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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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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