Mary Wesley Biography
Nationality: British. Born: Mary Farmar in Englefield Green, Berkshire, 1912. Education: Queen's College, London, 1928-39; London School of Economics, 1931-32. Career: Staff member, War Office, London, 1939-41. C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire), 1995.
The Sixth Seal. London, Macdonald, 1969; New York, Stein and Day, 1971.
Jumping the Queue. London, Macmillan, 1983; New York, Penguin, 1988.
Haphazard House. London, Dent, 1983.
The Camomile Lawn. London, Macmillan, 1984; New York, Summit, 1985.
Harnessing Peacocks. London, Macmillan, 1985; New York, Scribner, 1986.
The Vacillations of Poppy Carew. London, Macmillan, 1986; NewYork, Penguin, 1988.
Not That Sort of Girl. London, Macmillan, 1987; New York, Viking, 1988.
Second Fiddle. London, Macmillan, 1988; New York, Viking, 1989.
A Sensible Life. London, Bantam, and New York, Viking, 1990.
A Dubious Legacy. London, Bantam, 1992; New York, Viking, 1993.
An Imaginative Experience. London, Bantam, 1994; New York, Viking, 1995.
Part of the Furniture. New York, Viking, 1996.
Other (for children)
Speaking Terms. London, Faber, 1969; Boston, Gambit, 1971.
* * *
Mary Wesley's popularity can be traced in part to the humor, sensitivity, and wit with which she handles her characters and plots. Depicting quintessentially British middle-class life she creates fast moving, tightly constructed scenarios written in simple yet evocative language. The frankness with which she deals with her subject matter has led one critic to comment that Wesley "… has reached an age when she can say dangerous or naughty things without shocking." All seven of her novels deal with seemingly taboo subjects such as incest, matricide, suicide, and prostitution; love, sex, and death are dominant themes throughout.
The female protagonists of her books are misfits—eccentric, for the most part independent women who live on the periphery of the middle-class world so often described. Matilda Poliport, the central figure in Wesley's first novel, Jumping the Queue begins this trend of characterization. Matilda comes from a comparatively privileged world, she resides in the South West of England (a favorite setting for Wesley's books), and she is alone. Recently widowed at the opening of the book, Matilda meticulously plans her suicide, only to be thwarted by the entrance of Hugh, a fugitive from the police. Also contemplating suicide, Hugh is instead taken home by Matilda and life begins again for them both.
Jumping the Queue is original and often maliciously witty. In common with Wesley's later novels the plot contains a series of sub-plots, farcical scenes, and bitter twists. We find for example that Tom, Matilda's much idolized husband, was in reality having an incestuous relationship with his daughter and was also involved in drug smuggling and espionage. Perhaps most shocking of all is the discovery that Matilda is aware of some if not all of these occurrences. Although the novel is filled with black humor it also possesses moments of extreme sadness and poignancy, the most surprising of which is Matilda's successful suicide at the end of the book. In this respect the novel differs from the author's other works which have somewhat happier endings. Even in Second Fiddle, which ends with the protagonist Laura walking away from the men who love her, there is some semblance of hope as the reader knows that Laura is a capable and strong woman, a survivor. However, Matilda dies completely disillusioned, having lost everything she ever cared for, even her dignity in death.
The Camomile Lawn introduces the colorful Calypso Grant, who reappears in four of the later works. Set initially during World War II, the book follows the fortunes and relationships of five cousins, Oliver, Polly, Calypso, Walter and Sophie over a period of forty years. Sex is a dominant theme, and the war becomes the liberating factor in allowing the female characters in particular the freedom to experiment with their own sexuality. Hence we find Polly enjoying a relationship with twin brothers, one or both of whom father her children, and Calypso and Sophie embark on a series of affairs. Sophie is the misfit child (a common character in Wesley's books) who at the beginning of the book is hopelessly in love with Oliver, a love which endures and which is finally consummated four decades later.
The theme of a lasting love that finally wins through is a favored one in Wesley's work occurring in Harnessing Peacocks, Not That Sort of Girl, and A Sensible Life. In Not That Sort of Girl the central figure, Rose, rejects her beloved yet impoverished Mylo Cooper for the staid and rich Ned Peel. Over the next forty years she remains faithful to both men; Ned, her husband, and Mylo her lover. When Ned dies, Rose and Mylo finally marry, their love having survived marriages, births, and deaths. Similarly, in Harnessing Peacocks Hebe falls pregnant at the beginning of the book then rediscovers and falls in love with the father of her son some seventeen years later. Hebe is probably one of the most likable of Wesley's female characters. Running away from her grandparents, who plan to force her to have an abortion, Hebe instead becomes first a cook and then a prostitute who sells her favors for vast amounts of money in order to school her son Silas. Hebe is independent, pragmatic, and very much in control of the men who pass through her life.
Laura, the protagonist in Second Fiddle, shares with Hebe her attraction for men. Both women are mysterious and unattainable, Hebe because of the nature of her work and Laura because of her avoidance of entanglement. Although Wesley never actually states it, through suggestion and innuendo the reader concludes that Laura is the product of an incestuous relationship between her mother and uncle, the twins Emily and Nicholas Thornby. To complicate matters further we find that Laura has also been sexually abused by Nicholas, who if not her father is certainly her uncle. Laura is a strange character who the reader never really knows. Combining strength with surprising vulnerability she embarks on a relationship with a 23-year-old would-be writer and inevitably falls in love with him. Choosing to be alone she ends the relationship and rejects the two men who love her.
Poppy Carew in The Vacillations of Poppy Carew advocates pleasure over commitment. Left a great deal of money by her milkman father (also an inveterate but successful gambler) Poppy is suddenly thrust into a completely new world. Moving from North Africa to the South West of England, the novel is crammed with charming and vital characters, sub-plots and petty intrigues. Although Poppy, like Laura, rejects the man who loves her (the pig farmer Willie Guthrie) she finally realizes that she can have both pleasure and commitment with him. Thus, unlike Laura, Poppy decides to take the risk.
Flora, the pivotal character in A Sensible Life, combines the independence of Laura and Hebe with the awkwardness of the young Sophie. Sojourning with her parents in Dinard in 1926 the ten-yearold Flora meets and falls in love with three young men, Cosmo, Hubert, and Felix. Rejected by her parents who consider her a misfit in the same way that Laura, Sophie, and Hebe are considered strange by their parents, guardians and grandparents, Flora turns instead to the three men for love and attention. Over a period of forty years (a popular time span in Wesley's books) she explores her feelings for all of them and ends up with Cosmo.
Wesley's other works include The Sixth Seal, an apocalyptic and frightening vision of the world. Haphazard House which focuses on an eccentric painter and his family, who go to live in an old and haunted house in the country, and differs from Wesley's other works in that the reader receives a much more personal account of events as seen through the eyes of the narrator Lisa. Wesley has also written a children's book called Speaking Terms, in which a group of children learn to understand and speak to the animals through a bullfinch named Mr. Bull. Charmingly written and illustrated, the message of the book is essentially conservationist. An Imaginative Experience, produced when the author was well into her eighties, depicts a romantic triangle of good man/good woman/bad man, and does so in such a deft and delightful fashion that one's major complaint is the book's length—too short. Part of the Furniture, a tale of May-December romance set against the backdrop of World War II, is perhaps even more delightful.
Several of these later works mark a departure for Wesley: stylistically her use of language is still concise and simple, yet her sentence structure is shorter in these books, and her use of dialogue more extensive. Thematically several of the topics tackled in the later novels—love, death, and age—also occur in these books, and her characters retain their sense of individuality, humor, and eccentricity.
Wesley's books show a great understanding of human nature. Young and old alike are depicted with sensitivity, perception, and wit. The combination of a frank style, rich and complex plots, and a concise and simple use of language create extremely charming and readable books.
updated by Judson Knight
- Valerie Wilson Wesley (1947–) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
- Other Free Encyclopedias