#100WomenNovelists: Mary Wesley

Blog Post 33: The Camomile Lawn (1984)


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.


#100WomenNovelists: Elizabeth Taylor

Blog Post 32: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971, Virago Modern Classics)


Mrs Palfrey first came to the Claremont Hotel on a Sunday afternoon in January. Rain had closed in over London, and her taxi sloshed along the almost deserted Cromwell Road, past one cavernous porch after another, the driver going slowly and poking his head out into the wet, for the hotel was not known to him. This discovery, that he did not know, had a little disconcerted Mrs Palfrey, for she did not know it either, and began to wonder what she was coming to.

Elizabeth Taylor wrote twelve novels, four volumes of short stories and a children’s book and for a long time was largely forgotten, like Barbara Pym (see Blog Post 21). Like Pym, Taylor wrote about the smallness and ordinariness of the middle-class and upper middle-class with wit and pathos and such attention to detail.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is an exquisite tragicomic novel about old age, in particular the old age of the widow. Set in a jaded, genteel hotel, in postwar London, a recently widowed Mrs Palfrey and her fellow residents are cut off from the changing society of the 60s. They are waiting out their remaining years in this dull hotel, praying for some distant relative to take them out for a drive or for a meal at a restaurant to give them some variety, some relief from the dull routine of their daily lives.

Then one day, on her return from the library, Mrs Palfrey trips and falls. A young man, Ludo, comes to her rescue and helps her inside to his basement flat to clean her cuts and give her a cup of tea. After this chance meeting they become unlikely friends and partners in subterfuge. Mrs Palfrey now has her very own visitor.

Taylor captures the nuances of hotel life. The whisky-drinking Mrs Burton, the constant-knitter, Mrs Post, the irate Mr Osmond. Time passes slowly. Days melt into days. Weeks into weeks. How Mrs Palfrey longs for the sight of lilac blossoms in the square.

It was hard work being old. It was like being a baby, in reverse. Every day for an infant means some new little thing learned; everyday for the old means some little thing lost. Names slip away, dates mean nothing, sequences become muddled, and faces blurred. Both infancy and age are tiring times.

Touching, funny, wonderful.


#100WomenNovelists: Elizabeth Jenkins

Blog Post 31: The Tortoise and the Hare (1954)

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The sunlight of late September filled the pale, formal streets between Portland Place and Manchester Square… Imogen Gresham held a mug in her bare hands; it was a pure sky blue, decorated with a  pattern of raised wheat ears… Her eye absorbed the colour and her fingers the moulding of the wheat. Her husband however saw that there was a chip at the base of the mug, from which the cracks meandered up the inside like rivers on a map.

What a delight to discover Elizabeth Jenkins and to realise how many books she wrote, both biographies and novels. I came across her during my research for my work-in-progress set in the Second World War on the home front. This is the first I have read of her and I am sure I will devour the rest of her books if this is anything to go by.

Jenkins is put into the group of women novelists who wrote in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Her sense of dislocation is compared to her close friend, Elizabeth Bowen’s. Her dry wit is akin to that of Barbara Pym. But, in the introduction to the Virago edition of 2008, Hilary Mantel compares her to Jane Austen – ‘formal, nuanced, acid’.

This is a novel of great subtlety, subtext, and atmosphere. Over the course of the narrative there is an almost unbearable build up of tension. A tension that kept me gripped all the way through to its surprising yet satisfying conclusion.

At its heart, this is a story about marriage. Set not long after the war, the characters are trying to return to a normal, settled life, split between London and Berkshire. But this upper middle-class existence is now on shaky ground and it is very hard for Imogen to know and keep her place at the centre of her older, handsome, QC husband’s attentions. Imogen does her best to placate Evelyn, to bend to his will, to keep him happy, as we see from the opening paragraph where they look at a piece of pottery in an antique shop. While Imogen is struck by the simple beauty of the piece,  Evelyn cannot see past its imperfections. And so they do not buy it.

As the novel progresses, we feel great empathy for Imogen, especially from a 21st century perspective. Her husband is overbearing and her son imitates his father so that she is isolated in her own home. And then there is Blanche Silcox, a middle-aged, frousty, horsey neighbour who has Evelyn in her clutches. Imogen, who only has her looks and femininity to rely on, can do nothing to compete with the competent, countrified, monied Blanche. But the novel is so much more than this. The psychological depth is extraordinary. The characters brilliantly drawn. Each sentence exquisite. Thank goodness there are so many more books to read by this remarkable writer.

#100WomenNovelists: Jan Struther

Blog Post 30: Mrs Miniver (1939)


It was lovely, thought Mrs Miniver, nodding good-bye to the flower-woman and carrying her big sheaf of chrysanthemums down the street with a kind of ceremonious joy, as though it were a cornucopia; it was lovely, this settling down again, this tidying away of the summer into its box, this taking up of the thread of one’s life where the holidays (irrelevant interlude) had made one drop it.

Mrs Miniver doesn’t have a plot as such being more a collection of episodic events. But Mrs Miniver is a fictional character, based loosely on Jan Struther, and so I have classified this as a novel for the purposes of the blog.

Mrs Miniver started life as a column in The Times. Jan Struther was asked to write about ‘an ordinary sort of woman who leads an ordinary sort of life – rather like yourself’. It was very popular and was published in book form in 1939, just after the outbreak of war. In fact, Churchill said that Mrs Miniver did more for the Allied cause than a fleet of battleships and destroyers.

Mrs Miniver is a housewife, married to an architect and mother to three. The family lives in Chelsea, has servants, and the eldest child goes to Eton. But this upper middle-class existence celebrates the ordinary, everyday events of life – from a spring day to the purchasing of a new diary – that most people will be able to relate to. She certainly isn’t a snob. She knows she lives a charmed life. But there is something about her zestful, joyful nature that means we don’t begrudge her this existence.

It oughtn’t to need a war to make us talk to each other in buses, and invent our own amusements in the evenings, and live simply, and eat sparingly, and recover the use of our legs, and get up early enough to see the sun rise. However, it has needed one: which is about the severest criticism our civilisation could have.

Mrs Miniver was made into an academy award-winning film of the same name starring Greer Garson. It was released in June 1942 , one of the first Hollywood films to be overtly anti-Nazi (‘We will come. We will bomb your cities.’). Soon after, the Americans strengthened their war efforts. And even Goebbels was said to admire this piece of propaganda.

Next I think I will watch the film which has quite a different tone. But I’m glad to have read Mrs Miniver first.


#100WomenNovelists: Jane Gardam

Blog Post 29: The Queen of the Tambourine (1991)

7 February
Dear Joan
I do hope I know you well enough to say this.
I think you ought to try to forget about your leg. I believe that it is something psychological, psychosomatic, and it is very hard on Charles. It is bringing him and you into ridicule and spoiling your lives.
Do make a big try. Won’t you? Forget about your bodily aches and pains. Life is a wonderful thing, Joan. I have discovered this great fact in my work with the Dying.
Your sincere friend,
Eliza (Peabody)

Meet Eliza Peabody, neighbourhood nosy parker, unhelpful do-gooder and narrator of ‘The Queen of the Tambourine’, an epistolary novel in the form of Eliza’s short, bossy directive that gradually evolve into long, rambling, confessional letters, all addressed to Joan, a neighbour who has done an overseas’ flit.

Eliza is an unreliable narrator, with virtually no self-awareness. At first we very much think we know who Eliza is: a bored, middle-aged, childless wife of a retired foreign diplomat. But Gardam wrong-foots us. Instead we gradually discover that Eliza is frustrated, never having been able to live out her potential – the time spent up at Oxford, the gap of children, the distancing of her husband’s career.

Both the narrative device and the voice of Eliza allow the reader to have empathy for a main character who is embarrassingly meddlesome and overbearingly bossy. In the spaces where Eliza’s life happens, we realise that there is huge loss. To compensate for this, she searches for comfort in charity work at which she appears to be quite hopeless, finally volunteering at a hospice, washing up and befriending a young man called Barry who we presume is dying from HIV/AIDS. He is the only one to truly see her as ‘Eliza’.

If you like a novel where you have to work a little to fill in the pieces, then you must read this. You will be surprised at every turn. Go with Eliza on her epic journey. You’ll barely leave her south London home but you’ll hit rock bottom with her before resurfacing to a new life.

But there’s time yet. The old women of the tribe have almost always been the wiser. If they keep their marbles long enough. Old men forget – or tend to reminisce, and reminisce falsely and sententiously as a rule. We are often very silly in our middle years but we tend to improve.

Being in my middle years and often very silly, I do hope that’s the case.

#100WomenNovelists: Nora Ephron

Blog Post 28: Heartburn (1983)

The first day I did not think it was funny. I didn’t think it was funny the third day either, but I managed to make a little joke about it.

The blurb on the back of my Virago Modern Classics edition says this: ‘Seven months into her pregnancy, Rachel discovers that her husband is in love with another woman. The fact that the other woman has ‘a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb’ is no consolation. Food sometimes is, though, since Rachel is a cookery writer, and between trying to win Mark back and wishing him dead, she offers us some of her favourite recipes. Heartburn is a roller coaster of love, betrayal, loss and – most satisfyingly – revenge.’

This is another of those novels, based on the writer’s own experiences, that can be devoured in one sitting, not just because it is short, but because the voice carries you along with such verve, energy, angst, and honesty. Ephron said of Heartburn: ‘It’s been nearly 25 years since my second marriage ended, and 22 since I finished writing Heartburn, which is often referred to as a thinly disguised novel. I have no real quarrel with this description, even though I’ve noticed, over the years, that the words “thinly disguised” are applied mostly to books written by women. Let’s face it, Philip Roth and John Updike picked away at the carcasses of their early marriages in book after book, but to the best of my knowledge they were never hit with the “thinly disguised” thing.’

The main characters are based on real people, famous people, which you can Google if you need to (it makes for interesting reading) but that’s not the important thing here. The important thing is the writing that allowed Ephron to take control of her life, rather than being a victim. Not only was she a journalist, a cookery writer, and a novelist, but she was also a very successful screen writer with films such as ‘When Harry Met Sally’ and ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ to her name. At the end of this novel, she writes, ‘Of course, I’m writing this later, much later, and it worries me that I’ve done what I usually do—hidden the anger, covered the pain, pretended it wasn’t there for the sake of the story. . . Because if I tell the story, I control the version. Because if I tell the story I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me. . . Because if I tell the story I can get on with it.’

Also, she remembers her mother’s wise words: Everything is copy.

#100WomenNovelists: Edith Wharton

Blog Post 27: Summer (1917).               

A girl came out of lawyer Royall’s house, at the end of the one street of North Dormer, and stood on the doorstep.

This is the earliest novel I’ve read in this series of #100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century, written during the First World War in the USA. 

‘Summer’ is probably better classed as a novella. It covers a few months in the life of nineteen year old Charity Royall, from June to October. As a young girl she was adopted by Mr and Mrs Royall, taken from the poverty of the Mountain and brought up in provincial, conservative North Dormer in New England. 

Charity’s adopted mother died a few years previously and she has a difficult relationship with Mr Royall. ‘Summer’ is all about the metaphor of the seasons.  Charity awakens in June and by August she has embarked on an affair with an architecture student. By the time autumn comes, the passion has dwindled. And Charity is left with a problem she must solve on her own. 

Charity knows she is different to the other young girls in the town. She yearns to escape but the option to go back to the Mountain is no better than if she could save the money to go to New York. So she is trapped with Mr Royall and the threat of a near-incestuous relationship.  

Wharton describes the changing landscape in a way that reflects Charity’s state of mind. It’s vivid and sensual. It also feels quite daring, describing a young woman’s passion at such a time, albeit with allusion and subtext. 

What struck me most was the sense of threat that hovers over every page, like the tension before the storm. Wonderful. 

#100WomenNovelists: Sue Townsend

Blog Post 26: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 (1982)

Thursday January 1st

These are my New Year’s resolutions:

1. I will help the blind across the road.
2. I will hang my trousers up.
3. I will put the sleeves back on my records.
4. I will not start smoking.
5. I will stop squeezing my spots.
6. I will be kind to the dog.
7. I will help the poor and ignorant.
8. After hearing the disgusting noises from downstairs last night, I have also vowed never to drink alcohol.

Adrian Mole is one of the greatest ever comic creations. Quintessentially British with all the quirks, worries, frustrations, conformity, good intentions, disillusionments, and misinterpretations that come with it. And he is a teenager, on the cusp of growing up, dealing with his parents whose marriage is falling apart, his first love, comprehensive school, an uncooperative body, and a certain amount of existential angst.

It is fitting that Sue Townsend should be included in my list of #100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century. She was a rare gift, a writer who truly knew what it was to be human. She wrote with wit and empathy and always with a thread of poignancy and tenderness. Adrian Mole was her greatest creation. Like Pooter before him, and Bridget Jones after him, he is the fool who shines a light on the truth of the human condition. Often unreliable in his narration, we the reader can see the bigger picture that he unwittingly shows us.

Wednesday January 21st
Mr and Mrs Lucas are getting a divorce! They are the first down our road. My mother went next door to comfort Mr Lucas. He must have been very upset because she was still there when my father came home from work. Mrs Lucas has gone somewhere in a taxi. I think she has left for ever because she has taken her socket set with her. Poor Mr Lucas, now he will have to do his own washing and stuff.

Adrian Mole would now be 50. I have known him a long time. I have grown up with him. We were first introduced when I was 12 and he was 13 and I immediately found someone who I could laugh at and with. He is so recognisable and yet so unique, accompanying us through our own times, living through Thatcherism and Blairism, boil-in-the-bag cod and tinned peaches with Dream-topping. If you want social history, any history, read Adrian’s diary. And such a loss to our literary world that Sue Townsend died at 68, because Adrian is no longer able to grow old, except in our imaginations. Apparently Sue Townsend was about to write the next diary to be called ‘Pandora’s Box’. We shall never know whether Adrian finally wins back the love of his life.

David Nicholls, the same age as the diarist, wrote a piece for the Guardian earlier this year. He sums up my feelings.

‘The anxiety about acne and nuclear war, the perpetual sense of injustice, the anguish of the unrecognised intellectual, the reverence for the BBC and reliance on the public library in the endless quest for self-improvement, it was all here, and made blissfully funny in a sustained, near flawless piece of comic ventriloquism…Adrian was entirely average; a middle-achieving Everyboy from the Midlands, not as posh as Pandora or Nigel, posher than the terrifying Barry Kent, unremarkable, invisible, with everything happening below the surface like, well, a mole. The Secret Diary was smartly written, stuffed full of in-jokes and references to Orwell and Flaubert and Simone de Beauvoir, but it made sense to people who weren’t quite sure what a campus looked like, and there was also a compassion so much other comedy seemed to lack. Often touching, sometimes angry, never sentimental but always sympathetic, and with an extraordinarily high joke-per-page ratio, no wonder its appeal was so immense. Boys and girls read Adrian Mole, adults and teenagers, all of us wondering the same thing: “How does Sue Townsend know?”

How did she know?

#100WomenNovelists: Clare Chambers

Blog Post 25: Back Trouble (1994)


I felt so groggy when I woke up that I decided to leave the hearse at Tim’s and walk home. I had been celebrating New Year’s Eve there with my brother Raymond who was over from Canada.

Clare Chambers is one of my favourite contemporary writers. when I first read one of her novels, ‘The Editor’s Wife’, I felt that finally I was reading the type of book I was trying to write. I soon devoured all of her novels. I recognised my experiences in the lives of her characters. The same childhood, the same teenage years, the same slightly dysfunctional families with Baby Boomer parents and Generation X kids. The aunties and uncles, the boring sunday afternoons, the humiliations of growing up. Heartbreak and loss and yet the possibility of new beginnings and a brighter future.

‘Back Trouble’ is a classic of Clare Chambers, with her usual narrative technique of the present sandwiching the past in a dual time frame. Her male narrator, Philip, is completely convincing as a man about to turn forty, forced to face up to his mediocre life when he slips on a chip and ends up bedbound for three months. During this time, he writes his life story and in so doing turns up some surprises and secrets which make him realise what is important and precious to him.

It’s such an accessible read, with deft humour and poignancy, like all of Clare Chambers’ novels. The characters are irrepressibly flawed but you completely want the best for them. I can’t understand why her novels aren’t more widely read and why they haven’t been turned into TV dramas or films. They encapsulate a class of suburban family that so many readers would empathise with – the extraordinariness of small, quiet lives.

Mum seemed to know only seven recipes, and they appeared inexorably on their designated day week after week, year after year. In fact it was impossible to forget what day it was in our house because we were always surrounded by indicators as inflexible as any calendar of our precise position in the routine’s pitiless cycle: what one was wearing, which relatives were visiting, whether or not one had recently had a bath, what was cooking on the stove or left over in the fridge. Habit was a sort of religion with my parents and there was no escaping its rigours. In fact the only way to avoid Saturday’s hotpot was to drown in Friday’s bath.

If you were born in Britain in the sixties into a lower class suburban family with some aspirations, you will identify with these novels. You will understand the petty squabbles between siblings, the harsh injustices of the school caste system, the chasm between adults and children and the frightening and confusing bridge of adolescence.

I should also add that Chambers uses the best verbs and imagery, and brilliant subtext. When Philips’s dad takes up DIY , he is somewhat slapdash, reflecting his approach to marriage, fatherhood and life itself.

…instead of stripping paintwork, or even washing it, he would set straight to work, brushing gloss over old gloss, dust, mould and even, in one instance, a dead spider which lay preserved like a Pompeian relic in its shell of green paint.

Every time I read one of these fabulous novels, I feel both comfortably and uncomfortably at home.


#100WomenNovelists: Agatha Christie

Blog Post 24: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962)


Miss Jane Marple was sitting by her window. The window looked over her garden, once a source of pride to her. That was no longer so. Nowadays she looked out of the window and winced. Active gardening had been forbidden her for some time now.

Agatha Christie, author of 66 novels, hundreds of short stories and many plays, is outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. I read all of Christie’s crime novels as a child and teenager. My grandfather had the whole collection and I’d read one every time we went to stay at my grandparents’ house. After Grandpa died, he left me the books and I still have them all. They are classic whodunnits and after reading maybe half of them, I worked out the formula. And there is a formula. Which I won’t tell you. But this novel, along with ‘Death on the Nile’ and ‘Then There Were None’, is perhaps a bit different.

‘The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side’ is one of Agatha Christie’s later novels, written at a time when society was on the brink of great change in the early 60s. Miss Jane Marple, the spinster detective, is getting on in years and is largely housebound. Her nephew has employed a bossy Miss Knight to look after her and she is not happy about this. Miss Knight treats her like a child and gets on her nerves. Miss Marple has to send her on pointless errands just to get some peace and quiet. Her doctor recommends that she find a juicy murder to solve. And this is exactly what happens.

Miss Marple lives in a quintessential English village, St Mary Mead, but this too is changing with the building of the ‘Development’, a housing estate of semis bought and lived in by the upwardly mobile working class. Miss Marple is intrigued by the new people and goes exploring. After she has a fall on the pavement, she is taken into a house by one of the residents, Heather Badcock. Heather tells her about the film star, Marina Gregg, and her director husband who have moved into Gossington Hall, former home of Dolly Bantry and her late husband, Colonel Bantry (and the setting for the famous ‘body in the library’).

She never did mean harm, but there is no doubt that people like Heather Badcock are capable of doing a lot of harm because they lack – not kindness, they have kindness – but any real consideration for the way their actions may affect other people. She thought always of what an action meant to her, never sparing a thought to what it might mean to somebody else.

Marina Gregg, the film star, hosts a charity event in the gardens of her new home and receives selected guests into the Hall to meet her. This is when the murder of Heather Badcock takes place. In the film adaptation, Marina is played appropriately by Elizabeth Taylor. In fact, the plot of ‘The Mirror Crack’d’ was inspired by the real-life story of Hollywood actress Gene Tierney but I can’t say what that story was as it would be a massive spoiler.


She had a great power of love and hate but no stability. That’s what’s so sad for anyone, to be born with no stability.

Miss Marple is an entirely different detective to Poirot who uses logic in order to solve murders. She is more interested in and driven by human nature. As an unmarried woman of a certain age, she is used to being an observer. Village life has given her the opportunity to see the world in a microcosm. And now there is another murder in St Mary Mead, who else could possibly work out whodunnit other than Miss Marple?

Out flew the web and floated wide-

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

“The curse is come upon me,”

cried The Lady of Shalott.

N.B. Interesting fact: Agatha Christie was a shopgirl at a chemist’s in Torquay where she learnt all about poisons. The sweet shop where I used to live and the setting for The Generation Game is directly opposite where the chemist’s used to be.