THE CAMOMILE LAWN
Mary Wesley just did not write enough books.
A couple of years ago Waterstones told me to buy The Camomile Lawn. I don't always do what Waterstones suggests, but on this occasion the book was perched on the bookseller's recommend shelves and I thought, huh, that's a book I haven't read and don't know why. Thus began an obsession with the books of Mary Wesley. I'll say it again, she didn't write enough of them. I picked it up again a few weeks ago just before I went on holiday as a) it seemed like a safe bet for a comfortable enjoyable read and b) I hadn't had time to visit a bookshop and thus re-reading something was going to be a necessity. It was just as good on a re-read.
Whilst The Camomile Lawn is easily Wesley most famous book, it wasn't her first and its not my favorite. A lot of the story revolves around Calypso, and I don't think she's the most interesting character in the book - though she reappears in a few of the other novels as an aged and wise matriarch and I think I like her better than. Wesley started writing pretty late in life, she was made a widow and needed to make some money, and her first book, Jumping the Queue opens with a women preparing to commit sucide entirely on her own terms, it's bloody brilliant. But she was a woman who defied expectations for most of her life. She was brought up in the British upper classes and it was a society she chafed against. Escaping your past, and escaping the trappings of class are themes that appear in most of her novels. Camomile Lawn is a book that certainly reflects some of her own experience, especially of the liberation war granted young women of her generation - some of the things they get up to still seem fairly daring to me reading now, even second time around.
The other Wesley I re-read this summer was Poppy Carew - again not my favorite, but it is one in which I think the men are actually more interesting than then women, plus there are horses in it, so some bonus there. But for some reason all of her other ones are on my iPad and I just prefer the real page. I do read ebooks sometimes, and when there's a series I'm reading, it is sometimes easier to order up the next one in two seconds via the internet than wait for the post to arrive. You also tend to need to actually order Wesley's books, as whilst they're all in print, Waterstones (or your other local bookseller) tends not to have a wide variety in stock.
It would be easy to make assumptions about the books of a woman who didn't start writing adult literature until she hit 70 (she had already written three childrens books). But Wesley doesn't write old lady books. She writes intelligent and interesting women who make their own decisions - sometimes to do some very odd things, but whilst a lot of it is a bit nuts, none of it is unbelievable. Whilst some of the themes and characters are pretty modern, I'm not sure they're stories that would be written now, or at least not written without an agenda or more of a point to prove. Hebe in Harnessing Peacocks makes most of her money by being a sort of high class escort; Juno in Part of the Furniture has a night aged 17 where she is very much taken advantage of; Richard in Camomile Lawn quite likes putting his hand up young girl's skirts - and I just don't think those plot points would be written now without rather more police envolvement, or at least some discussion about it. But sex, and the politics of sex are central to her novels, women don't always win, at least at first, but they never allow themselves to be broken. Even Matilda and her suicide plans aren't pitiable, they're weirdly strong.
The main problem with Wesley not starting to write until she was 70 was that it didn't give her enough time to write the massive stack that I would so love her to have written. Ten is just not enough! However, ten is better than none, and if you've read none of them, then go get some - pick any, comedy and beauty are in them all. So much so, that writing all this, I might have to go pick up my ipad and find A Dubious Legacy, or maybe Part of the Furniture. (I'm currently 350ish pages into War and Peace, it might be time for a wee break) A friend I've not seen for a while, but am soon off to visit in her new home by the seaside, once described Barbara Trapido as 'erudite chic lit', and I think Wesley might fit that catagory too - but like Daphne du Maurier, I think initial perception isn't always kind - they are cracking stories, they have amusing romantic plot lines to them, but the are certainly not one note, and they do make you think a bit.