Be warned: the opening chapters of this Cockney-to-Lady saga (1941-1996) may draw you in, but they're followed by over 500 pages of dreary, muddled storytelling--all leading up, with hamfisted foreshadowing, to a truly idiotic revelation-finale. Mary Waterhouse is a four-year-old London slum child in 1941, when (along with other evacuee-tots) she's sent to live in West Kent, far from the city-bombing. And by the time Mary is returned to mum Ivy and dad Sid in 1945, she's gotten a glimpse of the good life--while staying at the country-house belonging to the blueblooded Allaun elan. Despite brains and beauty, however, Mary can never quite get a firm hold on the rags-to-fiches ladder. Teenage lust leads her into pregnancy/marriage at 16: husband Jim Flanders, a garage mechanic, tries some robbery to satisfy Mary's materialism--but only winds up with a death sentence for murder. Now a near-penniless widow, Mary falls hard for sexy/rotten gangster Johnnie Bridges, leaves baby Josephine with Ivy, becomes a hostess at a shady gambling-club, then (after Johnnie mistreats her) slides into ritzy/kinky 1950s prostitution (echoes of the Profumo scandal). Still, the life is very shaky, likewise Johnnie--so Mary agrees to move in with Johnnie's boss, ruthless slumlandlord Ferenc Nedermann, a middle-aged Jewish refugee who provides tenderness and mild contentment. (""Something to be grateful for, I suppose. I wasn't flogging Lord This or sucking off Sir That."") Happy ending? Far from it: Nedermann drops dead after getting in trouble with the Mob and the cops; Mary flees with some jewelry, ends up serving a jail-term, and has a bag-lady breakdown. Then, pulling herself together, she marries Labour M.P. Joe Endell--but he drops dead too, just after impregnating Mary, who now impetuously weds childhood-playmate Tom Allaun (see 1941, above). Tom, alas, turns out to be impoverished and homosexual; it's up to Mary to save the crumbling Allaun estate, which she does by turning the stables into a bicycle factory. And finally, thanks to Ivy's deathbed scene and an affair with secret-agent Sir Herbert Precious, Mary learns the BIG SECRET about her identity, which involves incest, groaning coincidence, and--we kid you not--royal blood. Bailey has some old-reliable materials here in Mary's bedraggled climb; there are patches of sharp, gritty detail now and again--especially in the gambling-den backgrounds. But the narration is a poorly paced jumble, alternately lurching and stagnating--with ineffectual first-person interjections throughout, from Sir Herbert (heavy hints about the BIG SECRET) and Mary herself. The supporting cast is far from memorable. And heroine Mary, though billed as a latter-day Moll Flanders, is too selfish to be sympathetic, too whiny to be commanding--making this an overlong also-ran in the crowded ups-and-downs-o f-an-Englishwoman field.