Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Wild Mary: A Life of Mary Wesley by Patrick Marnham

It's been ages since I read a novel by Mary Wesley (1912-2002). I have them all. She's probably most famous for Camomile Lawn (1984) although my favorite is Not That Sort of Girl (1987).  The themes of her novels often deal with life in England during World War II in upper class families, conflict in families, and sex. She wrote in a forthright, ironic and sometimes comical way. I was glad to find Patrick Marnham's biography, Wild Mary, because it confirmed what I've always thought about Mary Wesley--that she was a complicated and interesting woman.

Mary Wesley began her life as the the third child in an affluent British family. Mary's early years were without love. Her father was absent, and her mother reminded Mary often that she was unwanted, a mistake. Mary's siblings treated her accordingly throughout her life. Mary received no formal education. It's no surprise that she wanted to escape her family by finding a husband. She was presented at court three times and became the glamorous wife of the 2nd Baron Swinfen. 

Life moved fast for Mary Wesley during World War II. She had lots of lovers, so many that she lost count. And she worked for British Intelligence. She also met the man who would become the love of her life, Eric Siepmann.

Eric Siepmann was charming, intellectual, and volatile. He drank too much and spent lots of time generating ideas for books and plays that never came to fruition. He wrote an autobiography after the war that was successful but never could capitalize on that success.

After the war, Mary caused a scandal and divorced her first husband. The road to matrimony for Mary and Eric was fraught with drama and hardship, thanks to Eric's first wife who gave stalking a new meaning, damaging Eric's job prospects while denying him a divorce. This entire episode and how Mary and Eric were eventually able to marry would make a great novel.

Mary's greatest success came after Eric's death. (She'd dabbled at writing for years, but never had time to devote herself properly, what with children, a demanding husband, and working.) She'd been living a hand to mouth existence, doing odd jobs for people, and had to sell her house to make ends meet. She sold a manuscript in 1983, and at 70 years old, became a bestselling author. This would be the beginning of many publishing successes for her and the end of worrying about money. 

Wild Mary was written with Mary Wesley's cooperation. Patrick Marnham spent time interviewing Wesley and had access to her letters, papers, and her unpublished autobiography. Her only stipulation was that the book be published after her death.

Wild Mary is a great read about a woman who was a true original and refused to conform to convention. She made her own rules, and although she paid dearly for wanting to live her own way, Mary Wesley led a fascinating life. 

I read Wild Mary for A Century of Books Challenge for the year 2006.

Reading this biography makes me want to revisit Mary Wesley's novels and try those I never got around to reading. Have you read any of her novels?

1 comment:

  1. Why do people like this always seem to have bigger lives than the rest of us?