#100WomenNovelists: Mary Wesley

Blog Post 33: The Camomile Lawn (1984)

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Helena Cuthbertson picked up the crumpled Times by her sleeping husband and went to the flower room to iron it.

The opening sentence to The Camomile Lawn says so much in so few words. We get a glimpse of Helena’s life. She has a husband, sleeping. She has a ‘flower room’. She likes to read the Times, pristine, so much so that she needs to iron it. We see her frustration with her husband from the outset, a frustration that is a recurrent theme throughout the novel, for most of the central characters.

I first came across The Camomile Lawn when it was dramatised for Channel 4 in 1992 with a wonderful cast of characters and much sauciness. I’d never seen anything like it; the war time experiences of young people on the Home Front, losing their innocence, grabbing life by the throat because there might not be a tomorrow. When I read the novel I realised how good the adaptation was. And when I became a fledging novelist in my thirties, I was delighted to discover that Mary Wesley wrote this book in her seventies.

Based on Wesley’s own wartime experiences, the novel opens with the various teenage cousins spending the summer of 1939 in Cornwall, at Aunt Helena’s house, like they do every year. But they understand this will be the last time for who knows how long. War looms over those rocky cliffs, casting shadows over the camomile lawn laid by Helena who was wrongly warned it would never flourish. It is still there, years later, when the cousins finally return in their late middle age to attend a funeral.

In 1939, ten-year-old Sophy lives with Helena and her Uncle Richard (the sleeping husband), having been born out of wedlock to Richard’s half-sister who subsequently and inconveniently died. Helena has no experience of children, having been widowed in the last war and finds the task of motherhood trying to say the least. And while Helena lost a husband and the possibility of her own family, Richard lost a limb in the trenches and can’t do the things he’d like to do because of ‘his leg’.

Added to this unusual mix of upper class relatives, is a Jewish musician and his wife, both German refugees. Max and Monica have left behind a son in a camp, with no idea of what will become of him. But they bring music and good housekeeping and sex and each member of the family will be changed by them.

Flitting between London and Cornwall, between the past and the present, Wesley weaves a tale of love and loss, of frustration and rejection, of hope and dreams. Her wit is cutting. Her rambling viewpoint brave and deft. You are left feeling breathless with longing for something that is gone, relieved that you never had to live through this time, knowing there will never be a generation like this again.

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