Mary Wesley (Novelist)

mary-wesley.jpgMary Wesley, CBE (24 June 1912 – 30 December 2002) was an English novelist. She reportedly worked in MI5 during World War II.

During her career, she became one of Britain's most successful novelists, selling three million copies of her books, including 10 best-sellers in the last 20 years of her life.

Mary Aline Mynors Farmar was born in Englefield Green, Surrey, the third child of Colonel Harold and Violet Mynors Farmar. 

As a child, she had 16 governesses. When she asked her mother why they kept on leaving, she was reportedly told "Because none of them like you, darling."

She had three sons by three different men. Her first husband was Carol Swinfen Eady (the 2nd Baron Swinfen) with whom she had a son Roger (now Lord Swinfen). She had an affair with the Czech war hero Heinz Ziegler, with whom she had Toby Eady, who became the literary agent of her biographer Patrick Marnham.

She then had a son, William Siepmann, with her second husband, Eric Siepmann. Wesley became an author late in life after the death of Eric Siepmann left her nearly impoverished.

Mary Wesley had a lifelong complicated relationship with her family and especially with her mother. She had a sharp tongue. Following the death of her father in 1961, her mother said: "I'm not going to let that lingering death happen to me. When the time comes I'm going to crawl to the Solent and swim out". She replied with feeling: "I'll help you".

Her family didn't approve of her books. Her brother called what she wrote "filth" and her sister, with whom she was no longer on speaking terms, strongly objected to The Camomile Lawn, claiming that some of the characters were based on their parents. She identified the appalling grandparents in Harnessing Peacocks, who bully the pregnant Hebe, as the nearest she came to a portrait of her own parents in old age.

She wrote three children's books, Speaking Terms and The Sixth Seal (both 1969) and Haphazard House (1983), before publishing adult fiction. Since her first adult novel was published only in 1983, when she was 71, she may be regarded as a late bloomer.

The publication of Jumping the Queue in 1983 was the beginning of an intensely creative period of Wesley's life. From 1982 to 1991, she wrote and delivered seven novels. While she aged from 70 to 79 she still showed the focus and drive of a young person.

Her best known book, The Camomile Lawn, set on the Roseland Peninsula in Cornwall, was turned into a television series, and is an account of the intertwining lives of three families in rural England during World War II.

After The Camomile Lawn (1984) came Harnessing Peacocks (1985 and as TV film in 1992), The Vacillations of Poppy Carew (1986 and filmed in 1995), Not That Sort of Girl (1987), Second Fiddle (1988), A Sensible Life (1990), A Dubious Legacy (1993), An Imaginative Experience (1994) and Part of the Furniture (1997).

A book about the West Country with photographer Kim Sayer, Part of the Scenery, was published in 2001. Asked why she had stopped writing fiction at the age of 84, she replied: "If you haven't got anything to say, don't say it."

Her take on life reveals a sharp and critical eye which neatly dissects the idiosyncrasies of genteel England with humor, compassion and irony, detailing in particular sexual and emotional values. Her style has been described as "arsenic without the old lace". Others have described it as "Jane Austen plus sex", a description Mary Wesley herself thought ridiculous.

As a woman who was liberated before her time Mary Wesley challenged social assumptions about the old, confessed to bad behaviour, recommended sex. In doing so she smashed the stereotype of the disapproving, judgmental, past-it, old person. This delighted the old and intrigued the young.

In Wesley's books there are some references to her own life, although she denied that her novels were autobiographical. Her books usually take place in or around the everlasting house, the idyllic refuge, recalling her time with Siepmann, living in a remote cottage in the West Country. Other recurring themes such as the dysfunctional family, the uncertain paternity, the affirmation of illegitimacy, can also be linked to her own life.

In addition, thanks to her flighty youth, sex would become her trademark in her books though she wrote about what went on in the head rather than a user's manual. Incest also plays a part in several of her novels, but Wesley never mentioned this as a feature of her own life. She may however have gained her insight from her years working as a Samaritan.

Only in the last year of her life did she agree to a biography being written. She cooperated fully with Patrick Marnham, on the condition that nothing would be published prior to her death. She provided her reminiscences from her sick bed, and commented "Have you any idea of the pleasure of lying in bed for six months, talking about yourself to a very intelligent man? My deepest regret was that I was too old and ill to take him into bed with me".

The authorised biography (published in 2006), was titled Wild Mary, a reference both to her childhood nickname, and to her sex life as a young woman, when she had many lovers. In her biography nothing is held back: "It was a flighty generation" ... [W]e had been brought up so repressed. War freed us. We felt if we didn't do it now, we might never get another chance". "It got to the state where one woke up in the morning, reached across the pillow and thought, 'Let's see.

Who is it this time?'" But Wesley finally did get tired of her wartime lifestyle, she realized that her way of life had become too excessive: "too many lovers, too much to drink...I was on my way to become a very nasty person". When her son Toby Eady read the book, he was so amazed at how much he did not know about his mother that he did not speak to anyone for a week.

Late in life Wesley ordered her own coffin from a local craftswoman and asked it be finished in red Chinese lacquer. She kept it as a coffee table for some time in her sitting room. She suggested that she was photographed sitting up in it for a feature in the magazine Country Living - it was politely declined.

Mary Wesley died from gout and a blood disorder on 30 December 2002, aged 90, at her home in Totnes, Devon. She was made CBE in 1995.

Related Articles