A Dubious Legacy: Mary Wesley

As readers we get ‘impressions’ of writers and books–sometimes this comes from browsing or reading reviews, and sometimes vague impressions are created just from looking at covers. Occasionally, those impressions are challenged and then, for one reason or another, readers take the plunge and try a novel written by an author we’ve bypassed for years. And that brings me to Mary Wesley … an author I decided was too romancey, too ‘nice,’ too upper-crusty for me, and I’m happy to say that after reading A Dubious Legacy I was wrong about Mary Wesley.

A dubious legacy

The novel, which spans almost 50 years, opens during WWII with Henry Tillotson bringing his new bride, Margaret, back to his country estate, Cotteshaw.  We don’t know anything about their courtship, but we can tell almost immediately that this marriage is a horrible mistake. Henry picks up his bride from the station with a horse and trap. She hates horses, and with no small display of umbrage, bad temper, and yes, pure bitchiness, takes the taxi.

Shortly, Henry returns to the war and Margaret, who is perfectly healthy, takes to her bed. Choosing invalidism out of spite, she refuses, except on rare disastrous occasions, to leave the bedroom.

Margaret’s talent is finding the weak spot and inserting the stiletto. 

Fast forward to the 50s and Henry invites two young men, James and Matthew to a country weekend along with the girls they intend to propose to: Barbara and Antonia. Both matches have an element of convenience. The young women want to escape dreary homes and enjoy material comfort, and for their part, James and Matthew have their own secrets.

A large part of the novel involves a dinner party Henry arranges and its disastrous outcome. The rest of the novel is the fallout from that event.

I liked A Dubious Legacy but didn’t love it.  The beginning, with the ‘two Jonathans’ was a little rough, but the novel smoothed out after that. At one point I thought I’d enjoy this as much, let’s say, as the novels of Margaret Forster, but while the lives of the characters are interesting, there’s really no deeper message here except perhaps the way one horrible person, with their nastiness, can hold others hostage.

I liked the nastiness/ pettiness of some the characters and the way Wesley isn’t afraid to show the dark thoughts of Henry, the titular hero. I still can’t decide if Margaret, who tells the most terrible lies about Henry (he’s impotent, he tried to rape her, he has sex with the horses), was mad or malicious (after the incident with the Cockatoo, I lean towards the former). I was a bit annoyed by everyone’s attempts to get Margaret OUT of her bedroom, as historically it’s proven that bad things happen when she mingles. Frankly they would have been better off leaving her in her “brothel” designed bedroom. Perhaps the sensible thing to do would have been to lock the door and throw away the key.

Finally, the novel’s light humour really adds to what could have been a depressing scenario. At one point, Henry contemplates divorce and seeks legal advice:

Counsel, when consulted, had suggested  that since adultery and desertion were in the eyes of the law the only cause for divorce, he should sue his wife for the restitution of conjugal rights. “That will get things moving.”

Appalled by the suggestion, he had exclaimed, “That’s the last thing I want!”

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14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Wesley Mary

14 responses to “A Dubious Legacy: Mary Wesley

  1. I avoided this author too despite the fact that the Camomile Lawn was almost required reading many years ago. Still not sure she is for me but would be equally prepared to have my prejudices challenged

  2. Like you, I’ve always had the impression that this author was quite cuddly and romancey, although I’m quite not sure how I first arrived at that view. Some of the elements you describe remind me of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View, a book I’m reading right now.

  3. Oh, I loved watching The Camomile Lawn and I read all her novels after that and liked them too.
    And I like the idea that she was 70 when she started writing. I think, hey, maybe it’s not too late for me, if I keep on reviewing I’ll know all the pitfalls to avoid and then when I’m 70 I will be ready to write The Great Australian Novel, eh?

    • Do you have favourites?

      • I can’t say that I do, because it’s so long since I read them… it must have been in the early 90s by the date inside one of books I still have. (Second Fiddle, Jumping the Queue, Harnessing the Peacocks and A Sensible Life. I don’t know what’s happened to my copy of The Camomile Lawn. *resentful frown* Must have lent it to someone who never gave it back.)
        But what I remember is a general sense of her spiky humour, her capacity to evoke an era and a class, and her intelligent feminism. Having read in the 1970s and 80s all those angry feminist books by Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir and Marilyn French et all, I was rapt at that time to discover elegantly witty feminist fiction by the likes of Fay Weldon, Margaret Drabble, and Nina Bawden. Wesley was one of my favourites then too:)

  4. I didn’t think she was romancey. I haven’t read her yet but gave always been intrigued. I think she came to writing very late And led quite an interesting life. I’ve got a biography somewhere. That said, this might not be my first choice of her novels.

  5. This is a new-to-me writer, so I don’t have any preconceived idea about her. This cover is terrible though and it would put me off.
    Are the characters well-balanced? This Margaret seems over the top.

    • She holds everyone in thrall but sometimes, people misguidedly think they can ‘help’ her. I MO the characters are well balance but I think Margaret is crazy.

  6. My impression is that a lot of female authors have their work made to look cuddly when it’s anything but. This book though sounds inessential. Margaret sounds a bit too mad – it might be more interesting if she were slightly more comprehensible.

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