Mary Wesley

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Mary Wesley, CBE (24 June 1912 – 30 December 2002) was an English novelist. During her career, she was one of Britain's most successful novelists, selling three million copies of her books, including 10 bestsellers in the last 20 years of her life.


Mary Aline Mynors Farmar was born in Englefield Green, Surrey, the third child of Colonel Harold Mynors Farmer and his wife Violet née Dalby. As a child, she had 16 governesses. When she asked her mother why they kept on leaving, her mother reportedly told her: "Because none of them like you, darling."

She had three sons. Her first husband was Carol Swinfen Eady (the 2nd Baron Swinfen) with whom she had a son Roger Mynors Swinfen Eady, 3rd Baron Swinfen. She had an affair with the Czech war hero Heinz Otto Ziegler, with whom she had Toby Eady,[1] who became the literary agent of her biographer Patrick Marnham. She then had a son, William Siepmann, with her second husband, Eric Siepmann. Wesley became an author late in life, after Siepmann's death in 1970 left her nearly impoverished.[2]

Wesley had a lifelong complicated relationship with her family and especially with her mother, who had a sharp tongue. Following the death of her father in 1961, her mother said: "I'm not going to let that lingering death happen to me. When the time comes I'm going to crawl to the Solent and swim out." Wesley replied with feeling: "I'll help you".[3]

Her family did not approve of her books. Her brother called what she wrote "filth" and her sister, with whom she was no longer on speaking terms, strongly objected to The Camomile Lawn, claiming that some of the characters were based on their parents. Wesley identified the appalling grandparents in Harnessing Peacocks, who bully the pregnant Hebe, as the nearest she came to a portrait of her own parents in old age.[4]


She wrote three children's books, Speaking Terms and The Sixth Seal (both 1969) and Haphazard House (1983), before publishing adult fiction. Since her first adult novel was published only in 1983, when she was 71, she may be regarded as a late bloomer. The publication of Jumping the Queue in 1983 was the beginning of an intensely creative period of Wesley's life. From 1982 to 1991, she wrote and delivered seven novels. While she aged from 70 to 79 she still showed the focus and drive of a young person.

Her best-known book, The Camomile Lawn, set on the Roseland Peninsula in Cornwall, was turned into a television series, and is an account of the intertwining lives of three families in rural England during World War II. After The Camomile Lawn (1984) came Harnessing Peacocks (1985 and as a TV film in 1992), The Vacillations of Poppy Carew (1986 and filmed in 1995), Not That Sort of Girl (1987), Second Fiddle (1988), A Sensible Life (1990), A Dubious Legacy (1992), An Imaginative Experience (1994) and Part of the Furniture (1997). A book about the West Country with photographer Kim Sayer, Part of the Scenery, was published in 2001. Asked why she had stopped writing fiction at the age of 84, she replied: "If you haven't got anything to say, don't say it."[5]

Writing style and themes

Her take on life reveals a sharp and critical eye which neatly dissects the idiosyncrasies of genteel England with humour, compassion and irony, detailing in particular sexual and emotional values. Her style has been described as "arsenic without the old lace". Others have described it as "Jane Austen plus sex", a description Wesley herself thought ridiculous.[6] As a woman who was liberated before her time Mary Wesley challenged social assumptions about the old, confessed to bad behaviour and recommended sex. In doing so she smashed the stereotype of the disapproving, judgmental, past-it, old person. This delighted the old and intrigued the young.[7]

In Wesley's books there are some references to her own life, although she denied that her novels were autobiographical. Her books usually take place in or around the everlasting house, the idyllic refuge, recalling her time with Siepmann, living in a remote cottage in the West Country. Other recurring themes such as the dysfunctional family, the uncertain paternity, the affirmation of illegitimacy, can also be linked to her own life. In addition, thanks to her flighty youth, sex would become her trademark in her books though she wrote about what went on in the head rather than a user's manual. Incest also plays a part in several of her novels, but Wesley never mentioned this as a feature of her own life. She may however have gained her insight from her years working as a Samaritan.[8]

Final years

Only in the last year of her life did she agree to have her biography written. She cooperated fully with Patrick Marnham, on the condition that nothing would be published before her death. She provided her reminiscences from her sick bed, and commented: "Have you any idea of the pleasure of lying in bed for six months, talking about yourself to a very intelligent man? My deepest regret was that I was too old and ill to take him into bed with me." The authorised biography (published in 2006) is entitled Wild Mary, a reference both to her childhood nickname and to her sex life as a young woman, when she had many lovers. The biography holds nothing back. As Wesley stated: "It was a flighty generation.... [W]e had been brought up so repressed. War freed us. We felt if we didn't do it now, we might never get another chance."[9] "It got to the state where one woke up in the morning, reached across the pillow and thought, 'Let's see. Who is it this time?'" [10]

But Wesley finally did get tired of her wartime lifestyle, realizing that her way of life had become too excessive: "too many lovers, too much to drink...I was on my way to become a very nasty person".[11] When her son Toby Eady read the book, he was so amazed at how much he did not know about his mother that he did not speak to anyone for a week.[12]

Late in life Wesley ordered her own coffin from a local craftswoman and asked it be finished in red Chinese lacquer. She kept it as a coffee table for some time in her sitting room. She suggested that she be photographed sitting up in it for a feature in the magazine Country Living, but the idea was politely declined.[13]

She was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1995. Due to her association with the town Howard was chosen in 2007 to appear on the 1 Totnes pound note.[14]


Wesley died from gout and a blood disorder on 30 December 2002, aged 90, at her home in Totnes, Devon.

List of works

Novels for Children

Novels for Adults


Suggested reading


  1. Anne-Marie Cooper, "Mary Wesley: An Astonishing Woman", Heart of Glass Magazine, 8 April 2012.
  2. Patrick Marnham, "Siepmann [née Farmar, Mary Aline", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  3. Marnham, Patrick, Wild Mary: The Life of Mary Wesley, p. 246.
  4. Marnham, p. 252.
  5. Marnham, p. 8.
  6. Marnham, p. 234.
  7. Marnham, p. 243.
  8. Marnham, p. 246.
  9. Marnham, p. 86.
  10. Marnham, p. 89.
  11. Marnham, p. 104.
  12. Jane Sullivan, "There is nothing like a dame", The Sunday Age (preview), 3 September 2006.
  13. Marnham, p. 223.


  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, Oxford University Press, January 2006 .accessed 25 June 2006

External links