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There is something about Mary Wesley’s work that loves a blurb. “Jane Austen with sex” is the one heard most, but you also find “arsenic without the old lace,” “upper-middle-brow potboilers,” and “posh smut.” She was prolific, writing ten novels in 14 years, all largely concentrated on a particular place, time, and set of mores, and thus easy to pigeonhole despite complex plotting and surprising characters. The question of whether “write what you know” is good advice was never an issue for Wesley; her mid-20th century heroines fall in and out of affairs, marriages, and privilege, much as she did throughout her long career.
Mary Aline Farmar, born in 1912 in Englefield Green, England, emerged into relatively genteel circumstances. Her father, Harold Mynors Farmar, was an officer in the Lancashire Fusiliers and spent the first years of Mary’s childhood fighting overseas. Her mother Violet’s family, the Wellesleys, were descended from the Duke of Wellington. The legendary travel writer Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor was a distant cousin. She was not close to her parents, who preferred their more easygoing older daughter Susan, and was raised by a succession of 16 governesses in as many years because, according to her mother, “None of them liked you, darling.”
Mary related best to her maternal grandmother, Hyacinthe, a legendarily free and racy spirit. Mary, too, was driven by distaste for the constraints of the life she was groomed for, although she was quick to take advantage of the privileges. She uninhibitedly loved men, not only for sex — although her libido ran high well into her senior years — but for the world of knowledge they represented. Her own schooling had been mediocre, mostly under the tutelage of the above-mentioned governesses, and for much of her early life boyfriends would express shock at how little she knew of history, politics, and literature. But her “muscular Marxists” were all too happy to further her education, giving her books to read and bringing her to political rallies. Mary was lithe, with dark hair and eyes and a sexy smile, clever, and sexually vivacious. In her late teens and 20s she was rarely without a lover, or several.
Although she was pursued by all sorts of eligible characters, at 25, Mary finally succumbed to a wealthy young peer named Charles Eady, known as Carol, the second Baron Swinfen (his father bought the title, but no matter). While there wasn’t much chemistry between the two, she explained, “He lent me his car when I needed it, he was always around, always agreeable.” And then, of course, there was that small matter of the title: when they married, Mary became Lady Swinfen; she attended the coronation of George VI in a peeress’ robes and tiara.
Lack of sexual chemistry notwithstanding, Mary and Carol managed to conceive a son, Roger, during a night of serious drinking; but even as a young mother Mary could not settle for celibacy, and Lord and Lady Swinfen eased into an amicable semi-separation. When war broke out in 1939, a friend recruited Mary to do codebreaking work for MI5, and she resumed her cosmopolitan, swinging lifestyle without a backward glance. Around that time she fell in love with Heinz Ziegler, a dashing Prague expatriate. The relationship didn’t last — Ziegler went on to join the RAF, and was eventually shot down over Budapest — but he was generally believed to be the father of her second son, Toby, whom Carol Swinfen would nevertheless treat as his own.
Mary found the terror and drama of wartime sexually liberating. This would be a recurring theme in her novels: “War makes drunkards and lovers and loosens all values.” She and Swinfen divorced in 1945, by which time she had met and fallen in love with Eric Siepmann — a sporadically employed novelist, journalist, and handsome man-about-town — who would become her second husband. And there her extracurricular erotic adventures ground to a halt. Theirs was a true love match, and the two drew even closer as Siepmann’s wife Phyllis made their first years miserable, waging a slanderous letter-writing campaign to their friends and acquaintances and getting him fired from several jobs. When the court finally granted Eric a divorce (a judge ruled her “disgraceful, diabolical, and wicked”), he and Mary married two weeks later.
The years that followed were romantically solid, if not always stable. Siepmann could be volatile, and he drank; he had no trouble losing jobs without his ex-wife’s help. But they were content, for the most part, and their son Bill was born, in 1953, when Mary was 41. Both elder boys were off at school: mild-mannered Roger was a week short of his 15th birthday; Toby, all rebellion and curly hair, was nearly 11. But in 1964 Eric had a car accident from which he never fully recovered, and he began to exhibit symptoms of Parkinson’s. In 1969 he took a deliberate overdose of pills while Mary was driving Bill back to school after Christmas and never regained consciousness.
Mary was devastated and haunted by guilt — Eric had spoken often of killing himself. Hoping to divest her darkest secret and lighten the load of her grief, she confessed to her sons that Carol Swinfen was likely not Toby’s father. But the admission drove a permanent wedge between the boys, and her meddling brother-in-law attempted to have Toby disinherited in a long and ugly legal battle (Swinfen gallantly rose to the occasion by testifying that he had always considered both boys his sons, and as far as he was concerned they were). Her mother died less than two years later, and Swinfen not long after that. Mary’s health declined sharply; she was bereft and impoverished, with an inadequate widow’s pension and no professional skills to speak of. Inside the front cover of her datebook, she carefully wrote “Please do NOT Resuscitate” before nearly succumbing to pneumonia.
But even the best-laid Do Not Resuscitate plans can go awry; and life had something entirely different in store for her.
Mary had always written. In a 1990 Publishers Weekly interview, she explained:
I started writing a novella when I was in my teens. I don’t know what became of it. When I was in Cornwall during the war, pregnant with my second baby, I spent a lot of time alone in a great big double bed, writing poetry. I never thought about sending it out. I had no confidence.
There had been several abortive attempts at tell-all autobiographies as well, but she only began to write in earnest during the years Eric was bedridden. Shortly before his death she managed to find a publisher for two young adult novels, The Sixth Seal and Speaking Terms, though neither one met with any great success. Still, she kept working, finishing a third book for young audiences, Haphazard House, and a very adult novel, Jumping the Queue — a dark yet oddly chipper tale of a widow who sets out to commit suicide (death being the queue in question). The book, which also involved matricide, rape, incest, and the death of a dog, was turned down by a number of publishers who were understandably “put off by the general morbidity.” But in 1982, her agent submitted the manuscript to Macmillan, and by early 1983, when Mary was 70 years old, both works had been published. Haphazard House, though nominated for the Carnegie Medal for children’s literature, didn’t make much of a splash. Jumping the Queue, on the other hand, was an instant success.
For all its off-putting subjects, the novel showed a light touch, combining black humor with a gentle, pervasive melancholy. When has talk of death ever been so sweet as between the suicide-bound widow and the escaped murderer she takes in?
Owls on their silent hunting zoomed over the fields. Holiday-makers drove along the main road, making for the motorway and urban life.
Matilda lay in Hugh’s arms. “You will flash before my eyes,” she murmured.
“Hush.” He kissed her mouth gently.
“I am old enough to be your mother.” He kissed her, running his tongue along her teeth as a child rattles railings with a stick. “A good joke. Sleep now, it’s not the moment to say so.”
And yet still, Mary adopted a pseudonym — Wesley, a corruption of her Wellesley ancestors’ name — so as not to embarrass her family.
But there was no stopping her now; she pulled out another work that had languished for several years and wrote like a woman possessed, scrawling on the back of old manuscripts and whatever she could find. This book, The Camomile Lawn – once again brimming with Mary’s pet themes of love triangles and guilt-free sex, unconventional relationships, the erotic qualities of wartime, and a deep love of animals — was published the following year, and proved to be so popular that the BBC turned it into a miniseries. Two months after she sent it off she began her next novel, Harnessing Peacocks (1985), a cheerful tale of sex and class about a young single mother working as a cook and part-time prostitute to send her son to a posh private school. The following book, The Vacillations of Poppy Carew (1986), was more of a romantic comedy, fraught with Shakespeare-worthy mistaken identities and crossed signals before all ends happily. Not That Sort of Girl (1987) was a rather sweet story of a lifelong extramarital romance, which still managed to get in its digs at tradition, unhappy marriages, and class conventions. It also introduced one of the more wonderful nasty couples in her cast of characters, the incestuous twins Nicholas and Emily Thornby.
The next book, Second Fiddle (1988), featured as the protagonist Nicholas and Emily’s daughter Laura as an adult. A Sensible Life (1990) charted a lonely girl’s love for three men, and highlighted another of Wesley’s favorite motifs, i.e., self-absorbed and neglectful parents. A Dubious Legacy, her reimagining of Jane Eyre, came out in 1992, followed by An Imaginative Experience (1995) and Part of the Furniture (1997). All of her books made appearances on bestseller lists.
And then? She was done writing, at age 84, explaining simply “If you haven’t got anything to say, don’t say it.”
Mary Wesley claimed that Jumping the Queue was “a means of working out despair” after Siepmann’s death, and certainly it must have been therapeutic. But the book’s merits, and that of her writing career, went far beyond comfort. Her accomplishments were a vindication of having lived life on her own terms — not just that she got rich and traded her wool for cashmere, but that she was able to turn it all into art: the eternal fantasy of the black sheep. She had a soft touch for dark themes, offering deception and adultery the same respect as the rest of the natural world they occupied. The only sin she couldn’t forgive her characters was cruelty.
From Not That Sort of Girl, in which she’s been in both love with Mylo and married to Ned for most of her life:
Dear kind Ned. Was there a moment when I could have cried halt? It was my fault, thought Rose, I was inattentive…. I used him to deflect attention from Mylo. I trailed Ned as the lapwing trails her wing.
Mary died of cancer at the end of 2002, ironically the same week that Granta published its third “Best of Young British Novelists” issue. She was, and remains, a consolation amidst the cult of the fresh-faced, and a testimony to the value of a life fully lived.