Mary Wesley, best selling author of The Camomile Lawn
Mary Wesley was born Mary Aline Mynors Farmar in 1912, in Englefield Green, Surrey, the youngest of three children of Colonel Harold Mynors Farmar.
Mary Wesley was one when she first arrived in Cornwall in 1913. A photograph reproduced in her latest book, Part of the Scenery, records the event. Seated on a rug spread upon the sands at Polzeath she sits chewing a strand of seaweed, flanked by her brother and sister. Behind them the rocks embrace an empty bay. "When I went to South Sands with my friend, author James Long and Kim Sayer, I was quite surprised. I had lived there with my mother, brother and sister towards the end of the First World War and in those days there was nothing but sand, sea, the cottage we rented on the beach and a lifeboat shed.
As her father moved the family around Europe, Wesley had a succession of "governesses" who taught her nothing but spoke in their own languages; as a result, she grew up with very little actual education, but fluent in French, Italian and German.
She would explore her feelings of loneliness and rejection as a child in A Sensible Life (1991), whose heroine, Flora Trevelyan, is a 10-year-old misfit whose parents hate her but who finds hope in the kindness of strangers.
When Mary Wesley was 14 her mother took Mary's elder sister to join her father in India. The younger Mary, meanwhile, was sent to schools in England where she was very unhappy. She went to a finishing school in Paris and a domestic science course in London, was presented at Court as a deb and launched herself on London society.
In a reaction against her parents' respectable conservatism, she took a course in international politics at the London School of Economics, worked in a canteen for down-and-outs, and attended Communist Party meetings. She studied anthropology and international politics at the London School of Economics in 1930, and was made an honorary fellow there in 1994.
But in 1937, to the surprise of her left-wing friends, she married the second Lord Swinfen, an Irish peer 10 years older than she with a house in Knightsbridge. As Lady Swinfen, she attended the coronation of George VI. They had two sons. But her husband proved as stuffy as the parents. He apparently refused her permission to model hats for Vogue (he thought it unseemly).
In 1940 she took her two sons to their house in Cornwall, and rang her husband to say she would not be coming back. They divorced in the early 1940's. During the war she was recruited for the War Office, and was involved in reading decoded German ciphers. Once she noticed a build-up of German troops in Schleswig Holstein. "It looks as if they are going to invade Denmark," she said. Back came the response: "Oh Mary, what a lot of balls." The next day, Denmark was invaded.
In 1944 she met Eric Siepmann, a foreign correspondent for The Manchester Guardian. She was dining at the Ritz with another man when she was handed a note that read, "You can't stay with that old bore. Come dancing at the Ambassadors". Two days later she and Siepmann became lovers.
She lived with him for several years before they were married. Siepmann had already been married twice, and her relationship was not approved of by her family. It took several years to track down his second wife to get the divorce papers signed. Her parents refused to meet him, and cut out Mary from their wills. She and Siepmann finally married in 1952, and had a son. When Siepmann died of Parkinson's disease in 1970, Mary Wesley found herself broke with a teenager to support. She tried to make ends meet, working in an antique shop, teaching French (until the school discovered she was not qualified). Eventually, she was forced to sell her cottage on Dartmoor, moving to more modest premises.
During the late 1960's, she wrote two books, "Speaking Terms" and "The Sixth Seal," but it wasn't until she was in her seventies that her first major novel was published in 1983, "Jumping the Queue." Afterwards, she published "Camomile Lawn" (1984), which is about love and sex in the British upper middle class and was adapted for television, "Harnessing Peacocks" (1986), which is about a young unwed mother who turns to prostitution to pay for her son's education, and "The Vacillations of Peppy Carew" (1986). Wesley's other titles include "A Sensible Life" (1990), "A Dubious Legacy" (1993), "An Imaginative Experience" (1994) and "Part of the Furniture" (1997).
Mary Wesley novel of The Camomile Lawn and other of her novels were set in Cornwall. Camomile Lawn is about in the heat of the summer of 1939, five young cousins gathered together for their annual holiday in Cornwall with their aunt. It was to be their last summer of innocence, youth and freedom before the war closed around them. The atmosphere of war she evokes in The Camomile Lawn and Part of the Furniture comes from experience. "As the Germans advanced in Europe, the Belgium and Breton fishing fleets packed up their boats with everyone from grandmother to the village priest and sailed into Penzance. I remember them arriving at the quay and watching their funny-looking little dogs and cats running around the dock."
It was turned into a television drama starring Felicity Kendal and Jennifer Ehle in 1991.
Her last book, Part of the Scenery, published in 2001, was about her life and her memories of the area. She died at her home in Totnes, Devon, on Monday. Her funeral was at St Mary's Church in Totnes.
Wild Mary the biography of Mary Wesley
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