nellie already knows that Gwendolen is working for Frobisher and uses this opportunity to keep the threat close.

Nellie also faces threats from other people including a man named Azzopardi. Before the war, he was a jewel thief who hid his loot in various places around London. Nellie unwittingly stole some of Azzopardi’s loot when she found a bag of jewels in her deceased landlady’s apartment. Nellie sold an amethyst from that stash, which is what allowed her to open her first big club on her own: the aptly named Amethyst Club. Azzopardi tries to steal Nellie’s nightclubs from her by extorting one of Nellie’s children, Ramsay. Ultimately, Nellie, with the help of her son, Niven, outwits Azzopardi and kills him.

The other major threat that Nellie faces is Maddox. Maddox, along with another crooked cop, Sergeant Oakes, uses Nellie’s clubs to find girls for a sex work ring. At one point in the narrative, Oakes crosses paths with Freda and almost convinces her to become a sex worker. Maddox and Oakes try to ruin Nellie’s clubs by plaguing them with disasters like murders, gang fights, and arson. Maddox infiltrates Nellie’s inner circle by wooing her daughter, Edith, and even gets Edith pregnant. Edith has a “botched” abortion and almost dies as a result. However, Nellie outsmarts Maddox and Oakes. She has Edith lure Maddox to one of Nellie’s clubs before it opens; Edith, with the help of a gang of female thieves in Nellie’s employ, the Forty Thieves, stabs Maddox to death. Maddox’s body is left on the police station steps, and Oakes is framed for the murder and hanged.

A romantic subplot develops alongside the threats to Nellie’s empire: a hint of a love triangle (the characters are attracted to one another but barely act on the attraction) between Frobisher, Gwendolen, and Nellie’s oldest son, Niven. At the end, Frobisher is killed when he’s run over by a delivery cart, and Niven invites Gwendolen to travel the world with him. The book’s final chapters flash forward to conclude each character’s storylines. Nellie maintains her empire of clubs but is largely ruined by the 1929 financial crash and dies shortly after. Her children don’t accomplish anything remarkable. Freda grows to old age, working as a pub owner without realizing her dreams of stardom, and dies a quiet death.

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