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.
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!”