Olivia Potts Mary Wesley SF 71

Plenty to Say

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A few months after my mother died, my sister and I returned home to clear out her possessions. I felt unsentimental about most of them. I readily threw away clothes, keeping only a cardigan that was the last thing she wore, and still smelled of her; I swept her extensive collection of toiletries into a large bin bag. From her jewellery, I squirrelled away only a pair of opal earrings, to wear on my wedding day.

The exception to this general rule was her book collection. Mum was a voracious reader. When I picture our birthdays, holidays, family evenings together, I always see her with a book in her hand, and I consider a love of reading my most important inheritance. So I kept as many of her books as I could, lugging them from Newcastle to London in flimsy rolling suitcases. Among them was a complete collection of Mary Wesley’s novels. I’d read Mum’s copy of The Camomile Lawn (1984), Wesley’s most famous book, as a teenager, and remembered a character called Calypso, a pair of twins, a ménage à trois in a London flat, and children racing along hilltops – a warm, sexy, adventurous book. When I reread it, I was amazed at all the things I’d forgotten: refugees, concentration camps, death and child abuse, all approached with an unsettling moral ambiguity.

But then, such is the nature of memory, particularly when confronted with death. Unconsciously, we twist things or repress them; we seek meaning where it may or may not lie. The book I remembered spoke of how I wanted to think about my mum. This is something that Wesley confronts often in her books, as her characters try to work each other out. In Harnessing Peacocks (1985), the protagonist, Hebe, says of her 12-year-old son, ‘I love him but I seldom know

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A few months after my mother died, my sister and I returned home to clear out her possessions. I felt unsentimental about most of them. I readily threw away clothes, keeping only a cardigan that was the last thing she wore, and still smelled of her; I swept her extensive collection of toiletries into a large bin bag. From her jewellery, I squirrelled away only a pair of opal earrings, to wear on my wedding day.

The exception to this general rule was her book collection. Mum was a voracious reader. When I picture our birthdays, holidays, family evenings together, I always see her with a book in her hand, and I consider a love of reading my most important inheritance. So I kept as many of her books as I could, lugging them from Newcastle to London in flimsy rolling suitcases. Among them was a complete collection of Mary Wesley’s novels. I’d read Mum’s copy of The Camomile Lawn (1984), Wesley’s most famous book, as a teenager, and remembered a character called Calypso, a pair of twins, a ménage à trois in a London flat, and children racing along hilltops – a warm, sexy, adventurous book. When I reread it, I was amazed at all the things I’d forgotten: refugees, concentration camps, death and child abuse, all approached with an unsettling moral ambiguity.

But then, such is the nature of memory, particularly when confronted with death. Unconsciously, we twist things or repress them; we seek meaning where it may or may not lie. The book I remembered spoke of how I wanted to think about my mum. This is something that Wesley confronts often in her books, as her characters try to work each other out. In Harnessing Peacocks (1985), the protagonist, Hebe, says of her 12-year-old son, ‘I love him but I seldom know what he is thinking.’ Then there’s the crushing but perceptive exchange between Jim, Hebe’s love interest, and Bernard, her old friend, in the same book:

‘It’s important that I see her,’ Jim insisted.
‘Only to you.’
Jim stared at the old man, deflated. ‘I had not thought of that.’

Perhaps it is no surprise that, of all the authors my mother loved, Wesley – the author who deals in isolation, confusion, hope and all the things we don’t know about those around us, whose books frequently turn on the death of a loved one – was the one I embraced after her death.

Born in 1912 in Surrey, Mary Wesley was the third child of Colonel Harold and Violet Mynors Farmer. Her childhood was tricky: her mother openly disdained her, and she went through sixteen governesses. (When she asked her mother why, the reply was simple: ‘Because none of them liked you, darling.’) A first marriage to Charles Swinfen Eady ended in a scandalous divorce; later, she married Eric Siepmann, whom she was with until his death in 1970. Despite her relatively wealthy upbringing, Eric’s death left her destitute.

Wesley’s path to publication is an astonishing one, and not simply because of her age (she was 70 when her first novel, Jumping the Queue, was published). She had long held writing ambitions, and had written three children’s books before Siepmann’s death, but she had never tackled adult fiction. Her newly strained financial position in the wake of her husband’s death provided the necessary spur. She began working on a peculiar manuscript: dark and funny, genuinely tragic and life-affirming, a book of family secrets and deceit.

Jumping the Queue tells the story of Matilda, an elderly widow who has decided to end her life by taking some pills and then swimming out to sea after a picnic. She is interrupted twice, first by a gaggle of youths and then, when she has instead resolved to throw herself off a cliff, by a strange man who turns out to be a wanted killer on the run. She takes the man into her home and, subsequently, into her bed.

Publishers weren’t interested, and even her agent eventually gave up, telling Wesley that she would no longer submit the manuscript to publishers. Wesley remained resolute, and essentially began agenting her own book. Eventually, the editor James Hale expressed an interest. Wesley didn’t have the money for a train fare to London to meet him; her agent had to advance her the money. When Hale had read the whole thing, Wesley asked him what he would like to change. He replied, ‘Not a word.’ Jumping the Queue was published in 1983 and received an overwhelming critical and commercial reception. Over the next fourteen years Wesley went on to write another nine books, which sold a total of 3 million copies.

Her third book, Harnessing Peacocks (1985), is the one that has my heart. It tells the story of Hebe – like me, a cook – whose family, on discovering she is pregnant, plan an abortion for her. Instead, Hebe runs away, and we meet her in London, where she is now living with her 12-year-old son Silas, whom she supports through a combination of cooking (for elderly, rich women who live alone) and sex work (for their sons and sons-in-law). The themes that recur in Wesley’s writing are alive and well in Harnessing Peacocks: complicated relationships within families, rejection of class, sex, and the fundamental unknown ability of other people, even – sometimes particularly – those who are closest to us, or bound to us by blood. Hebe’s rejection of social mores and conventional morality is what brings her her son, her friendships and the unconventional life that she loves. When she encounters her cruel grandparents in the modern day (they do not recognize her) she realizes the change she has engendered in herself: ‘It seemed so very long ago, yet nothing about them had changed. Except, thought Hebe in joyous surprise, catching sight in the driving mirror of the striped bag on the back seat, except that I am no longer afraid.’

Wesley is remembered for her frank and enthusiastic treatment of sex, although she maintained that the reaction was overblown. As she put it,

People are startled by my books because they think, how can an old woman write about sex? As though one forgets it, as though it isn’t in everything you see, breathe, watch – because sex is so enjoyable and so funny – how could one forget it? The idea that people go on being sexy all their life is little explored in fiction. What do people think ‘happy ever after’ means? It goes on and on; it doesn’t end.

Her incredulity seems disingenuous to me. Because Wesley’s sex isn’t just sex – it’s polyamory, and sex work, and many other things besides. Wesley’s women are sexual instigators and pleasure-seekers; virgins and old ladies. Above all, what dominates is funny, liberated enjoyment of sex. This sexual diversity is seldom found in any fiction of the time, much less that written by female authors of Wesley’s generation and class.

And, of course, it extrapolates outwards: the sex that these women engage in is a mark of their unashamed appetites – not just in sex, but in food, in life. (‘I am a very expensive cook,’ Hebe declares. ‘The same applies to bed.’) Calypso, the main character in The Camomile Lawn who recurs in many of Wesley’s other novels, remarks to her nephew in Harnessing Peacocks, ‘Be bold about it, don’t let them put you off, do what you want in life.’ It feels like a credo. In interviews Wesley always ducked the point, simply bemoaning the fact that the young think they ‘invented sex’. I think she did herself a disservice. In her books, women of all ages take charge of their own destiny, for good and for bad. For me, and perhaps for my mum, that felt radical, and important.

Throughout her writing life, Wesley denied autobiographical influences on her writing. But to the reader they seem palpable. Jumping the Queue was written shortly after the death of her own husband, albeit one more beloved than her protagonist’s, and focuses on Matilda’s suicide. Wesley herself seems to have sunk into a deep depression after her husband’s death; she wrote ‘Do not resuscitate’ on the front of her diary, and only removed the instruction after landing her book deals. Her first experience of sex, as told to Patrick Marnham, her biographer, closely mirrors Rose Peel’s loss of her virginity in Not That Sort of Girl (1987), and the cold, cruel grandparents in Harnessing Peacocks bear many similarities to her own parents. More generally, the lives of Wesley’s protagonists seem to echo Wesley’s own life as they move away from wealthy, repressed upbringings or wealthy, unsatisfying first marriages towards a life directed by their own desires or happiness.

Hale remained Wesley’s editor for the whole of her writing life and said that she was ‘the first serious writer to be sold as though she were Catherine Cookson in a full-blooded commercial way’. Of course, when literary people use the word ‘commercial’ it often isn’t a compliment. Anita Brookner, reviewing A Dubious Legacy for the Spectator in 1992, dismissed Wesley’s writing as ‘stereotyped, nostalgic, reassuring, romantic, tasteful, well-bred, very slight, very unreal and very tedious’. But Wesley’s writing strikes me as the exact opposite of reassuring or tasteful, and it is explicitly critical of the nostalgic, the romantic or the well-bred. The sex is fun but rarely romantic, and her books are packed with domestic violence, murder, suicide and incest.

What I – and I suspect many others – admire is that despite all this, the darkness doesn’t dominate. Wesley’s books are leavened with a sparkling wit, and their pace speaks of a woman who has found her voice late in life, and who has a whole host of books inside her.

Asked why she stopped writing fiction at the age of 84, Wesley replied, ‘If you haven’t got anything to say, don’t say it.’ Again, I suspect she was being glib. But perhaps that’s just because I don’t want it to be true. I want to live in the world of Mary Wesley’s books, where women always, always have more to say, and more often than not also have the chance to say it.

Mary Wesley died on 30 December 2002, aged 90. Among her many other accomplishments, she taught me to see my mother as a woman as well as my mother – a woman with things to say, and with a complex life that will remain unknown and unknowable to me – and that, amidst the darkness that life can bring, there is always a place for humour, for pleasure, for self-direction.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 71 © Olivia Potts 2021


About the contributor

Olivia Potts is a writer and chef. Her first book, A Half-Baked Idea: How grief, love and cake took me from the courtroom to Le Cordon Bleu, is published by Fig Tree.

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