Published here for the first time, this remarkable cache of letters reveals the great love story of Mary Wesley's life.
‘They met by chance in the Palm Court of the Ritz Hotel on the evening of 26 October 1944. By the time she eventually caught the train back to Penzance two days later they had fallen in love and Eric had declared that he was determined to marry her…’
Before her death in 2002, Mary Wesley told her biographer Patrick Marnham: ‘after I met Eric I never looked at anyone else again. We lived our ups and downs but life was never boring.’ Eric Siepmann was her second husband and their correspondence – lively, intimate, passionate, frustrated – charted their life together (and apart) with unusual candour and spirit.
Marnham suggests that through these letters Mary, who famously blossomed as a novelist in her seventies, a decade after Eric's death, found her voice. Bequeathed to Marnham in two size-5 shoeboxes, this is one of the great surviving post-war correspondences.
‘With you I can become the person I really am – and bearing the grave in mind be buried as such. Dear love consider yourself kissed’
Mary, 30 October 1944
‘I find you brave and amusing, understanding and beautiful, simple and sophisticated, and I love you. More than that, I mean to get you’
Eric, 5 December 1944
Oliver is just back from the Spanish Civil War and world-weary at only nineteen. Calypso is gorgeous, utterly selfish and determined to marry for money. Polly and Walter, brother and sister, play their cards close to their chests. Then there's little Sophie, who nobody loves. Soon the world will be swept into war again and the five cousins will enter a whirligig of sex, infidelity, love and loss, but for now they have one last, gaspingly hot summer at the house by the cliffs with the camomile lawn.
A beloved bestseller from an author ahead of her time, The Camomile Lawn is a waspishly witty, devil-may-care delight.
Seventeen-year-old Juno Marlowe has just waved off to war the two young men she has loved for the best part of her life when the air raid sirens begin to wail out across London. She is rescued from this nightmare by a gaunt stranger called Evelyn, frail and older than his years, who offers her the protection of his house and his family before dying suddenly in the night.
Determined to avoid being sent to Canada to join her mother and new step-father, and still grieving for her lost lovers, Juno instead finds herself on a train to Cornwall in search of Evelyn's family. There she discovers the blossoming of an English spring into which the war only occasionally intrudes and finds at last a peace for herlself and a world in which she is more than simply part of the furniture.
Laura Thornby is independent, individual and perfectly in control of her life. Her affairs are brief but delightful, her career fulfilling and she copes with her two rather peculiar relatives and the gossip about her parentage with wryness and humour.
But then she meets twenty-three-year old Claude, a struggling writer, and she is overcome by an irresistible desire to interfere, manipulate and experiment - all for his own good, of course.
What Laura does not foresee, however, are the possibilities that one day Claude may actually complete his novel and that she may well fall in love.
Henry Tillotson, a generous, genial man who inherited his father's philanthropic attitude along with his beautiful house, rescues Margaret from a disastrous marriage in Egypt and brings her home to the West Country as his new wife. On the threshold she gives him a black eye and retires straight to bed where she remains, apart from the occasional malevolent outburst, for the rest of her life.
Over the years two young couples become regular if uneasy houseguests, listening, speculating, keeping a watchful eye on Margaret's door until finally, piecing together the gossip, the rumours, the mystery, they find themselves and their children thoroughly tangled in the web of Henry's life...
Poppy Carew has just been dumped by her unscrupulous boyfriend, Edmund, when her beloved and eccentric father dies, leaving Poppy one last request - that she ensure he is buried in style by a 'fun' undertaker - and one large fortune.
Carrying out his wishes, Poppy finds not only a fun funeral parlour, and an equally fun wake peopled with very generous old ladies who all seem to know her father very well, but also several eligible young men, all of whom are keen to get to know the new heiress. And when Edmund remembers the charms that he quickly forgot in the arms of his new lover, Venetia, there are suddenly too many choices for Poppy Carew...
A train screeches to a halt in the middle of the English countryside and, observed by her fascinated fellow travellers, a woman climbs down and rushes to the aid of a sheep, stranded on its back and unable to rise. Sylvester Weekes watches with interest and noticing, as she turns, that her face is full of tragedy, the woman's lonely image lodges in his mind. But he is not the only one to speculate over her actions - Maurice Benson, former private detective turned full-time birdwatcher, is convinced that the mysterious woman must be tracked down, in whatever way possible.
This is a story rich in character and wit, and powerfully moving in its exploration of the heart's pain and deliverance. It is a tale of loss, of release, of an acceptance of the cruelties of fate and of the imaginative experience of love.
Hebe sits in the darkness and listens to her hypocritical grandparents and her older siblings discuss how her unexpected pregnancy must be terminated to avoid the shame it will bring. Determined to raise her child, she flees into the night with only her mother's jewellery to support her.
Twelve years later she is living happily alone in Cornwall, whilst her son attends an expensive private school. Hebe has harnessed her two great talents - cooking and making love - to make a living for herself, but when the separate strands of her life become intangled the even tenor of her days is threatened, and her world changes forever.
When, on the night of their wedding, Ned asks his new wife Rose to promise that she will never leave him, Rose is quick to give her aristocratic husband her word: keeping it, however, proves harder.
For even on the day when she has promised to forsake all others, Rose's heart is with the true love of her life, Mylo, the penniless but passionate Frenchman who, within five minutes of their meeting declared his love and asked her to marry him.
Whilst Rose remains true to her promise never to leave Ned, not even the war, social conventions, nor the prying of her overly inquisitive and cheerfully immoral neighbours, can stop her and Mylo from meeting and loving one another.
Matilda Poliport, recently widowed and largely estranged from her four adult children, has decided to End It All. She has cleaned her cottage, given away her beloved pet goose and burnt any incriminating letters. Now all that remains for her to do is eat her picnic, take her pills and swim out into the ocean. But her meticulously planned bid for graceful oblivion is interrupted when she foils the suicide bid of another lost soul - Hugh Warner, on the run from the police - and life begins again for them both.
Life, however, is never that simple and awkward questions demand answers. What, for example, was Matilda's husband Tom doing in Paris? Why does Matilda's next door neighbour see UFOs in the skies of Cornwall? And why did Hugh kill his mother?
Flora Trevelyan is a ten-year-old misfit, despised by her selfish and indolent parents, and left to wander the streets of a small French town whilst her parents prepare to depart for life in colonial India. There she befriends the locals, acquires an extensive vocabulary of French foul language and encounters the privileged lifestyle of the elegant, middle-class British families holidaying in 1920s France.
Introduced for the first time to kindly, civilised and, above all, caring people Flora falls helplessly and hopelessly in love with not one but three young men.
Over the next forty years Flora will grow from an awkward schoolgirl into a stunning beauty and explore, consummate and finally resolve each of these affairs.
Mary Wesley (Author)
Mary Wesley was born near Windsor in 1912. Her education took her to the London School of Economics and during the War she worked in the War Office. She also worked part-time in the antiques trade. Mary Wesley lived in London, France, Italy, Germany and several places in the West Country. She used to comment that her 'chief claim to fame is arrested development, getting my first novel published at the age of seventy'. That first novel, Jumping the Queue, was followed by a subsequent nine bestsellers: The Camomile Lawn, Second Fiddle, Harnessing Peacocks, The Vacillations of Poppy Carew, Not That Sort of Girl, A Sensible Life, A Dubious Legacy, An Imaginative Experience and Part of the Furniture. Mary Wesley was awarded the CBE in the 1995 New Year's honour list and died in 2002.
Patrick Marnham (Edited by)
Patrick Marnham was born in Jerusalem, educated at Oxford and is a member of the English Bar. He is the author of several books, including the bestselling Wild Mary, has been translated into seven languages and has won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Prize, the Marsh Biography Award, and been nominated for the Edgar Allen Poe Award. He has been literary editor of The Spectator, was the first Paris correspondent of the Independent, and has worked as a BBC scriptwriter and broadcaster and as a special correspondent and war reporter.